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A view of six kaftans designed by Huguette Caland for Pierre Cardin in the 1970s for his ‘Nour’ series (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

For the last four decades, artist Huguette Caland has largely languished in obscurity. She had a brief flash of fame in the 1970s, when, reportedly inspired by the feminist movement, she left her husband and three kids behind in Beirut, moved to Paris to lead a bohemian life, and designed over a hundred kaftans for fashion designer Pierre Cardin. The work from that transitional period is full of life and energy, informed by her love of colorful and bodily abstractions. Now, the octogenarian painter, who is notably the daughter of Lebanon’s first post-independence president, Bechara El Khoury, is on a clear path towards being rediscovered in the art world. In the last year, Caland has been the subject of a number of exhibitions from Beirut to Dubai and London to New Orleans. New York’s Lombard Fried Gallery currently has on view an exhibition of her little-seen work from the 1970s and early 1980s.

Huguette Caland wearing one of the kaftans she designed for Pierre Cardin (image courtesy Lombard Freid Gallery, NYC)

These years mark Caland’s most ambitious period — a time when the then 40-year-old artist started to step away from her reliance on the human form to create a personal language of abstraction. Coy sexual connotations litter the work, sometimes in obvious ways, like embracing heads and limbs, while other aspects are more coded, referring obliquely to lovers and other figures in her life.

The exhibition at Lombard Freid features six of her distinctive kaftans on whimsical mannequins designed by the artist, a number of big, brash abstract paintings, and dozens of Pop-informed colored pencil drawings. The paintings are dominated by strong lines that are eager to burst past the edges of the work. Bright, organic forms kiss on the canvas, conveying a sense of optimism as they float and writhe in the shallow pictorial space. The kaftans are textbook feminist incarnations with their stark sexuality that emphasizes, rather than masking, the female form. It’s easy to see the influence of Georgia O’Keeffe and Louise Bourgeois in these shapes, which are clearly laden with the psychology of the artist. Caland’s recent work is more quilt-like and largely devoid of human forms, as dots, lines, and patches sprawl across surfaces like maps of an unfamiliar land.

What makes these works from the 1970s and ’80s so refreshing is the overarching sense of experimentation. You can sense the artist’s newfound freedom in the candy-like palette and energetic lines. The art straddles the immediacy of Pop, the contemplative plainness of Minimalism, the visual allure of Color Field painting, and countless other artistic trends of the period without falling into the abyss of mimicry. Caland’s talent comes from her ability to synthesize the world around her into something tantalizing, fresh, and sensual.

A view of the Caland kaftans (1970–75)

Detail of “The First” (1970), which, like all the kaftans on display, is exhibited on a mannequin designed by Caland.

Huguette Caland, “The Last” (1975), crochet over silk dress

“Foule” (1970), acrylic on fabric

The mannequin head for “Miroir” (1974), thread on fabric

Detail of “Self Portrait (Bribes de Corps” (1973), oil on linen

Left: “Exit” (1970), oil on linen; right: “Bribes de Corps” (1973), oil on linen

“Exit” (1970), oil on linen

Various drawings from the 1970s and ’80s, including “Untitled” (1977), color pencil on paper, at bottom left

“Tete-a-tete” (1970), oil on canvas

“Monsieur” (1980), oil on linen

Detail of “Bribes de Corps” (1973), oil on linen

“Bribes de Corps” (1973), oil on linen

A view of “Drawing I” (1978), colored pencil on paper

Huguette Caland’s Early Works: 1970–85 continues at Lombard Freid Gallery (518 West 19th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) until January 10, 2015.

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Hrag Vartanian

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic. You can follow him at @hragv.