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Monday, April 7, 2014

Ismail Gulgee

The paintings of Ismail Gulgee. Few have titles; only the most recent ones have dates.
Untitled, 2005, Ismail Gulgee,
one of his more subtle pieces.
The bedrock upon which those who write about art rely is based upon three elements--the name of the artist, the names given by the artist to his or her creative efforts, and the dates (or approximate dates) in which the works were completed. All else, the nationality, the style, the content, the media, awards, training, etc. today tends to be common knowledge unless the artist comes out of ancient history (more than a thousand years ago) or is quite obscure (which raises the questions as to writing about the artist in the first place). If any one of the aforementioned elements is missing, the art may be quite valid, quite attractive, quite important, but also quite frustrating to discuss. How do you talk about a painting with no title? How do you discuss an artist career, his life's work, his development, when much of his output is undated? (Art historians dote on chronology.) And worse, if the art has neither a title nor date...
Ismail Gulgee profiled against one of his enormous paintings.
Horses, (no date), Ismail Gulgee
That's the difficulty I've encountered in my admiration of the renown Pakistani painter, Ismail Gulgee (sometimes spelled Gul Jee). Moreover, to make matters still more difficult, Gulgee was Muslim, and though he painted a few portraits and seems to have had a love of horses, the vast majority of his work is Abstract Expressionism inspired by Arabic calligraphy; which raises yet another wall (or two) of enigmatic mystery between me and him. For art to be valid, it must communicate. Thus it utilizes a language. Whether the most explicit brand of Realism or the most dumbfounding example of Abstract Expressionism, the artist employs a visual language. Unless the artist is using a language only he or she understands (which sometimes happens, I think) it's the responsibility of the viewer to learn that language. One doesn't have to be fluent in the artist's language, but some familiarity is to be expected. I don't speak Abstract Expressionism but I've learned to read it somewhat--which helps, in Gulgee's case. However I most certainly do not understand one single graceful flourish of Arabic. That's not Gulgee's fault. It's mine. Fortunately, this calligraphic language barrier is not critical to appreciating the beauty to be found in the man's work.

The Polo Player, (date unknown), Ismail Gulgee--his favorite non-Muslim subject.
Ismail Gulgee was born in 1926 in Peshawar (northern Pakistan). Initially he trained to be a civil engineer in his home country before coming to the United States in 1950 to further his studies at Columbia University, then later at Harvard. It was here he took up painting; and given the time and place, naturally took up Abstract Expressionism. He first exhibited that same year, which might seem surprising for such a newcomer to this country and to art. However Abstract Expressionism was brand new, and once it became hot, every would-be artist and his brother-in-law hopped on the bandwagon.

Two Horses, (no date), Ismail Gulgee.
The paintings featuring horses tend to have titles, (such as they are).
Mosaic of the 48th Ismaili Imam,
Aga Khan III, (no date), Ismail Gulgee
The problem for the New York art world was two-fold. Demand was such artists couldn't paint them fast enough (a presumed shortage); and during the early 1950s, the "language," so critical in evaluating such art, was still being invented. Pollock was hot, so was Hoffman, Kandinsky, de Kooning, and a few others. But then too, so were their prices. Those investing in such art for profit, were as aware of the old adage, "buy low, sell high" as any Wall Street broker. They looked at the vast majority of such work hitting the market; scratched their heads; sought an interpreter who spoke the language; and in finding none simply plunked down good money for what usually turned out to be mediocre art (at best). Not that Gulgee's art was particularly bad, but the young novice painter no doubt benefitted from this vacuum of market savvy.

Untitled, 2001, Ismail Gulgee.
Muhammad Iqbal, (no date),
Ismael, Gulgee
Gulgee stood apart from all the others riding aboard the Abstract Expressionist bandwagon because of his Muslim background. Due to the traditional Muslim bans on figurative art, calligraphy was, and still is, the mainstay in Muslim art. However, for the most part, "figurative" is not a word often used in association with Abstract Expressionism. Thus there was no conflict insofar as Gulgee was concerned. He felt free to marry the two elements. As a result, his work, amateurish as it might have been (having no dates, it's hard to say), stood out. In that environment--the formative years of the Abstract Expressionist movement--he began to sell, began to win awards, began to move upward in the art world both in the U.S. and abroad. He learned to paint the hard way (and perhaps the best way) by painting a LOT. He began to mix media. He taught himself to paint portraits (there were not a lot of Muslim portrait painters at the time). He soon became rich, if not famous. His son, Amin, also became an artist (sculptor). In later years, returning to his home country, Gulgee found himself, in effect, "a big fish in a small pond."

Untitled, 2003, Ismail Gulgee
The story of Ismail Gulgee does not have a happy ending. On December 19, 2007, Gulgee, his wife, and a female servant were found dead in his home in Karachi. They had been murdered (strangled) some three days earlier. The family chauffeur and another servant were arrested. No motive has ever been established. The case has YET to come to trial.

"...I live only when I paint.  The rest is but a wait, a preparation mixed with prayer for crossing the threshold from life into the experience of life."
                                                                                                                --Ismail Gulgee


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