New YorkMoMA PS1
March 31 – September 2, 2019
In 1971, Simone Fattal invited a camera crew into her kitchen in Beirut to help her create a video self-portrait. The footage shows the then 29-year-old artist dressed in a white shirt tied at her waist. She repeatedly tucks her shoulder-length hair behind her ear as she speaks. Recounting stories of her childhood home and her days in a convent school, she attempts to link her early history to the artist she was then becoming. It would be 40 years before Fattal would delve back into the black-and-white material, editing it into Autoportrait (1971–2012), a work which captures her in the nascent stages of what has become a lifelong art-making practice and simultaneously documents Beirut society in a particular, fragile moment on the precipice of civil war (which would break out in 1975). Although Fattal is not primarily known for video work, much of what she does onscreen—uniting the functions of art and archive, situating herself within a larger historical realm—became the through-line of her ensuing art-making.
The piece, which plays in the basement theater at MoMA PS1 of Fattal’s first American museum retrospective, Simone Fattal: Works and Days, is thus a fitting introduction to the artist. Curated by Ruba Katrib and Josephine Graf, the exhibition features more than 200 works created over five decades. Its title refers to the Hesiod poem of the same name, in which Prometheus fashions man from soil and water. This story is evoked by the small ceramic figures for which Fattal is most famous—pinched, as they are, out of clay and thickly glazed in earthy colors. The statues stand like forgotten idols in dense groupings throughout the show, arranged on tall plinths, terraced shelves, and ledges running the length of a room. Collages, watercolor work, and other paintings complete the show, revealing a prolific artist who deftly crosses mediums, always searching for a way to unearth what inspires her.
Torso Found in Today’s Downtown Beirut (1988) stands at the exhibition’s entrance. Carved from a hunk of alabaster placed on a simple wooden box, the work feels as if it has been excavated from an ancient ruin—a broken shard of something larger that has been lost to time—its title suggesting a contemporary recovery of a body from the rubble of the war. Its creation represents an important turning point for the artist: Born in Syria, Fattal spent her childhood in Lebanon and began painting in Beirut. In 1980, the ongoing Lebanese Civil War drove her to San Francisco, where she ran the Apollo-Press publishing house. It wasn’t until 1988 that she discovered sculpture and ceramics through a class at the city’s Art Institute. It was there that she made Torso Found in Today’s Downtown Beirut and turned to ceramics. In the decades since, her art has continued to assess how digging into the past can lead to a fuller understanding of the present, and also how narratives and histories can be co-opted and exploited.
Moving through the exhibition’s seven-room sprawl is daunting: I try to linger over every piece, noting the traces of the artist’s hands in the clay and the freedom with which she works. But the abundance of objects both dazzles and fatigues me, even on subsequent visits. The sculptures shapeshift from contemporary art to archeological treasures. It is hard to believe that these thoughtfully arranged groupings are not the artifacts of a long-gone age, and this feeling is heightened by the artist’s allusions to ancient epics and myths: she names her figures after such heroes as Gilgamesh, Dhat al-Himma , and Adam and Eve.
A celadon-colored Ulysses, (2001) stands on trunk-like legs, his appendage dangling between them. He lurches forward, his face a lumpy ball into which eyes and mouth have been poked. Fattal’s working of the clay, its softness and elasticity, is easily discerned, and this intimacy of process lends the figure a sense of vulnerability. Sirens (2004) features two figures glazed in a watery turquoise color, evoking Homer’s seductive creatures, but Fattal seats them on a bed, positioning them side by side like ordinary women. In pieces such as Woman with Necklace (2011) or Man with the Collar (2008), both of which feature long legs topped with a squat torso, she relinquishes her connection to narratives, allowing her figures to represent anonymous individuals instead. Turtle (2017) shows a charming fellow glazed in a warm red with black spots mottling his shell, evoked as a symbol of determination and longevity.
Fattal’s paintings are abstract, full of markings that seem deeply personal, as if she is designing a language all her own. Illuminated Letters (2008) is one of a series of works in which swirls of black oxide decorate brown lava tiles. As in her sculptures, she creates new images that evoke antiquity, carrying the weight of war, occupations, displacement, and exile. Collectively, the work opens a new perspective on how we decipher the past, and yet it is a deeply personal memoir, Fattal’s ongoing works and days.