New York

Nicolas Moufarrege, Le sang du phénix (The Blood of the Phoenix), 1975, thread and pigment on needlepoint canvas, 49 7⁄8 × 64".

Nicolas Moufarrege, Le sang du phénix (The Blood of the Phoenix), 1975, thread and pigment on needlepoint canvas, 49 7⁄8 × 64".

Nicolas Moufarrege

In his short life, Nicolas Moufarrege (1947–1985) traversed vast terrains both geographic and intellectual. His idiosyncratic hybrids of painting and embroidery, which took shape in Beirut, Paris, and New York, muster dense arrangements of Middle Eastern and Western iconographies. The smartly titled “Recognize My Sign”— Moufarrege’s first museum survey, which debuted at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston in 2018—returns him to his final hometown. The artist’s varying references, as old as Egyptian papyrus and as pop as Mickey Mouse, vibrate with a longing for connection while also showcasing an enthusiastic embrace of 1980s New York, a coruscating landscape as tawdry and terrific as his labyrinthine art.

Moufarrege left Beirut for Paris in 1975, the year Lebanon’s civil war began. His formerly modest embroideries grew—sometimes to four or five feet on a side—and his paint began to tint, frame, and undergird his delicate needlework. In Le sang du phénix (The Blood of the Phoenix), from that year, a pair of enormous disembodied eyes hover among towering columns. In one corner stands a Lebanese cedar; in the other, a fist rises defiantly against a bloodred background. Elsewhere, Moufarrege’s insistent invitation to decode feels like a kind of seduction. The Importance of Being Evergreen, 1979–80, shows more longing than rage, with a recumbent Baroque male nude gazing at a verdant tree and a tiny house in the distance. Heraldic lions declare themselves; the numbers 23 and 17 appear mysteriously; the Greek letters alpha and omega cheekily annunciate the painting’s edges. At center, a heart wears a coronet.

When Moufarrege settled in New York’s East Village in 1981, his gnostic demeanor vanished (and with it the psychedelic flourishes that give his 1970s work the occasional air of a Hipgnosis look book). Here, his citation fever revealed itself as what it had been all along: an engine of appropriation art, very much in tune with its moment and the artist’s new home, via the Pictures generation and peers such as David Wojnarowicz. Moufarrege’s references shift dramatically: The old nudes and Arabic calligraphy are swamped by images from the modernist canon (Mondrian, Munch, Picasso) as well as by oodles of American cartoon characters and pop-cultural icons—the Thing, Santa Claus, Spider-Man, the Statue of Liberty.

The New York works are fleet and upbeat. They are also horny and witty. One untitled work from this time juxtaposes a bodybuilder’s torso with the overheated Donald Duck from Roy Lichtenstein’s Look Mickey, 1961. I’VE HOOKED A BIG ONE!!, he declares, having lanced his own shirttail while fishing. In an untitled canvas from 1985, the Peeping Tom of Lichtenstein’s I Can See the Whole Room . . . and There’s Nobody in It!, 1961, is reproduced as gazing at the blue-outlined female bodies of Yves Klein’s People Begin to Fly, 1961. Perhaps the work is a rebuff to men who see women as objects or who fail to see them at all; perhaps it’s a retort to those who can’t recognize craft practices, such as needlework, traditionally labeled as feminine. Or perhaps, given the Klein work’s resemblance to that East Village hallmark of mark-making, stencil graffiti, Lichenstein’s oafish eyeballer is unable to recognize the new forms of art and life springing up right under his nose.

In 1985, Moufarrege mounted his most important show to date, at Fun Gallery in the East Village. By the time it opened in March, he was lying in a bed at North Central Bronx Hospital, sick with Kaposi’s sarcoma. He died shortly after the exhibition closed. This show devastatingly includes that exhibition’s guest book, which features well wishes from artists such as Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt and Martin Wong. Among the very last pieces Moufarrege made are spare, black-and-white mock-ups that crop and multiply sampled images—a faceless grin in triplicate, a woman washing her doppelgänger’s hair against patterned tiles reduced to a Euclidean grid. An air of interruption permeates the work and inevitably tells the tale of Moufarrege’s physical dissolution and death; the fading of his meticulous compositions to bare outlines allegorizes the effacements of passing time. “Recognize My Sign” offers a beautiful recuperation of the artist’s life and work, tugging loose a thread from history for some new artist to run around the world with.