Collection 1950s–1970s


Calligraphic Abstraction



Erol (Erol Akyavas). The Glory of the Kings. 1959? Oil on canvas, 48" × 7' 1/4" (121.8 × 214 cm). Gift of Mr. and Mrs. L. M. Angeleski
  • MoMA, Floor 4, 404 The David Geffen Galleries

Hailing from around the world, the artists in this gallery turned to the expressive possibilities of calligraphy in abstract art during the 1950s and 1960s—a period marked, on the one hand, by political independence and newly formed nations, and, on the other, by military dictatorships and the Cold War. Some of these artists left home to escape difficult conditions or seek opportunities abroad, while those based in cities like New York and Paris borrowed from Eastern philosophy and aesthetics. Although their situations differed, many shared religious traditions, cultural heritage, and everyday symbols as sources of artistic liberation and inspiration, as well as the desire to bring together intuition and emotion in fluid gestural brushwork.

The works assembled here exemplify different calligraphic modes and systems of writing in mid-century modernism. From graceful experiments with Arabic scripts, decorative patterns formed by words, and rearranged or illegible texts and letters, to abstract strokes and spontaneous movements, they demonstrate the unrestrained vigor and communicative gestures of calligraphic abstraction.

Organized by Smooth Nzewi, The Steven and Lisa Tananbaum Curator, Department of Painting and Sculpture, with Danielle Johnson, former Curatorial Assistant, Department of Drawings and Prints.

16 works online


Installation images

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