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An exile’s love song to his native city

Hello painters,

I mentioned before a book that I am in the process of slowly leafing through. It’s called Abstract Art: A Global History written by Pepe Karmel. All of the artists within, painters, sculptors, and others, are categorized not by a traditional timeline or even by genres (“isms”). Instead, Karmel sorts artists into different thematic categories, such as “Cosmologies” and “Landscapes” and “Signs and Patterns” among other.

This tome has already introduced me to several new artists, opening up doors to rooms within rooms within genres I wasn’t aware existed. I want to share some images from an artist who is completely new to me, an artist who “developed a striking synthesis of geometric abstraction and Arabic calligraphy” (Karmel, 257).

Kamal Boullata (1942 - 2019) is an artist whose work slots in very neatly alongside titans of art history like Josef Albers. One of the beautiful things about discovering new artists is that you realize there was another part of the conversation you weren’t hearing. Boullata built on top of Albers’ and others’ color mixing experiments and combined it with historical and scriptural references, resulting in what critic Nasser Rabbat called “referential abstraction.”

Boullata was born in Jerusalem in 1942, and spent his childhood absorbing the rich patterns, decorations, and colors of the city; its architecture, and its people. He lived for years in Italy and the United States, studying art, history, and traveling, before settling in Berlin late in his life.

Karmel highlights in his book a series of Boullata paintings dedicated to the ancient gates of Jerusalem, which include canvases such as Golden Gate (pictured below — curiously, no good images of this painting exist online — I had to take a photo of the book). The city of Boullata’s childhood was like “an invisible cross he carried in his heart that could only echo as pangs of reminiscences in shape and form and which penetrate his entire oeuvre.

“Perhaps it was the light of Jerusalem that I have been seeking to recapture all along.”

Early in Boullata’s career, he focused more intently on incorporating calligraphic script into his paintings and screen-prints, like the pieces pictured above and below these paragraphs. They are tightly controlled geometric creations that have a surprising depth to them, as the scripts wrap around outlines of objects and spaces that are only revealed by the letters shifting in color.

These pieces also point to Boullata’s interest in color relationships and hard-edge abstraction. There is always a shift in these pieces, where the colors switch, creating strong geometric shapes by implication. Boullata was skillful at choosing colors that had a certain luminous quality, resulting in color combinations that emit a soft glow.

Boullata’s later paintings step away from clearly discernible letters, writings, and textual references. These canvases use color as their main subject, and they are awash with varied hues. Sometimes they are bright candy colored things, other times they are quieter, more introverted.

A series of works in 2012 saw Boullata referencing a story from the life of Queen Sheba, also called Bilqis. Upon entering the court of King Solomon, Bilqis mistook the palace’s glass floor for water, lifting up her dress to avoid getting it wet.

Boullata used this story as his jumping off point for a series of large, abstract acrylic pieces, pictured below. These hard-edge paintings are softened somewhat by the lush layers of gem-like, transparent colors.

Above: Bilqis 3, acrylic on panel, from 2013
Below: Detail of Bilqis 3

“Chaos in a work of art should shimmer through the veil of order.” - Novalis

Boullata never ceased in his exploration of abstraction, geometry, and color. His color wheel revolved around colors that are “full of heat and light: immersive blue, glowing yellow, burning hot red…”

The artist was passionate about his aesthetic pursuits, but also committed to excavating and exploring his culture and his history through his artworks. For more in depth writings of Boullata’s work, I have linked to several articles throughout this letter where I have quoted them, but here they are again in list form. (These links feature more pictures and videos of the artist as well):

Kamal Boullata: For the Love of Jerusalem by Nasser Rabbat
Boullata: Like a Fish Out of Water by Samir Salmi
Kamal Boullata obituary in The Art Newspaper
Kamal Boullata artworks at the Barjeel Foundation

If you have been enjoying this newsletter recently, well, then that’s super cool. I love to hear responses from all you painters and readers about the topic of the day or whatever else is on your mind. Reply back to this email if you have any thoughts about this artist, about projects you’re working on, or just to say hey.

And click this button below if you’d like to show your appreciation by adding to my tip jar:

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And finally, painters, here are your tunes for this week:

The Marias - Cariño
El Michels Affair - Villa
Afriquoi - Ndeko Solo
SG Lewis feat. Rhye - Time
CZ Wang - Just Off Wave

See you next time, and happy painting
(° ͜ʖ͡°)

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