Zarina Hashmi’s first retrospective was as revelatory as it was stirring, a thoroughly compelling introduction to nearly five decades of visual poetry. Born in Aligarh, India, in 1937, Zarina, who goes by her first name, lived in Paris in the mid-’60s (apprenticing to printmaker Stanley William Hayter) and Germany in the early ’70s. In 1976, she moved to New York, where she continues to live and work. She earned a degree in mathematics and statistics, and originally hoped to become an architect. An interest in the spatial organization of built environments defines much of her work; images evoking walls, fences, floor plans and ornamental openwork screens (jali) abound. The archetypal house form, connoting shelter and stability, is a recurring motif, as primary to Zarina’s personal iconography as line, which she uses to indicate movement and boundaries.
The exhibition, thoughtfully curated by the Hammer’s Allegra Pesenti and accompanied by a substantive catalogue, included more than 60 works, many of them portfolios with multiple parts, nearly everything made on or of paper. For relief prints from the late ’60s, Zarina used inked sections of found wood to produce geometric abstractions suggestive of doors, walls and cages. The grain invests the printed forms with vitality and texture, and there’s a satisfying circularity in her use of wood to make images of structures typically built from that material, on a surface made from it.
A similar, rich reciprocity invigorates works from the mid-’70s in which Zarina pierced, scored and folded heavy sheets of white paper, enabling the surface to double as image. In Fence (1976), she scratched lines at a right angle to each edge of the page, raising the pulp like a scar. She had seen the Guggenheim’s 1972-73 Eva Hesse exhibition, and Hesse’s life story resonated with her, as did the way an intense physicality could be conjured from the repetition of abstract shapes. In 1976-77, Zarina made a series of untitled “pin drawings,” puncturing sheets of paper with a sewing needle in dense, random fields and tight grids, each poke leaving a tiny, shadow-casting mound. Made shortly before her husband’s death, these pieces bespeak a kind of private, meditative performance, the artist’s rhythmic motions yielding deeply personal, minimalist objects.
Zarina was 10 at the time of the partition cleaving India and Pakistan. She married her husband, a diplomat, in 1948, and after decades of relocating she came to accept the identity of an exile, displaced from home, country and language. In Home Is a Foreign Place (1999), a portfolio of 36 woodcuts, she pairs distilled images with Urdu words, creating a pictographic glossary of settings and situations, from architectural spaces to atmospheric and emotional conditions. Another work, Shadow House, from 2006, resembles an ephemeral jali: houses are cut in a grid from a loosely hung sheet of Nepalese paper, each dwelling an absence, a window onto the shadow behind it.
Zarina draws frequently from Urdu poetry for the titles and textual components of her pieces, the language of her childhood constituting another vanishing home. Her memory-steeped work brings to mind Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, a study of personal history as a history of spaces. With concision and soulful beauty, Zarina maps her self and her story, the topography (to paraphrase Bachelard) of her intimate being.
[The show travels to the Guggenheim Museum, New York, Jan. 25-Apr. 21, and the Art Institute of Chicago, June 27–Sept. 22.]
Photo: Zarina: Shadow House, 2006, cut Nepalese paper, 69 by 39 inches; at the Hammer Museum.