For the first time in nearly 15 years, Beirut is hosting a major solo exhibition for the late modernist master Shafic Abboud. More than 100 paintings – 87 of which are on loan from local collectors – are purposefully placed on 14 false walls that create loose concentric circles within the Beirut Exhibition Center, a temporary art space located at the mouth of Solidere’s new waterfront district.
According to architect Karim Bekdache, who designed the somewhat heavy-handed layout of the show, the partitions ensure that viewers experience each painting from an ideal distance of 3 meters.
The effect may be overly engineered and stage-managed, but it is not entirely unpleasant. For one thing, it mimics the energy of Abboud’s best paintings, where the compositions rise and fall on dramatic, often precarious diagonals. It also enforces a certain intimacy with the works, which means few visitors are likely to miss the richness of Abboud’s colors, the density of his textures or the virtuosity of his brushstrokes.
Still, the emphasis on the show’s spatial arrangement does mask a certain thinness of curatorial substance, which for better or worse has become a defining characteristic of the BEC’s pieced-together exhibition program.
“Shafic Abboud: Peintures 1942-2001” celebrates a great many worthy things – not only the artist’s magisterial abstractions, which convey both sublime landscapes and unconscionable destruction, but also the generous and collaborative spirit that has brought the show into being.
Yet it is not, in the end, or by any measure, a learning show. It honors, tributes and homages. It makes a body of work visible and available to an open public for free, which is no small feat, but the exhibition makes no argument, takes no angle and offers no incisive cut through Abboud’s oeuvre.
There is little in the way of curatorial elucidation, care or contextualization. The 15 items plotted on a timeline above the BEC’s reception desk track a fine and efficient progression from the artist’s birth, in 1926, to his death, in 2004. In lieu of indicating that anything else was happening in the world in terms of art, politics or history, details such as Abboud’s participation in the FIAC art fair in 1983 tell us very little of interest.
Organized by the gallery owners Nadine Begdache (of Galerie Janine Rubeiz) and Saleh Barakat (of the Agial Art Gallery), the current exhibition follows a major retrospective that Claude Lemand, a Parisian dealer of Lebanese origin, staged last year in Paris at the Institut du Monde Arabe.
Lemand worked with Abboud from 1997 until 2004. Two years before the artist passed away, at the age of 77, Lemand promised him a monograph and a museum retrospective in Paris. A monograph the size of a handsome, hardbound telephone directory was published in English and French editions in 2006. Lemand opened the retrospective at IMA last March.
To coincide with the Beirut exhibition, Lemand also organized two coinciding shows in Paris, both on view through June 23. “Color Is My Destiny,” at Galerie Claude Lemand, focuses on Abboud’s paintings and lithographs from 1959 through 2002. “The Lebanese Creation, 1959-2012: Around Shafic Abboud,” at his other space, Espace Claude Lemand, features 14 artists from Etel Adnan to Ayman Baalbaki, all paying tribute to Abboud’s influence.
This is to say that the Beirut iteration of Abboudiana belongs to a much larger reconnaissance and salvage mission. The exhibition does not consist of the same works that were shown in Paris but rather privileges works that the organizers have coaxed from private collectors in Lebanon.
As such, it maps out Abboud’s sources of loyalty, friendship, financial support and, more recently, investment potential (his price at auction soared to $146,500 in 2010, and he has become one of several deeply commodified, status-marking local artists, a la Paul Guiragossian).
More to the point, the current exhibition has unearthed a number of eye-opening works, including a gorgeous oil-on-canvas portrait titled “Ali,” from 1947, which shows Abboud’s mastery of color, gesture and shading.
Close by is an unnerving suite of four mixed-media collages titled “La Guerre,” which suggest that abstraction was a tragically adequate language to capture a country’s total physical and psychological collapse. The series is disappointingly undated, but it looks like the most contemporary thing Abboud may have ever done.
Similarly, his vertical cement sculpture, made of 11 small boxes and titled “Les Accords de Taef,” from 1992, offers a devastating representation of unkind history. In structure, the piece looks remarkably like Burj al-Murr, that useless tower of reinforced concrete that remains a blight on the skyline and a crude, unintended tribute to the war years.
Climbing from piece to piece, it also moves from Ottoman-era arches and fey French mandate architectural details to the modernist spirals of the 1960s and total building chaos of the 1980s. To the derision of local critics, Abboud often insisted on the narrative elements of his work. Here, in this piece, it plays out and Abboud proves his point decisively.
Elsewhere, the sheer accumulation of material – in addition to well-known abstract paintings there are early landscapes and portraits, notebooks, journals, graphic design for theater bills, a tapestry, a bronze sculpture of a bird and more – allows for links to be made.
For example, from a painting such as “Femme Objet” (1969), to a triptych titled “5 Juin 1967,” Abboud’s dark mood pieces for women and war clearly rely on the same color palette of purples and blacks. On the other side of the emotional spectrum, he is at his most peaceful when conveying the Mediterranean Sea and its coastline in prodigious blues and greens.
This summer is turning into an intriguing season for art history enthusiasts, with the Abboud show running in tandem with AUB’s showcase for Khalil Saleeby. To its credit, the BEC has made itself available for an established and continuing series of heritage exhibitions.
The work stands on its own. It does not need defending. It can hold up against the stark minimalism of the BEC’s mirror-faced, white-walled airplane hangar. For that work to mean more to the public, however, exhibitions such as Abboud’s must be more – and go further in their thinking and conceptualizing – than gallery shows with wares to sell and room to breathe.
“Shafic Abboud: Peintures 1942-2001,” curated by Nadine Begdache and Saleh Barakat, remains on view at the Beirut Exhibition Center through July 8.