Written by L’Or Iman Puymartin
Lebanese artist Nabil Nahas was born in Beirut in 1949. He spent the first ten years of his life in Cairo for his father’s work, then moved back to Lebanon to be enrolled in a boarding school near Beirut. He attended university in the United States, completing his BFA at Louisiana State University, followed by an MFA at Yale University, which he earned in 1973. Today, he spends his time between New York and Beirut.
Nahas began painting at the young age of ten; after his elderly piano teacher from boarding school passed away, his only alternative option for an artistic endeavor was to take up painting classes. He became fond of it immediately and decided to dedicate the rest of his life to the craft. Though it was common for young artists of his generation to leave Lebanon and study abroad in Europe, it was less common for them to go to the United States. This being his only desire, he chose the unconventional route and left his home in Lebanon for the States. Nahas’ inspiration comes from several sources, chief among them the Western abstract artists with whom he was surrounded and by whom he was taught. While at Yale, Nahas encountered and familiarized himself with artists like Frank Stella and Larry Poons, finding inspiration in Stella’s large-scale hard-edged geometric paintings and Poons’ detached way of reducing geometric shapes to their essence. Beyond the influences of his American peers, however, Nahas drew inspiration primarily from nature and Islamic visual culture.
Nahas has always expressed an interest in both exploring the countless ways of making images as well as discovering new visual languages through painting. This is directly evident through his work, which displays in its treatment of brushwork and color a style that is constantly evolving. Since acquiring his MFA at Yale, Nahas’s work has gone through several radical stylistic changes, though it has remained within the broad umbrella category of abstraction. His first notable period comprises primarily hard-edged geometric shapes, colorful with bright tonalities and high contrast. His shapes were superimposed on at least three layers in each of these works, and they gave more of an essence of decorative motif than they did simple geometry. The following period was a somber, less geometric approach, where the artist dropped hard edges and bright colors in favor of canvases populated mainly by vast plains of black and brown. This somber period began around the outset of the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), and the radical shift can be understood as relating to the war’s emotional impact on the artist. At the same time, this transition should not be reduced to a stylistic translation of the artist’s emotions; it should also be appreciated as an aesthetic development in its own right, evidence of the way the artist re-evaluates and works through his artistic achievements.
Having always been taken by natural beauty, Nahas finds pleasure in scouring the Lebanese mountains for inspiration, and culls source material from the flora and fauna of other places he has visited as well. He has conceived abstract paintings of the tree varieties native to Lebanon and Egypt, such as cedar, olive, and palm. Nahas presents these colossal trees cropped in a way to blur their form and focus on their texture, magnificence and longevity, filling his canvas around them with flowers whose delicacy hints at their ephemerality in contrast to the ancient trees.
In the early 1990s, Nahas began creating the three-dimensional sea life forms for which he is most known.
This phase began in 1991, when Nahas was walking on the shore of Long Island after a strong hurricane and came across thousands of washed up starfish. He collected some and brought them home, casting them and creating his first starfish piece, which he entitled EUREKA. That moment was a stylistic breakthrough for Nahas, whose marine-inspired mixed media projects have earned critical acclaim.
These mostly large-scale works begin with casts that he creates from starfish and clams, which he mounts onto a canvas before painting the composition. He also uses pumice to give his works a gritty texture evocative of coral, creating circular, three-dimensional objects that protrude from his canvases.
Most recently, it seems that Nahas has merged his signature styles, combining the forms from his early geometric compositions, fractal paintings, and his trees to create canvases full of color, life and fields of energy. Today, he is one of Lebanon’s most renowned living artists, and works between Beirut and New York.
Katz, Vincent, and Nasser Chammaa. Nabil Nahas works 1970-2010: exhibition, Beirut, Beirut Exhibition Center, from June 22 to August 22. 2010. Beirut: Solidere, 2010.
"Nabil Nahas." Lawrie Shabibi. Accessed December 20, 2017. http://www.lawrieshabibi.com/artists/27-nabil-nahas/overview/.
Nahas, Nabil, and Joseph Tarrab. Nabil Nahas: works 1970-1980. Dubai: Lawrie Shabibi, 2014.
Ratcliff, Carter, and Nabil Nahas. Nabil Nahas. New York ...: Rizzoli, 2016.
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