New York

Huguette Caland, Bribes de corps (Body Bits), 1973, oil on linen, 60 × 60". From the series “Bribes de corps” (Body Bits), 1973–81.

Huguette Caland, Bribes de corps (Body Bits), 1973, oil on linen, 60 × 60". From the series “Bribes de corps” (Body Bits), 1973–81.

Huguette Caland

Huguette Caland, Bribes de corps (Body Bits), 1973, oil on linen, 60 × 60". From the series “Bribes de corps” (Body Bits), 1973–81.

Curated by Claire Gilman with Isabella Kapur

WE ARE GIVEN A BIOGRAPHY: At the age of thirty-nine, Huguette Caland leaves her husband and children to pursue a career as an artist in Paris. Years later, she moves to Venice, California, and establishes her “dream home.” Toward the end of her life, she returns to Beirut, the city of her birth. The present exhibition, we are told, “celebrates Caland’s love affair with line and its capacity to express the shared human desire for intimate connection.” So goes the opening wall text for “Huguette Caland: Tête-à-Tête,” curated by Claire Gilman with Isabella Kapur, the first institutional retrospective of Caland’s work in New York since she passed away in 2019. Further background is furnished in the accompanying catalogue in essays by Gilman and art historian Hannah Feldman, as well as in an insightful dialogue between author Mirene Arsanios and artist Marwa Arsanios, but this paragraph is what we receive by way of introduction. Its account of Caland’s career is remarkable mostly for what goes unsaid, and for what goes without saying.

Perhaps the brief parenthetical after Caland’s name “(b. Beirut, Lebanon, 1931–d. 2019)” tells us everything we need to know. These dates, that place: They situate Caland’s work in two distinct art-historical categories. First, there is what critic Jillian Steinhauer has recently labeled the “old woman,” the wizened or recently deceased female artist who has been making important work for decades yet is just now receiving acclaim. Second, there is the curatorial and scholarly field known as “global modernism,” which maps twentieth-century art’s multiple trajectories across the uneven terrain of empire and diaspora. These categories overlap often enough—consider the receptions of Etel Adnan, Carmen Herrera, Zarina Hashmi, and Zilia Sánchez—yet they exist in tension nevertheless. For whereas global modernism routinely positions artistic practice within the geopolitics of decolonization and nation building, the “old woman” can be strangely decontextualized. “These women come from vastly different backgrounds and have made widely disparate types of work,” writes Steinhauer, “but they’ve often been treated the same way: as an archetype, like the wise crone in fairy tales.” “Tête-à-Tête” leaned hard into a highly sentimental version of the old-woman narrative, wherein the personal was not political so much as it was charming. Subsequent wall texts took us through Caland’s lovers, her homes, her months spent on a family member’s boat, all while withholding coordinates that would allow us to appreciate her work within the broader sweep of history. Such omissions felt particularly egregious in Caland’s case, since she was born into prominence, the daughter of Lebanon’s first postindependence president, Bechara El Khoury. As she refined her visual expression in Paris during the 1970s, the fragile coalition her father had constructed broke down and devolved into civil war.

View of “Huguette Caland: Tête-à-Tête,” 2021. From left: Bodrum, 2008; City, 2010. Photo: Daniel Terna.

Admittedly, Caland does not make connecting the dots an easy task. One might interpret her work as an emphatic refusal to represent, even when her earliest exhibition opportunities outside of Beirut were predicated on just that: “Lebanese Artists” in Washington, DC (1970), “Contemporary Lebanese Artists” in Tokyo (1970), “Islamic Contemporary Art” in London (1971), “Sixteen Lebanese Artists” in Rome (1971). From the beginning, she declined the choice between folkloric figuration and calligraphic abstraction that art historian Iftikhar Dadi has identified as the two main paths taken by artists from the Middle East to experiment with modernist vocabularies. Instead, Caland’s drawings in pen and colored pencil, as well as her “Bribes de corps” (Body Bits) paintings, 1973–81, trafficked in a buoyant biomorphism that pressed limbs, faces, and indiscriminate flesh into impossible, acrobatic configurations. No matter how abstract, they almost inevitably quivered with the giddy embarrassment of sex. Her most traditional-seeming works were also her most eccentric. Self-conscious about her appearance in the slim cuts of the French fashion favored by Lebanon’s elite, Caland took to wearing loose-fitting caftans that she decorated herself. In one, shown here hung over a wooden cutout mannequin, thick black curves marked the approximate position of a woman’s breasts, bush, and butt cheeks.

Still, Caland’s singularity is no excuse for sealing her in amber. Without some further consideration of the artistic lineages she inflected, the discourses she activated, or the events she witnessed, “Tête-à-Tête” came close to serving a warmed-over rehash of the monographs on Picasso that fixated on his succession of wives, studios, and pets. Caland’s work demands more. For starters, the erotic connotations of her drawings’ undulating lines are themselves wrapped up in the legacy of Orientalist painting, running from the serpentine figure of Ingres’s Grande Odalisque, 1814, to the arabesques of Matisse’s Odalisque with Red Trousers, 1921. In contrast to the lithe silhouettes traced by these European men, Caland’s couplings of line and color convey bodies with actual bulges, folds, and flab. Alternately, her style invites comparison with the automatism of André Masson, whom Caland met in Paris, or of Ramses Younan, a member of the Art and Liberty Group in Cairo, which found in Surrealism an escape from Egypt’s cultural nationalism. The caftans that Caland designed for Pierre Cardin put her in league with Sonia Delaunay and Niki de Saint Phalle as women artists who, after encountering barriers in the art market, disseminated their imagery through dress and decor. There’s also a here-comes-everybody zaniness to Caland’s spindly pileups of body parts that would make for a perfect cover illustration to a reissue of Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus (1972).

In the mid-aughts, Caland began a series of lushly colored linen panels covered in intricate pen work that recall the gridded patterning of Anwar Jalal Shemza and Charles Hossein Zenderoudi. A likely source of inspiration, a wall text told us, was Palestinian embroidery. What we were not told was that, in 1969, Caland helped to found INAASH, an organization that commissions embroidery to provide an income to Palestinian women who, despite having lived in Lebanon as refugees for years, have not been granted the full rights of citizens. Why not share this information? Details like these can draw the line between individual biography and collective history.

Colby Chamberlain teaches art history at Columbia University and the Cooper Union.