Nasreen Mohamedi was a comet. The trail she burned was brilliant, swift and – save for art connoisseurs in India – invisible. When she died in 1990, at the age of 53, of Parkinson’s disease, she left behind her an extraordinary oeuvre of drawings. Small-scale, monochrome, almost entirely in ink or pencil, their material humility is marvellously at odds with their expressive power.
Today, the art world’s bittersweet alchemy of economics, aesthetics and social politics has ushered Mohamedi on to the world stage. She has already popped up in group shows at MoMA and Documenta. Now she is the subject of a small but well-modulated monograph at Tate Liverpool.
Understandably, given her concerns, Tate has timed her show to coincide with a bigger exhibition devoted to Mondrian. Incredibly, the great Dutch modernist looks heavy-handed in comparison.
From the beginning, Mohamedi intuited that less was more. She was born into a well-to-do, secular Muslim family in Karachi in 1937, when the city was still part of India, and her family was afflicted by illness. Her mother died in childbirth when Mohamedi was four years old, and two brothers would, as she did, have their lives cut short by neuromuscular disease. Can we trace her spare, colourless distillations back to a grief that defies representation?
Perhaps. Although her early work, like that of so many abstractionists, was figurative, her faith in the world around her was always shaky. A pen and ink sketch of trees diminishes their branches to querulous scratches. In another, leaves, or maybe birds, are reduced to marks that resemble crude, black stitches darned by an angry hand.
During the same period, she was producing oil paintings – several of which are on show here – whose triangular shapes sieve walls and roofs down to their abstract essence. Meanwhile, their raw, earthy, tempera-textured colours seem to emerge out of the canvas in a way that is reminiscent of Paul Klee.
Made in the 1960s, these works flirt with the territory between abstract and real, colour and monochrome, line and tone. Their contradictions speak of an artist feeling her way towards maturity out of a complex web of influences. As much as any artist of the 20th century, Mohamedi fuses eastern and western traditions into a whole.
In the mid-1950s, she studied at St Martin’s School of Art in London. A few years later, a print atelier in Paris was her campus. Little wonder her vision is enmeshed in the European modernist utopias of Klee, Kandinsky, Mondrian and Malevich.
Yet Asia was equally present to her. Although 20th-century Indian art is known in the west for a figurative tradition spearheaded by painters such as M.H. Husain, it is also blessed with a strand of metaphysical abstraction whose exponents include V.S. Gaitonde and Jeram Patel. Settling in Bombay after her travels, Mohamedi was mentored by Gaitonde. In 1972 she moved to teach at Maharaja Sayajirao University in Baroda, where Patel taught .
In Baroda she jettisons realism for good. With it goes colour, oil paint and all pretension to grandiosity. The critic Geeta Kapur, who has written with extraordinary sensitivity about Mohamedi, notes that Patel’s “passionate excavation of the negative image” was crucial at this juncture. It helped Mohamedi to, in her own words, extract “the maximum out of the minimum” by condensing her world to black, white and grey in pen and pencil.
At first she draws on graph paper, as if needing a material grid to sustain its metaphysical counterpart. Inscribing the surface with dense thatches of diagonals, chevrons, verticals and horizontals, her marks barely differ yet somehow elude not only symmetry but also repetition. So deft is her hand, she can shade in thick and thin to a remarkable degree of delicacy. As a result, the lines defy their monochrome hue to become evanescent.
At Baroda, Mohamedi had the quietude to immerse herself in her concerns. Friends recall her working cross-legged at an architects’ table on the floor of her studio late into the night. An elegant, ascetic figure, she recalled the weavers whose warp and weft were just one of many images summoned by her shimmering lattices.
Key to her quest is the rapport between mind and matter. She once said that she felt reassured by Kandinsky because of his “need to take from an outer environment and bring it an inner necessity”.
That search for unity, its tentative explorations first witnessed in her early excavations of trees and leaves, ran through her evolution like a thread. It is also a bedrock of Zen and Sufi, eastern philosophies which Mohamedi drew on constantly. “All the forces of nature are interlinked,” she once wrote. And later enjoined herself to “listen to [nature’s] intricacies”.
An unerring antenna for man-made forms, as well as natural ones, saw her draw inspiration from the Arabian Desert, Mughal architecture, Islamic calligraphy, concrete puzzles of urban streets and the motions of waves.
Hundreds of photographs she took as an exploratory exercise are now finding their way into exhibitions of her work. Here we see, for example, how her uncanny crops could translate a coastal landscape to a geometry of curves and ripples or reveal the spectral white void that menaces a patch of wasteland. Most fascinating are prints marked up with the cuts she will make: a row of bicycle wheels sliced into a parabola; a cow chopped down to neck and horn.
By the late 1970s, the graph paper is no longer needed. Gathered together in a section entitled “Perspectives and Diagonals”, the images here fly through the empty surface with cosmic energy. In one, thick, black, lightless oblongs of ink float like steps leading to nowhere in a hopscotch of finer lines to summon the skeleton of an ideal piazza. In another, three diagonal bands of lines interrupted by empty, slanted spaces and crossed by a scaffolding of tiny verticals defy likeness yet perhaps reflect the musings of an artist who once wrote that her lines “speak of troubled destinies/Of death/Of insects/Scratching/Foam”.
In her final decade, the years of meditation bear fruit. Her drawings abandon their outer inspirations and resolve into geometric shapes that hover on the surface as if suspended from the heavens by invisible threads.
One image shows a black rhomboid of lines with a triangle of white in the middle haunted by an angular cluster of wires that peep above the blackness like a shadowy “other”. The form is pristine yet not remotely graphic. Indeed, the monochrome tones sing to each other in luscious, saturated contrasts to rival any colourist’s efforts.
Such enigmatic juxtapositions recall the mysterious Prouns paintings of another of art’s great idealists, El Lissitzky. Yet the Russian suprematist, who was also a designer and architect, remained wedded to the functional world. Mohamedi has transcended it.
Her search for purity led her to the ellipse. The shape traced by the planets as they move around the sun, it had a mystic aura that was suited to a woman who had learnt, as she put it, to: “Break the cycle of seeing [so that] Magic and awareness arrives.”
Here, the finest late work sees two sets of three ellipses floating on graph paper – she has returned to that familiar grid for anchorage perhaps – in white triangles against dark lines. The forms diminish as they travel up the paper; the lines fade toward whiteness. Or perhaps they are expanding and darkening as they float downwards. The uncertainty is intriguing, soothing and deeply satisfying.
Zen teaches us that to understand an object we must view it from within. In doing so, we become one with it. If we attend to Mohamedi’s journey, we will walk back out into the world with a renewed sense of connection, both to it and to ourselves.
To October 5, tate.org.uk