Helen Khal

1923Allentown, United States | 2009Ajaltoun, Lebanon
Helen Khal — AWARE Women artists / Femmes artistes

Helen Khal in Her 60s, Modern and Contemporary Art Museum, Lebanon

Lebanese-American painter and art critic.

Helen Khal grew up in a Lebanese family in Pennsylvania. In 1946, she went to live in Lebanon for two years, studying painting at the Lebanese Academy of Fine Arts in Beirut, and meeting the artists Shafic Abboud (1926 – 2004) and Yvette Achkar (born in 1928) and the sculptor Michel Basbous (born in 1921). After her marriage to the poet Yusuf al-Khal, she continued her studies at the Art Students League in New York, but it was not until 1960 that she had her first exhibition, at the Galerie Alecco Saab in Beirut. Her style became increasingly expressionist and emotional following the deaths of her mother and brother. In 1963, she co-founded Gallery One, the first gallery of its kind not only in Lebanon but in the whole of the eastern Arab region. When she and her husband divorced six months later, he was awarded custody of their children and ownership of the gallery. She became a teacher at the American University of Beirut and art critic for the Daily Star and Monday Morning.

Along with her portraits, in the 1960s she developed a style of oil painting with ethereal colour fields composed of blocks of colour infused with light, suggesting the often-cited influence of Mark Rothko’s (1903-1970) painting. However, H. Khal related her colour-field abstraction to the physical world and kept it on an intimate scale, also painting on wood-mounted paper. She saw colour as a way to create “an oasis for the emotions”, offering the possibility of “replenishment, sustenance, respite from the jarring realities of an everyday world where serenity lies hidden”. In the 1970s, she developed a calmer and more meditative style. After becoming friends with Huguette Caland (1931-2019), H. Khal supported her fellow Lebanese painter and they exhibited together. Her work as a gallery owner and critic inspired her to write the feminist reference work The Woman Artist in Lebanon (1974–5), published in Lebanon in 1987, with a number of artists such as Etel Adnan (born in 1925), Y. Achkar, and H. Caland. She helped to promote H. Caland’s visibility through lectures in the United States, where she lived from 1976. Although its content was essentialist, emphasizing “areas of sensibility that have not been the concern of men” and a technique that was “more meticulous, more patient”, the book was groundbreaking in that it made emancipated female artists a force for change in the lives of other women. In 1994, the National Women’s Museum in Washington, D.C., showed H. Khal’s work in the Forces of Change exhibition by female artists in the Arab world, while the Galerie Agial in Beirut distributed her work after her death. That gave her more international recognition, which was confirmed by the Centre Pompidou’s acquisition of four of her paintings in 2019.

Christine Macel

Translated from French by Thames & Hudson Ltd.

As published in Women in Abstraction © 2021 Thames & Hudson Ltd, London

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