PRINT January 1988


THE MARK OF ZARINA is contemplative rather than emphatic, sensual but not theatrical, and it always sustains an impression of the earth. Zarina's subject is the earth, and one's identity on it. In her work these big, dumbfounding ideas are always brought directly home to the eye and the fingertip, where they find eloquence and gain a rare and pragmatic kind of currency: the work comforts.

Providing solace has not been a frequent or prominent mission in sophisticated art of the last two centuries. Making art must surely serve the needs of those who make it, and seeing art satisfies some yearning in those who pursue it most avidly, but the art— great and not—we've come to know best, and to recognize as part of ourselves, reflects our torments and our failures or gives us our grand ideals. Zarina does not engage monsters or shining visions. Nor does her work toy with ambivalence. She does not play favorites with emotion and intellect, the worldly and the spiritual. Her metaphors, generally architecture and nature, are always interchangeable in the homely shapes, mineral hues, and hints of splendor in which we find them. With their cultivated lack of finish, and their suggestion of porousness, of materials breathing, which only an esthetic of humbleness will allow, her pieces are as open to any myth of creation as they are to the poetics of decay. “As a child we visited Mughal monuments. My father made them come alive with stories of the great Mughals. I loved the red stone, the color, the cracks, windows and long corridors. The precious stones from the ornamental designs have been removed by vandals, making the wall even more beautiful with its surface cracked and tactile. I did notice in my work years later that the recess in the bas-relief was the ornament removed.” Like all born teachers she sees inherent potential. Like all born students she sees inherent flaws. Like all born daughters she finds the harmony between, and as an artist she gives that a form.

Zarina by itself is the way Zarina Rashid Hashmi has identified herself in her work since around 1964, when, in her late 20s and in the West for the first time, she was studying printmaking with Stanley W. Hayter at his Atelier 17 in Paris. “When I became serious as an artist,” she explains, “I did not want to sign my father's name or my husband's name.” Zarina is known principally as a printmaker but is most truly a sculptor. With Zarina, things often thought of as categorically distinct in general tend to come together—a building, say, and a tree, or a rock and a flower, or a flower and a flame. A cast-paper relief such as Rock, 1982, seems less a stolid ground of boulders than something plucked from a vine, while one titled Seed, 1982, green and gritty, has all the solidity of a building block used in a different kind of engineering. The pulp Zarina processes for her cast reliefs, sometimes adding mineral particles or common bits of found glass, as well as the paper she uses for her prints, are always from India, from a village near Jaipur called Sanganer, where the same family has been making paper since the 16th century. But the sculptural molds for these cast-paper works, and also for bronzes, are made out of an eclectic assortment of urban materials—crating, corrugated cardboard, plastic—that impress the city into the work, so that it literally embodies the dualities and categorical distinctions that it figuratively unites.

The artist recalls, “When I left India in 1958 my first glimpse of the outside world was the golden spires of Rangoon temples. I come back to golden spires in my work for every new beginning. I spent my years in Southeast Asia studying temples. One of my great visual experiences was my two visits to the city of Angkor in Cambodia. The tropical forest has taken over the temples, the giant trees tear through the gigantic stone faces, the leaves and branches pierce through stone. It seems all in natural order, the geometry of rectangular stones, the organic structure of the trees existing side by side in total harmony.” In a proliferation of etchings and lithographs from 1985–86 this kind of double-jointedness is articulated. Variously titled “Blossom” or “Blossom House,” the image in these prints, in each of its variations, is at once a flower, an ancient cliff dwelling, and a modular habitat. “My firsthand experience of Western art did not come until my late 20s when I lived in Paris. Contrary to what I knew or I was expected to admire, I was instinctively drawn to the primitive and the Gothic.” Her description, furthermore, of “giant trees” tearing through “gigantic stone faces” in Angkor might in fact double as an impression of the buttresses and spires, the stone figures and gargoyles, of a High Gothic cathedral. With the vocabulary of sensations and aspirations, fear and hope, expressed by the Gothic, the West drew up what is probably its most widely legible emotive architecture. If Gothic architecture and artisanry are an exaltation of the accomplishments of the West, a peak on the horizon of “sophisticated” European society, it is also true that they most nearly resemble the devotional forms that have been ubiquitous in “primitive” cultures. And this instinct of Zarina's for elemental associations led her to the architectural shapes characteristic of her work, in which many roots may reside without contrivance or compromise. Her affinity for the primal and the Gothic link her work as well to certain strains of Surrealism, or rather to the work of certain artists circling through and around and past it—Jean Arp, for instance, and Max Ernst, and Hayter, and Lucio Fontana, and Yves Klein, and more recently Francesco Clemente, artists for whom the meanings of archetypal shapes, the divulgences of the personal mark, or the characters of materials have held greatest interest.

The best of Zarina's earlier pieces, from the '60s and '70s, include elaborate and lyrical patterns of punctures in white paper, and works of threads drawn through paper, and woodcuts that reinvent and reveal the inherent metaphors of joining and sundering, of building versus growing, in the grain. That archetypal shelters are by now such abiding presences in Zarina's work may reflect the fact that she has lived and worked in many places, and that the concept of “home” is for her both an emotional reality, or necessity, and something of an intellectual and political abstraction. She is an Indian national, and must obtain a visa to visit her parents and sister, who have been in Pakistan since the Partition. She was married to an Indian diplomat, with whom she initially traveled to the West. She studied printmaking first in Thailand, later in Paris, West Germany, and Japan. Self-consciousness as an artist—and as a citizen of the world and a feminist—took hold with a great sense of intellectual freedom and personal autonomy while she was living in Paris in the '60s, emerging from a state of considerable personal estrangement, and working at Hayter's Atelier 17. In the mid '70s she moved to New York, and since then her art and her working process have materialized into a formal language of assimilation, and a quarry for personal sustenance. “Now I feel at home wherever I am. The years of total isolation and panic from being away from everything I knew made me create my own homes, my spaces to hide.”

“I Work in small scale. I know the work has density of emotion and it will create its own space around it.” Her art, in fact, represents the very essence of a minimalist esthetic. Physically literal and gesturally restrained, it is metaphorically monumental. Literally small, it is poetically vast. Almost any of her works in a room—a green seedlike object; an earth-toned lotus; a dark, fan-shaped relief; a great, primeval, silvery, snaking spiral; a group of tiny, dun-colored, rudimentary clay-house sculptures—may seem contained, even reticent, when one first enters, but as one's eyes become adjusted to their level of intensity they let loose an insistent subliminal force that seems somehow to reassure us of our presence. Through this ineffable exchange our bodies are given an anchor in a place. It is to Richard Serra's work, which Zarina admires, that hers can most pointedly be compared. Where her work is small, and informed by the philosophies of assimilation, his is big and suggests confrontation, but both are similarly absorbed by the visceral and mutable nature of surfaces. They are positioned far apart but face to face within the complex diplomacies of people and objects in space. Between them one is reminded of the child's hand game in which scissors cut paper, rock breaks scissors, and paper wraps stone: complementary opposites, on common earth.

Lisa Liebmann contributes regularly to Artforum.

All quotations of Zarina are from a letter from her to the author in December 1984, and from conversations between them.