Ellsworth Kelly, Window, Museum of Modern Art, Paris, 1949, oil on two joined panels of wood and canvas, 50 1/2 x 19 1/2". Photo: Hula Kolabas, courtesy of Ellsworth Kelly Archives.


CERTAIN ARTISTS TEACH. Every time I encounter a painting by Ellsworth Kelly, I learn this lesson again: A painting is not just an image, or even an object; it can also be a kind of architecture. I’ve always felt a compulsion to look closely at the edges of Kelly’s paintings, carefully examining the various ways in which he continues the painting beyond its front edge. Each time I lean into a wall in an attempt to look behind one of his works, I am left with the sense that even though I can see the way he has built the painting, I still do not fully understand how it is that the painting appears to be not quite in the same room that I am in.

Many twentieth-century painters put forth the framelessness of the canvas in order to expose the furthest frontier of paint, emphasizing the border between support and the action that takes place on it. But in Kelly’s work, the lack of obvious framing device reveals something different: It is as if the painting continues on, toward the invisibility of what is behind it. Sometimes this manifests itself in that the color simply continues seamlessly around to the back of the painting; equally intriguing are the works made in parts, not diptychs or triptychs and so on, but rather paintings where the image is created as a construction, assembling distinct elements directly abutting one another, edge to edge, though not completely joined. I have often found myself pondering the same mystery: Just how is it that he creates the sense that the painting is not confined to its own dimensions, its own boundaries? Even though each work ends sharply, as it were—in a hard edge where a frame should be—its shape somehow does not end the painting but rather emphasizes that the world it depicts continues on independently of what I can see in front of me.

Recently, I have felt like I have understood a little more, particularly during the process of making an homage to Kelly’s “first object,” his marvelous 1949 painting Window, Museum of Modern Art, Paris. His painting has a winning self-reflexiveness: Not only is it a picture of a window, but it is built like a window. (My attempt at revisiting this work was constructed as a reverse window, using mirrors to create an object that looks back at you instead of offering a view out.) It is in fact a piece of architecture, made using separate parts for the dark window frame and for the glass panes; most significantly, it is divided in two sections vertically, like a casement. Here, frame is both place and an image of place, an orientation and indication of where he saw from and where we see from. The frame, image, and object all become one thing, propping one another up. Many of his works resonate in great part because of the way that they carry these investigations further, from Sculpture for a Large Wall, 1956–57, which looks like the windows of a building, to his monochromatic panels, each of which is like a window into whatever wall they hang on.

Window is typically seen as a break or rebellion, a “blow he had dealt the pictorial tradition,” as Yve-Alain Bois puts it. I find this hard to understand: To me, the painting teaches us just how apt the Renaissance metaphor of painting as window still is, how it is perhaps even more important as a poetic construct today. If the function of a picture is to provide clues to how we might look, as an act of engagement with what is outside ourselves, then the frame, as photographers have always known, is what makes it possible to see the world not as a reflected in the inside of the eye, but as image of a reality outside the body. In other words, framing is seeing. It was one of Kelly’s gifts to show us how we can never leave the frame behind, but we might incorporate it, in every sense of the word.

Josiah McElheny is an artist based in New York.

For additional tributes to Ellsworth Kelly by Yve-Alain Bois, Richard Serra, Ann Temkin, Terry Winters, and Mary Heilmann, see Artforum's April print issue.

Leila Alaoui. Photo: Art Factum Gallery, Beirut.


LEILA ALAOUI’S BEST-KNOWN WORK is a series of photographs called “The Moroccans” (2010–14). Each picture shows a man or woman wildly dressed, dramatically lit, and set against the same black background, eyes locked on the camera. As portraits go, the images in “The Moroccans” are intense. Alaoui’s subjects stare down the lens with a look of playful or defiant challenge. They rarely smile but always sparkle—whether in the confidence of their pose, the glint in their eyes, or their dazzling array of costumes and accoutrements. Taken together, the series offers a jumble of facts and attitudes to counteract some of the more orientalist fantasies and colonial fictions that have plagued the history of image making in Morocco for well over a hundred years.

Alaoui was born in Paris and raised in Marrakech, where her family lived in a grand old Art Deco house in the heart of the Palmeraie. She studied photography and anthropology in New York. She worked on films by Spike Lee and Shirin Neshat. According to those who loved her, Alaoui never set herself above the most menial tasks. She was as happy to carry a pile of cables and a light-box as she was to entertain a crowd of restless children enlisted as extras. When the time came for Alaoui to focus on her own work, she returned to Morocco and traveled around the country with a mobile portrait studio. In rural villages, on market days, she would set up her equipment and wait.

To this day, outside of major cities, Moroccans are still largely suspicious of photography. In Abdelfattah Kilito’s The Clash of Images (1995), a gorgeous story collection describing his childhood in Rabat, a character bamboozled into sitting for a passport photo calls photography “a diabolical invention,” the stealer of souls, “a hoax, a vain copy, an insidious reflection and satanic artifice, showing water where there was only a mirage.” When Alaoui’s subjects shied away from her setup, she invited them over, prepared a great feast, sat with them, ate with them, lived with them—until the moment came when they were comfortable enough to stand before her camera and give her the look she wanted, the look that runs picture to picture through “The Moroccans.”

“The Moroccans” was inspired by Robert Frank’s “The Americans,” as well as by the work of Richard Avedon and Irving Penn. It shares certain affinities with the studio portraiture of Seydou Keďta and Malick Sidibé, who passed away last week. Had she lived a little longer, Alaoui had hoped to spend time in the archives of the Arab Image Foundation, researching links from North and West Africa to the rest of the Arab world. In the history of art, and photography in particular, there are ample examples of work made on assignment or enabled by funding structures that have long been forgotten or surpassed by the images themselves. “The Americans” is one, made with a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation. Walker Evans’s collaboration with James Agee is another, a commission from Fortune magazine that fell apart and yielded Let Us Now Praise Famous Men instead. The Farm Security Administration’s photography program is itself another still.

Those projects are now widely appreciated. Less attention has been paid to the costs of working this way, inherited from an earlier era but grossly altered in our own. It has become so familiar for any number of artists, writers, and independent curators today to live project to project, forever on assignment, piecing together their best work on the side while traveling for campaigns and organizations that depend upon freelance labor but do not necessarily lend institutional protection to the freelancers themselves. For Alaoui, it was normal. She did editorial work for the New York Times and Vogue. She used funding from the EU and the Danish Refugee Council to create series such as “No Pasara,” about young men stuck in Morocco, and “Natreen,” about families displaced in the Syrian civil war. It was normal until it was deadly. In January, Alaoui was killed in Burkina Faso while on assignment for Amnesty International, taking portraits of young women for a human rights campaign. A group affiliated with Al-Qaeda attacked a hotel known to be popular with foreigners in the capital Ouagadougou. Alaoui was sitting in a car parked outside. Thirty people lost their lives. Alaoui was shot multiple times and severely wounded. She died of a heart attack three days later.

  • Leila Alaoui, Souk de Boumia, Moyen Atlas, 2011, color photograph, 59 x 39 1/3". From the series “The Moroccans” (2010–14).

  • Leila Alaoui, Tamesloht, 2011, color photograph, 59 x 39 1/3". From the series “The Moroccans” (2010–14).

  • Leila Alaoui, Place Jemaa El Fnaa # 3, Marrakech, 2011, color photograph, 59 x 39 1/3". From the series “The Moroccans” (2010–14).

  • Leila Alaoui, Khamlia, Sud du Maroc # 1, 2014, color photograph, 59 x 39 1/3". From the series “The Moroccans” (2010–14).

I met Alaoui when she moved to Beirut in 2013 with her boyfriend (later her fiancé) Nabil Canaan. They had just opened an art space called Station in a disused factory that belonged to Canaan’s grandfather. It was perfectly placed between the Beirut Art Center and Ashkal Alwan, two of the city’s most active and respected cultural hubs, all of them now overshadowed by the cranes and scaffolding of the area’s baffling gentrification. Station was not an art space in the strictest sense. Alaoui and Canaan organized exhibitions, but they also threw parties, offered classes, held markets, and hosted DJs. I went to hear the Syrian musician Hello Psychaleppo play there two weeks before my first daughter was born, and the low-slung roof had been totally transformed into a booming club.

For the space, the city, and the future, their enthusiasm was infectious. You felt it. They had come to Beirut to work. “She had an incredible energy to produce,” Canaan says. They had also hoped to marry and start a family, to live in a neutral city and settle into a place where Alaoui felt safest. I didn’t know either of them well. I would see Alaoui around and I was slowy learning more about her work. One does not habitually consider the consistency or coherence of so young an artist’s oeuvre. One imagines there are decades to come. Alaoui was killed at the age of thirty-three. Her death was horrific, seemingly so random, and a tremendous shock to anyone who knew her at all. Sadder still is the fact that her passing has made it possible to see the completeness of her work, how serious she was, and her commitment to using the mechanisms of multiple worlds—contemporary art, photojournalism, NGOs and development agencies—to create one major, long-term, multifaceted project about the plight of marginalized people, whether the Sub-Saharan migrants who pass through Morocco to be smuggled across the sea and into Europe, or the children of such migrants, who are now consigned to a life of hardship, low-wage labor, and alienation in France.

Alaoui spent much of last year in Paris working on the first chapter of a three-part project tentatively titled “Out of Place,” taking an old Renault factory on an island in the Seine (known by factory workers as Île du Diable, or Devil’s Island) as a kind of archeological ground. She took photographs, recorded videos and sounds, gathered documents and testimonies and other materials related to the lives of retired workers. She had wanted to do the same with their wives and children, many of whom are now disaffected young men prone to the insane, cultlike promises of groups such as the Islamic State. She was moving away from straightforward photography and experimenting with video and installation. Yet for all that she didn’t really see herself as an artist. “She used the tools she knew to pursue the causes she cared about,” says Canaan. “She used art to sensitize people [but] she worried a lot about the aesthetics of misery. She wondered if should do more hardcore photojournalism.”

Canaan is himself a gifted storyteller, and he plots Alaoui’s work along a narrative of migration, a subject that is central to another two Moroccan artists and formidable women, Yto Barrada and Bouchra Khalili. (Perhaps it speaks to the depths of the problem that so urgent a theme is treated so differently among them.) “She had done the journey,” Canaan says, pointing to Alaoui’s three-channel video Crossings, 2015, about the clandestine passage to Europe. If that was the middle of the story, then the end, where the migrants went, was in the work clustered around the old Renault factory, an emblem of France’s postwar industrial prowess that was also a hothouse of trade union activity. (The factory closed in 1992 and was demolished in 2005.)

The beginning, where her subjects were from, was in the former colonies of Africa. It’s now anyone’s guess where the work in Burkina Faso may have gone. There’s a heartbreakingly cheerful post on Alaoui’s Facebook page, where she wrote, on January 11, “Off to Burkina Faso!” followed by David Bowie’s video for “Let’s Dance” and a note, typically generous, celebrating a colleague’s work. To the outpouring of sorrows that followed, someone has added another video, shot in 2010, of Alaoui being dressed in a whirl of textiles and accessories in the middle of a Maasai market in Kenya. Her laugh and smile electrify the scene around her.

“Losing her was very harsh,” says Joy Mardini, whose Beirut gallery, Art Factum, began representing Alaoui in 2012. “She was very respected as a photographer. But she is very remembered as a human being. She had a huge impact on people. You would meet her for an hour and all of the sudden you would care for her. She was someone you couldn’t forget.” She was also incredibly consistent, Mardini adds, “in the relationship between who she was and the work she did. She was attachante,” one of two French terms—the other being artiste engagé—that come up again and again in descriptions of Alaoui but translate poorly to English (“endearing” and “committed to a cause” don’t quite capture the full effect).

The photographer and filmmaker Fouad Elkoury, who adored her, was introduced to Alaoui when they were in Buenos Aires for a show. She snuck up behind him, covered his eyes with her hands, and told him she loved his work. He had no idea who she was; they had never met. From then on, whenever they were in the same city, they saw each other every day, meeting to walk and talk and walk some more. Elkoury affirms that Alaoui didn’t consider herself an artist per se. She quietly but firmly believed that her work could make a difference in the lives of people who suffered, and she insisted on capturing their dignity over their victimhood, their camaraderie over their isolation, their happiness over their misery.

Elkoury is in many ways a reluctant father figure to a generation of photographers in Beirut and beyond. They all belong to a history of photography in the Middle East and North Africa that is extremely interesting but underwritten and poorly exposed. Alaoui was young. She was only just planning her first solo exhibition, scheduled for Art Factum later this year. “The Moroccans” was on view at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris when she died. But for all its popularity, only a fraction of the full series was ever shown. In March, Alaoui’s work was featured in shows at a Dubai gallery and a French monastery. She is part of the next Dakar Biennale, opening in May. It was early days. After her death, the organizers of the Marrakech Biennale and Geneva’s International Film Festival and Forum on Human Rights dedicated their events to Alaoui, firm, heartfelt gestures both. But beyond that, the project she had been working on in the Renault factory, and the greater puzzle into which all her work fit, should have been a new chapter in the region’s photographic history. With some fortitude and patience on the part of the foundation established this month in her name, perhaps it still could be—a work cruelly unfinished but defiantly present.

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie is a writer based in Beirut.

Zaha Hadid, 2015. Photo: Mary McCartney.


LONG BEFORE GAINING WORLDWIDE RENOWN for the London Aquatics Centre she designed for the 2012 Olympics or her MAXXI Museum in Rome, which opened in 2009, Zaha Hadid was at the vanguard of architecture. She was celebrated from the very start of her career, with her student thesis, Malevich’s Tektonik, in 1976–77—a concept for a fourteen-story hotel on Hungerford Bridge across the Thames, in which her architectural language was already inspired by Suprematism—and then as a legendary professor at the Architectural Association in London. In her initial years of teaching, in the early 1980s, she inherited the renowned Diploma 9 studio from her teachers Elia Zenghelis and Rem Koolhaas, and she used it over the next six years to investigate and reinvigorate what she considered the unfinished project of modernism. Her earliest exhibitions of her own work at the school included projects such as 59 Eaton Place, the concept for a townhouse in Belgravia, London, that created distinctive vertical zones of striated space, and began to hint at the unique visual style she was developing. Her “Planetary Architecture Two,” in particular, which was presented as an exhibition and then as drawings within a folio series in 1983, already featured her characteristic visual language. Such a language resided in what a contemporary critic called “energetic spatial fluidity; in the fact that the space she creates stretches instantly toward the infinite, racing toward the sun, as it were, in a shameless celebration of the potential triumph of modern man; an unfashionable modernism which makes one think of early Niemeyer or of the flagrant audacity of Constant Nieuwenhuys’s New Babylon.” Indeed, as Hashim Sarkis would later point out, Hadid’s language was derived from the dynamic floating, overlapping planes and purist geometries of Suprematism but nevertheless “tends toward inscription, toward a kind of kufic calligraphy compounded out of transrational elements.” Such a reference to Arabic calligraphy spoke at once to her debt to Suprematism and her Iraqi heritage, bringing a cultural specificity to an early language of modernism.

“Planetary Architecture Two” would be followed by two pivotal projects: Hadid’s entry in the famous competition for the new Parc de La Villette Paris, in 1982–83, and her entry for the Peak Project, Hong Kong competition, also in 1982–83, a luxury leisure club of protruding horizontal layers and floating voids, perched on the hills of Hong Kong. The latter would be featured in the 1988 “Deconstructivist Architecture” exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The youngest of the seven architects in the exhibition, she was also the only woman, and her inclusion (her work occupied one entire wall of the small exhibition) no doubt added to her growing fame. And it is perhaps both of these projects that would go on to define her characteristically calligraphic painting and drawing, an explosion of striated space composed of stacked and layered planes, a gravity-defying architecture that was theretofore unseen—indeed, unimagined. Iconic works such as her paintings for the Peak Project or the delicate colored pencil drawings for Parc de La Villette would explore a complex composition in which surfaces hover and interlock, building merges with landscape, and architecture melds with topography. Such visions would come to fruition in her earliest commission, that of the Vitra Fire Station in Weil am Rhein, which employed—now in built form—the jagged, dynamic lines of these earliest drawings. Other early buildings, such as the breathtakingly dynamic Phaeno Science Center in Wolfsburg (2005) or the Hoenheim-Nord Terminus and Car Park in Strasbourg, (2001), continued these radical explorations in a space of warped planes and tilted arcs—terms that Philip Johnson would use to describe the work in the deconstructivist show and still often used to characterize Hadid’s work.

  • Zaha Hadid, London Aquatics Centre, 2012, London. Photo: Artur Salisz.

  • Zaha Hadid, Serpentine Sackler Gallery, 2013, London. Photo: Luke Hayes.

  • Zaha Hadid, Guangzhou Opera House and Canton Tower, 2010, Guangzhou. Photo: Ecow/Wikicommons.

  • Zaha Hadid, BMW Central Building, 2005, Leipzig. Photo: Helene Binet.

From there her work would continue to develop: It would shift or, better, expand into an unprecedented fluidity of soaring structures and infinite space. This evolution was enabled by the integration of digital design technology into her studio, and her immersion in parametricism, the term for which was coined by her partner Patrik Schumacher to describe the kind of computer-generated forms that would come to define many of her later projects. Buildings such as the Serpentine Sackler Gallery, London, the Rosenthal Center in Cincinnati, and such projects as the Guangzhou Opera House in Guangzhou, China; the Abu Dhabi Performing Arts Center; the BMW Central Building; or the unrealized Opera House in Cardiff, combined with her pioneering furniture design, evidence a fully mature work in which her early visions were now realized through the latest technologies and where her studio was producing buildings at an international scale. Her success was justly recognized with the Pritzker Prize for architecture in 2004 and the RIBA Gold Medal in 2016. Yet all this was only a beginning; as she herself put it, she believed that the modern project is not only unfinished but “has hardly even begun.” At the young age of sixty-five she leaves behind a legacy that still probes the depths of our imaginations. Her earliest works were full of vision, of hope, of possibility for a future in which an architecture envisioned through the space of painting and drawing would express a better if not quite utopian world. That Hadid would begin to realize such a vision in built form is a testament to her unfathomable talent and a staunch belief in the power of architecture.

Tina Di Carlo, a former curator at the Museum of Modern Art, is a Ph.D. fellow at the Oslo School of Architecture.

For additional coverage of Zaha Hadid, please see our upcoming Summer print issue.