Saloua Raouda Choucair, Poem In Nine Verses, 1966–68, aluminum, 11 3/8 x 8 5/8 x 2 3/4".

Saloua Raouda Choucair, Poem In Nine Verses, 1966–68, aluminum, 11 3/8 x 8 5/8 x 2 3/4".

Saloua Raouda Choucair

Beirut Art Center

Saloua Raouda Choucair, Poem In Nine Verses, 1966–68, aluminum, 11 3/8 x 8 5/8 x 2 3/4".

The first major exhibition in more than thirty-five years for the Lebanese artist Saloua Raouda Choucair opened with an enormous photograph of the artist’s studio, taken in 2000, strategically placed in the foyer of the Beirut Exhibition Center. Turning left, you entered a space the size of an airplane hangar to get an eyeful of Raouda Choucair’s monumental sculptures in stone, metal, and wood, all evoking sinuous movement from a play of lines, forms, and volumes. Turning right, you found a more intimate room filled with her curious experiments in centrifugal tension—objects made from stainless steel, Plexiglas, and nylon thread. Either way, you had to pass by this picture of a dingy room, paint peeling from the walls, suffused in orange sunlight and cluttered with heavy-duty tools, machinery, and materials.

The documentary photograph was significant for two reasons. It reinforced the formidable, labor-intensive tactility of the artist’s practice, but it also underlined a nagging sense of absence and neglect. Raouda Choucair is now ninety-five years old, bedridden, and frail. Her studio has since been destroyed, the building torn down, probably to make way for a real estate development project. Despite the formation of a foundation in her name (led by her daughter, Hala Schoukair, who curated this show), her legacy remains precarious and unfixed, and much of her oeuvre has only recently been rescued from unsuitable storage conditions.

Thus the exhibition “Saloua Raouda Choucair: The Retrospective” was something of a salvage mission. Divided into eight more or less chronological sections, it featured some 380 works, from early paintings of the 1940s to late sculptures from the 1990s that had never been exhibited before. In between, it covered all of Raouda Choucair’s major phases and self-styled typologies, among them the paintings she calls “Modules,” 1947–57, such as Fractional Rectangular Module, 1947–51, made via a mesmerizing, mathematical process of repeating, halving, and quartering the same shape to generate visual rhythm and an illusion of depth; and the sculptures called “Poems,” 1963–68. In the latter, multiple pieces of wood, terra-cotta, aluminum, brass, or stone, each intended to function as a “verse” conveying a singular and complete meaning, are either stacked, as with the stately Poem in Nine Verses, 1966–68, or nestled into a dense cube, as with the diminutive Poem, Cube and Wall, 1963–65.

As a young woman, Raouda Choucair apprenticed with two of Lebanon’s foremost painters, Moustafa Farroukh and Omar Onsi, and studied in the atelier of Fernand Léger during an extended stay in Paris. But to judge from her early drawings of seated and reclining nudes, or her paintings of fragmented figures that flirt with an abstraction of smooth, rounded, and decidedly spatial forms, she was a rebellious student from the start. She went on to devote her life to the development of a rigorous abstract vocabulary that emulates no one’s yet embodies the Syrian poet Adonis’s concept that language is the material presence of thought itself.

The retrospective erred on the side of excess, tossing in tapestries, jewelry, glazed vessels, plates, an ashtray, a majestic cabinet, a model for a building facade, and maquettes for numerous public sculptures, some of which have since disappeared or been damaged—to say nothing of the jumbled stacks of notes, sketches, and photographs that were piled, with no thought to their legibility, into glass vitrines. While the show presented a nearly complete, almost wholly intact body of work (all but a handful of pieces came directly from the artist’s collection) it did little to historicize Raouda Choucair’s practice, and even less to consider her work in the context of international modernism and abstraction at large. Such a project might unpack some of the redolent but troublesome terms such as “theological” or “Eastern” that have been used to describe her abstractions, and it would challenge the still largely male, still largely Western story of Abstract Expressionism by pulling the narrative east, in the same way scholars of, say, Lygia Pape, have so wonderfully pulled it south.

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie