American University of Beirut

Modernizing Collaborations in West Beirut: Farid Haddad and Jay Zerbe (1969-1970)

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​An Online Exhibition-Publication of AUB Art Galleries (Fall, 2020): A virtual discussion with the artists took​ place on December 10, 2020.  

Go to the Electroni​c Version​

Recording of Virtual Discussion with the Artists​

At the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s, the Beirut artistic scene witnessed a series of artistic collaborations. At the heart of these exchanges were two young artists: one Lebanese and one American. The Lebanese Farid Haddad (b. 1945) graduated in 1969 from the Department of Fine and Performing Arts at the American University of Beirut and was working as a medical illustrator, while the American Jay Zerbe (b. 1949) was in 1969 in the junior year of his B.A. from the same department at AUB. In that year, and the year that followed, Haddad and Zerbe launched a series of exhibitions at AUB, as well as in various galleries outside campus. 

This online exhibition by AUB Art Galleries revisits those days in order to throw light on the nature of Haddad and Zerbe’s exchange. The electronic publication (in PDF format), which is available for download, presents material from these artists’ archives (drawings, photos, and documents). It focuses on two events produced in West Beirut in 1969-1970. One of these was an exhibition, in the form of a book titled Screens and Bugus, produced by Haddad and Zerbe (and with an introduction by Helen Khal). This book was presented to the public, along with original drawings, in the lobby of the Department of Fine and Performance Arts at the American University of Beirut (Nicely Hall) in January 1970. Drawing on the critical writing from that time, the text accompanying the PDF publication argues that Screens and Bugus can be seen as one of the earliest examples of “site-specificity” emerging in Lebanese art in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Haddad and Zerbe proposed a new format of display for art, thus challenging the traditional venues: the studio, the white cube, the gallery, or the museum. The second event, titled “An Exhibition of Experimental and Emotional Drawings by Farid Haddad and Jay Zerbe,” opened in Jafet Memorial Library Gallery on March 11, 1970. This time the exhibition displayed forty-five graphic works on paper—drawings of various sizes, listed in the exhibition brochure along with their prices. Today, the artists have been able to locate only seventeen drawings from that exhibition, along with several reviews published in the local press. 

The online publication, which constitutes AUB Art Galleries’ exhibition for the Fall 2020 semester, shares with viewers some of these drawings, along with other documents of the time (e.g. photos of the book, the plates used in the production of Screens and Bugus, reviews written in the local press by critics, and publications made in the Department of Fine Arts at AUB). A critical text introduces the material, presenting the broader art historical context of the late 1960s and early 1970s; it also discusses the high modernist aesthetic principles that dominate in the work of each artist. The text presents the 1969-1970 collaborations between Haddad and Zerbe in light of the “dialectics of modernization,” arguing that such terms as “screens” and “experiments” (used in Haddad’s constructivist art) entered into a dialectical debate with “expression” and “emotion” (central categories in Zerbe’s more humanistic drawings). These are aesthetic forces constituting the dynamics of artistic modernism and economic-political modernization. It is not by accident that such collaborations took place at AUB, in West Beirut, seen as one of the main institutional outposts of modernizing the region—a process that unfolded under the firm political, economic, and cultural leadership of the United States. 

But as the text also argues, Haddad-Zerbe’s constructivist-expressionist collaborations can be also seen (to use a title of one of Salvador Dalí’s paintings) as a “soft construction with boiled beans” – a kind of debate between modernity and tradition, and in retrospect a premonition in graphic form of the Lebanese Civil War.

Octavian Esanu
AUB Art Galleries

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