Written by Wafa Roz

A leading abstract visual artist, Samia Halaby, was born in 1936, in Jerusalem, Palestine. Halaby and her family relocated to Lebanon during the Nakba, Palestinian exodus in 1948. By then, most of the Palestinian land was occupied, and the Israeli state was declared. The family soon settled in the United States in the early 1950s, where Samia completed her higher education. She obtained a BS in design, from University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, Ohio, USA, in 1959, an MA in painting from Michigan State University, Ann Arbor, Michigan, the USA in 1960, and an MFA in painting too at Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana, the USA in 1963. Following her graduation, Halaby taught at the University of Hawaii for one year and at the Kansas City Art Institute for two years, where she established a new studio art program. In 1971 she was recruited by Yale University to implement that same program. Halaby taught at the Yale School of Art from 1971 until 1982 and was the first full-time female associate professor in the department's history.

Through her extensive oeuvre, Halaby has explored, investigated, and pushed the notion of abstraction forward. In doing so, her approach has been analytical and intellectual. Halaby's enthralling abstract art thrives, not spirituality, nor does it voice the artist's personal or political stance. It summons her visual understanding of the world based on scientific grounds.

While teaching at the Kansas City Art Institute, Halaby was offered a grant to study historic architectural landmarks in the Middle East; the area is home to significant Islamic architecture and heritage sites. She visited Turkey, Egypt, Syria, and Palestine, learning the marvels of Islamic art and its abstract representational traditions. Visiting the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, she examined the polychromatic mosaics, geometric marble motifs, and patterned ceramic tiles that adorn its interior and external walls. This study informed much of her work later.

Similarly, Halaby's work is informed by Western abstract art learned during her college years. The Russian avant-garde art movements such as Suprematism and Constructivism inspired her. These movements initially evolved from European cubism and futurism. Of the artists who belonged to these movements, she admired most Kazimir Malevich, Olga Rosanova, and Lyubov Popova. Equally, Halaby was influenced by the German Bauhaus school, which was in tandem with the constructivists' ideals. Both emphasized design and knowledge of materials, bringing craftwork and industrial design closer to the realm of fine arts. American abstract expressionism left a mark on her too. Still, she was not concerned with gestural action painting practiced by most abstract expressionist artists, but surely, she was enthused by their revolutionary advance.

The two decades spanning from 1960 to 1980 were foundational in Halaby's artistic development. She arrived at the formal and conceptual bases of her celebrated aesthetic. In the early 1960's she produced color field paintings driven by the works of Mark Rothko, Ad Reinhardt, and surely the master of color Joseph Albers whose book Interaction of Color she had imbued herself with during her academic years. The illusion of space mostly took Halaby, and the distribution of color fields pertained to Rothko's paintings. Later, in the mid-1960s, she made a considerable shift and began a series of mid-sized geometric still life paintings. To create these works, Halaby modeled her geometric objects like spheres, cones, cylinders, and hollowed out rectangular cuboids. She arranged her objects the way she desired under various lights to analyze the effect of shade and shadow.

In progress, Halaby probed into the physical properties of materials and how they reflect under the light. She noticed that the specular highlight color of metallic objects differs from that of nonmetallic ones. For instance, the artist pinpointed that gold shines most because of its yellow highlight, unlike the dull white highlight characteristic of nonmetallic objects. Halaby painted spheres with dramatic shadows, cylinders with colored shadings, and intertwined conical helixes in metallic renderings. The reflection of light glowed in her works, especially those depicting silver-gray stainless steel. To accomplish the effect of depth and volume, Halaby manipulated her shadings and saturation of color.

Some of her distinctive paintings of this period, which are part of a series include White Cross, 1969, and Black Cross, 1969. Executed with supreme precision, both feature a duet of vertical and horizontal cylinders intersecting at the center of the painting. They dominate the surface of a 46x46cm square canvas. While the white cross is painted white, the black cross is toned in dark bronze and set against a mystic blue background. Iconic and shimmering as they seem, they insinuate to the Christian cross.

Halaby is an artist who has engaged in and embraced new technology. In the mid-1980s, she wrote a C-language based program on an Amiga computer to generate digital abstract paintings. Soon after, she designed kinetic computer paintings linked with emitting musical sounds. Melding the visual and audible in one, Halaby held Kinetic Art performances in collaboration with a group of musicians. On a large screen, Halaby's dynamic combinations of traversing lines, intricate shapes and vivid colors moved to the sound of music. Flat and frontal, the joggling image mirrored a multidimensional world.

In her mature stage, Halaby tackled large scale canvases. Her mid-sized painting, a window into the world, transformed into an open-ended one ready to receive the viewer into its space. Her first large-scale painting measuring 214 x 457 cm was Centers Of Attraction completed in 1989. It accumulates densely layered interlocking shapes, mostly colored with tints and tones of green, red, yellow, blue, and black acrylic paint. Halaby's formations initiate from basic shapes. Following Centers of Attraction, Halaby began registering endless possibilities of growing shapes on little sketchbooks, which in turn gave birth to several outstanding paintings. In her sketches, curved and straight linear projections intervene with circles, triangles, and squares to generate new forms and demand separate fields of color. As they multiply, twist, attract, and repel, the picture matures. The idea of growth lingered in Halaby's mind when she first observed the pattern formation on the surface of an autumn leaf. That was in 1983 during her many walks in the city of New York, a place she has inhabited since 1972. Whether walking in nature or by the beach, Halaby focuses "on the apparent compression and expansion of surfaces relative to the rhythm of movement," as the artist explains.

Liberated from the constraints of her otherwise absorbed learnings, Halaby based her work at a later stage on intuitive knowledge. She drew inspiration from her physical surroundings observing urban cityscapes. For instance, "trees in the city and how they look at night in artificial light" fascinate her. The view from the window of her apartment in New York feeds her imagination too. Halaby loads her city paintings with depth; she uses a diving view to represent her buildings and reduces them into simple hard-edged squares or rectangles painted in bold colors. Often segmented or interrupted at the periphery of her canvas, the artist sets her buildings in different structural compositions. Again, it's Halaby's interplay between color, light, shape, and size that gives an illusion of depth, whether from a bird's eye view or of an ant's eye view perspective. In Lemon Tree, 2011, for instance, tree leaves formed with oval brush strokes in yellow, orange, pink, and blue scatter in the center of the painting seemingly overlooked from surrounding sharp-edged buildings. Other urban compositions are based on what she calls "man's simple geometry." For example, in a small gouache on paper painting, Parade,1996, a diagonal stretch of blue rhombi with red round masses of paint allude to a circus parade passing by the city while people represented in blue brush strokes gravitate towards it.

Pushing the boundaries further, Halaby transposed the two-dimensional surface of a stretched canvas into a three-dimensional one. In practice, she tore ready-painted canvases into rags of sea-weed-like dwindling pieces and pinned them onto a solid background. Organically assembled, they curl, suspend, overlap, and expand setting free from the quadrilateral frame. Once more, Halaby reaches for endless options.

In her latest works, Halaby's vibrant shapes and overworked compositions transformed into bursts of color. In Rebirth of Palestine, 2014, acrylic on canvas painting measuring 200x 401cm, large dot-like patches spread along its horizontal surface. From right to left, they range from yellow-green, pale, and navy blue, to orange-red. They disperse like particles in a scattering sky when the color of the atmosphere changes towards sunset or at sunrise. As an Arab native, Halaby registers the 'rise and fall' from right to left the same way the Arabic language is written and read. Her work resonates with the repetitive patches in impressionistic paintings and the colorful gardens of Giverny painted by the leader of the movement, Claude Monet, whom Halaby cherishes.

Although Halaby distances her abstract art from politics, As a Palestinian living in exile and a leftist herself, Halaby is in opposition to all forms of repression and segregation. She documented Palestinian revolution art in her book Liberation Art of Palestine, 2001. Halaby based this work on thorough interviews she had organized with Palestinian artists in the occupied territories.

A progressive and inspirational artist, and a scholar of Palestinian art, Samia Halaby Lives and works in New York, USA.


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Artist Talk: Samia Halaby

Samia Halaby

Samia Halaby discussing her work at Ayyam Gallery London, 2013