This gorgeous exhibition of Hassan Massoudy’s calligraphy-based work was quite unlike anything else seen in Chelsea so far this year. Born in Iraq in 1944, Massoudy trained as a calligrapher in his youth. In 1969, he migrated to Paris where he studied European representational painting at the École des Beaux-Arts. He never gave up his work as a calligrapher, however, and eventually he melded the traditions he knew in his homeland with those he encountered in Paris. The work in this show derives directly from that combination.
There is of course an important thread running through modern and contemporary American painting—starting in the surrealist automatism that so influenced early Abstract Expressionism—that brings written language together with the communicative potential of painterly gesture. Massoudy’s work seems to come at these same possibilities from an entirely different direction. This is partly because the script that appears in his work is Arabic, which is not only illegible to the vast majority of American viewers, but which has become freighted with a whole range of urgent political associations since at least 9/11, and up to and including Trump’s repeated attempts to instate a Muslim ban. It might catch spectators a little off-balance, then, to realize that the literal meanings of Massoudy’s script are drawn from the poems and aphorisms of love, humanism, and mysticism. One 2012 piece quotes Rumi: “You fled to the desert on the wings of the heart. The desert is lost in the realm of your heart.” Elsewhere he borrows the words of other historical figures of the Arab and Muslim traditions, but he also quotes Gandhi, Khalil Gibran, Chief Seattle, and Paul Eluard among others.
Massoudy begins each piece with his chosen quotation, selecting from it one significant word that will become the central motif of the finished work. (In the example cited above, that word is “Desert.”) He then writes the word in what seems to him an appropriately expressive color, thus making his most obvious departure from the monochromatic calligraphic tradition from which his work stems. He then builds up additional compositional elements from small-scale flourishes based upon the forms and color of his central word. The quotation is then added in black across the bottom of the picture. Although he is now in his early seventies, Massoudy has not had a solo show in New York before. His debut here offered a rare opportunity to encounter a fully-formed artistic intelligence working with a set of highly individual pictorial assumptions and producing work that is both provocative and emotionally resonant.