Paper—sculpted, cast, punctured, sewn into—is the primary medium of Zarina, the Indian-born artist who weaves into her work Urdu calligraphy and the spirit of literature from around the world
“I don’t really like miniatures. When I look at them, I want to think about Malevich,” Zarina says. In fact, the architecture and the courtyards and gardens of Indian miniatures are often suggested in the minimalist black-and-white distillations of “home” that Zarina has created on paper over a nearly 50-year career.
To the gratification of her many admirers, the work of this Indian-born New York artist has had wide visibility of late. She was recently the subject of a major retrospective, “Zarina: Paper Like Skin,” organized by the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, that traveled to the Guggenheim Museum in New York and closed last month at the Art Institute of Chicago. In 2011, Zarina —an American citizen since 1993—was one of five artists representing India in its first-ever entry at the Venice Biennale. Her watershed print portfolio, “Home Is a Foreign Place” (1999), consisting of 36 woodcuts in an edition of five, was recently acquired by a trifecta of major museums: the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. The Guggenheim has acquired “Untitled” (1977), a 20-sheet group of white-on-white “pin drawings,” in which grids, swirls, and geometric shapes are pricked into paper.With some exceptions, paper has been Zarina’s primary medium—sometimes sculpted or cast directly from pulp; sometimes cut out, punctured, or sewn into; but most often printed on in a variety of methods both traditional and invented. She often includes Urdu calligraphy in her compositions. The spirit of literature that suffuses her conversation also permeates her work. The frequent theme of home and the forms of remembered homes tie her to some of her favorite writers: Proust, Nabokov, Camus, Adrienne Rich, and the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. Allegra Pesenti, curator at the Hammer Museum’s Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts and organizer of “Paper Like Skin,” says, “I am interested in the ways Zarina pushes the boundaries of the printmaking practice so that it is often not clear whether the work is a print, a drawing, or a sculpture.” Pesenti describes her discovery of Zarina’s work when it was shown in India several years ago: “Here was a type of abstraction with expression connected to life through the tactility and organic quality of its medium. The cast papers hang on the wall like empty shrines and evoke a sense of loss but also the memory of local street life and Mughal architecture.”The youngest of four children, Zarina was born in 1937 in Aligarh, a university town in northern India, where her father taught medieval Indian history at Aligarh Muslim University. Raised a secular Muslim in a home in which books were valued above all else, she says, “I never saw my father going to mosque. I feel I grew up in Hindu culture as much as Muslim. It was much more interesting to me, the Hindu festivals and so on.” Navina Haidar, curator of Islamic art at the Met, whose roots also go back to Aligarh (and who refers to the artist respectfully as “Zarina Auntie”), describes the city thus: “It was traditionally known as a city of refinement. The society was very sweet, tolerant, graceful in its exchanges.” Haidar cites the elegiac, poetic quality of the Urdu language —no longer much in use—as helping to define this atmosphere. Family sightseeing expeditions to mosques and temples instilled in Zarina a lifelong love for the architecture of India. “I associated architecture with building and I fell in love with building,” she says. She had hoped to study engineering at Aligarh Muslim University, but women were not admitted to the engineering college. Her next choice was art school, but her father drew the line at that, urging her to acquire a broader education. So she graduated with a B.S., learning chemistry and mathematics, subjects she thinks have served her well in her understanding of materials. Jeffrey Warda, paper conservator at the Guggenheim, is impressed by the way Zarina has worked with paper pulp and earth pigments and by her choices and treatments of the papers themselves. She often uses the technique of chine collé, attaching one kind of paper (often handmade Nepalese, Indian, or Japanese paper, on which she prefers to print) to a fine-quality manufactured paper such as BFK Rives or Arches. Zarina married soon after graduating in 1958. Her husband was in India’s Foreign Service, and the two embarked on a peripatetic life that began with a posting to Bangkok. When they returned to their country for the first time, Zarina’s family had moved to what had become Pakistan after the Partition of India into two countries, one Hindu and the other Muslim. The family’s move from the home in Aligarh, and her memories of the house, would come to feed Zarina’s art.
By the mid-1960s, Zarina and her husband were in Paris. There, she studied printmaking at Atelier 17, the renowned workshop of Stanley William Hayter, where prints were considered as important as paintings. She came into contact with international art at this point, and also began to drift away from her husband. In her much later series of etchings “Homes I Made/A Life in Nine Lines” (1997), one of the works is a floor plan of her spacious Paris apartment, subtitled: Watched the Seine flow by and waited for him to come home.By the time she returned to India, to live alone in New Delhi, Zarina was an artist. At a low point, she bought a press to make prints. She says that she felt like a piece of wood in the humid weather and thought, “I have rotted inside.” She found some chunks of rotting wood on the street, took them home, cleaned and oiled them, and brought them back to life in the studio. She began to print impressions of the plain wood, culminating in Kiss (1968), a work that pays homage to Brancusi; the cobbled-together Wall I (1969); and Cage (1970), a relief print of an enclosure that conjured up her beloved Indian courtyards along with a stifling feeling of entrapment. She simply put the pieces of wood together and made relief prints.“I didn’t know what I was doing,” she says. “Not being a product of art school gave me freedom.” Or, according to David Kiehl, curator of prints and special collections at the Whitney Museum in New York, who acquired two of these prints for the museum, “she broke all the rules.” The new work also embodied a Gandhian emphasis on the handmade, and Zarina sometimes used paper made in the recently established papermaking workshops of postcolonial India. In 1974, Zarina won a fellowship to study with a master printmaker in Japan. From there, she decided to pursue the art that most interested her. Two years later, she arrived in New York via Los Angeles and soon set herself up in a Midtown commercial building—the working and living space that has been her primary home ever since.In the 1980s, Zarina became involved with the New York Feminist Art Institute, serving on its board. She was briefly on the editorial board of Heresies, the feminist art journal, and helped produce the “Third World Women” issue long before multiculturalism was a buzzword. Aroung that time, she dropped both her father’s and her husband’s surnames.During this period, she began running papermaking workshops. To make ends meet, she pulled prints for other people, and she taught art as an adjunct professor at various universities. Eventually she was spending most of each academic year at the University of California, Santa Cruz. In her home work space in New York, a wooden sink served to contain many an experiment with materials and pigment. She modeled paper sculptures that are organic in form, and made cast-paper reliefs carved with sharp Plexiglas molds bought on Canal Street. A grid of carved house shapes in the solid 1981 cast-paper Traces is echoed in a gossamer 2006 paper cutout, Shadow House I, made of Nepalese paper. “I like to cut with a sharp knife,” she says, explaining her penchant for straight lines.
With its cutouts and strong linear elements, Zarina’s art seems full of absences and assertions. Poetic titles seem to encapsulate memories of experience and sensation: phrases like “On long hot summer afternoons everyone slept,” from the 1991 series of etchings “House with Four Walls,” capture a sense of longing. In this print, abstracted window shades, like those that were in the artist’s childhood home, are suggested in the form of freehand horizontal bands. Essences are summed up: “Santa Cruz” (1996), a series of etchings, is all about the horizon—appropriate for this Pacific location—while New York, from the 1999 “Home Is a Foreign Place,” happens to be two vertical towers, almost Barnett Newman–like zips. In the 1997 portfolio “Homes I Made/A Life in Nine Lines,” Bangkok is a classic house shape, raised on stilts.
Zarina’s regular communication with her Karachi-based sister, Rani, kept alive her memories of Aligarh, eventually leading to the poignant 2004 “Letters from Home,” a series of woodblock and metalcut prints in which abstractions and diagrams of former homes at once frame, outline, or obliterate very personal letters from Rani about the fate of their parents and about their own lives. The layering of different papers with her sister’s fine Urdu calligraphy and such elements as a map of lower Manhattan or an outline of a Western-style house epitomizes Zarina’s way of combining the layers of life lived in different cultures and geographical zones.With her wavy silver hair, and often dressed in a silk tunic with matching shawl thrown over her shoulder, Zarina is a striking woman. In her Manhattan home, TV, sofa, bed, desks, work space, and neatly arranged boxes of her prints, as well as museum catalogues (her only evident indulgence), are all organized in one open space. With a kitchen to one side, visitors can count on a properly brewed pot of tea. Although Zarina says, “I’m bored with the diasporic generation,” perhaps not wanting to be lumped into a category that seems hot right now, she has certainly made work that refers to a homeland different from the one she is in and, alternately, from the one in which she was raised. During the period of her special emphasis on home (mid-1990s to mid-2000s), she faced the quintessential threat to New York artists: eviction from her rented loft space. In the end, she prevailed in court, having shown that this was her primary residence—her home. Zarina crossed the United States three times in her first year here; on one of those trips, she took along her sister, niece, and nephew, all packed into a small Honda Civic. She still marvels at Bryce Canyon, the whiteness of the Great Salt Lake, and the collection of Japanese art at the Cleveland Museum of Art. She says that since the sightseeing trips of her childhood, “I always had a suitcase packed.” Only as an adult has she embraced the idea that traveling is part of the history of Islam. “You have to travel to seek God,” she says, claiming that she no longer has “any problem talking about God.” She recently began making unique works on paper using materials such as obsidian (deep, grainy black covers the surface of Dark Night of the Soul, 2011) and gold leaf (applied to paper in Blinding Light, 2009). She has discovered pewter leaf and has been building collages with the small squares. These works reveal a newfound spirituality. The titles bespeak the contrasting of psychic darkness with what she has called “divine light.”Even with distractions and administrative chores (for which she now has assistants), Zarina says she tries to work on at least one piece every day. Other recent works, hanging orbs of wood, reference prayer beads. The wood reminds her of how she used to pick up her aunt’s sandalwood beads from the floor when the string broke, and would end up with the scent of sandalwood on her fingers. Last year, Zarina dispatched a nephew in Pakistan to commission the making of a series of lightbulb forms from Afghan marble. In New York, her assistant applied gold leaf to the lower parts of the forms, and they were strung together with plastic tubing. Titled Frozen Light (2013), they were shown by Gallery Espace at the Armory Show in New York.Zarina is represented in New York by Luhring Augustine; in Paris she shows at Galerie Jaeger Bucher, and in New Delhi at Gallery Espace, where she will have an exhibition next year. Her prices range from more than $10,000 for individual prints to $100,000 for a major series. Zarina went three times to the recent Alina Szapocznikow exhibition at MoMA, which was organized by Pesenti when it appeared at the Hammer Museum. She admires the tough, personal engagement of the late, little-known Polish artist, comparing her favorably to Eva Hesse, whose exhibition at the Guggenheim so excited Zarina during an early visit to New York. Fortunately, curators are bringing new names before the public, as well as a realignment of ideas about who are the “important” artists of our time. Zarina, it seems, has found her place in this cosmos. Cynthia Nadelman, an ARTnews contributing editor, is a writer living in New York.