American University of Beirut

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



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 (Figure 1). 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. On other occasions, their collaborations added a third member, the Chinese-American painter Wen-ti Tsen, who taught at the International College (Figure 2). For this inquiry into the international history of the Beirut art world a few years before the beginning of the Lebanese Civil War, we will focus on the Haddad-Zerbe bridge. 


The Haddad-Zerbe dialogues took the form of several exhibitions, which are discussed in more detail below, but first we must clarify the context in which these collaborations were taking place. At the time, the Haddad-Zerbe exchange was considered part of the West Beirut art scene, as their activities primarily revolved around AUB. According to Haddad (who opened his immense archive, offering us most of the material for this project), before the Civil War the art scene of Beirut was split into two sectors, with a “Green Line" dividing two conceptions of modernist art. The West Beirut side of the city was primarily dominated by the “Americans" – by late or high modernism as practiced by artists, students, and professors affiliated with AUB and the International College (both located in Ras Beirut). The other side of the scene congregated around the French-dominated art school ALBA – the first school of art to open in Lebanon before World War Two – located in East Beirut. These two scenes, which might be “art-historicized" as the “School of New York," centered on AUB, and the “School of Paris," centered on ALBA, did not interact very much with each other. As Haddad recalls, “the three of us [Haddad, Zerbe, Tsen] lived in Ras Beirut (West Beirut) and we did not have too much of an association with the other side of the city, except through Helen Khal (1923-2009) who studied at ALBA and who was very close to many ALBA artists like Shafic Abboud (1926-2004), Amine el-Bacha (1932-2019), Adel Saghir (1930-2020), Jean Khalifeh (1925-1978), Farid Aouad (1924-1982), and Said Akl (1911-2014)." Helen Khal connected West and East Beirut – the American/AUB, and the French/ALBA painterly communities – by regularly reviewing exhibitions taking place throughout the city at the time.1



As part of the “American" school, Haddad and Zerbe were in continual contact with other professors and students active around AUB and the International College, including such figures as the British artist and Orientalist scholar John Carswell (b. 1931), who taught in the Department of Fine Arts at AUB from the 1950s (Figure 3), when he was invited by the founder of the department Mariette Charlton; the American painter and educator Arthur C. Frick (b. 1923), who also taught at AUB from the mid-1950s to 1975; 2 the American painter and art educator Gordon Olsen, who taught and chaired the Department of Fine and Performing Arts from 1969 to 1975; the American artist John Nicholson Colt (1928-1998), who in the early 1970s was a visiting professor at AUB; Wen-ti Tsen, the Chinese-American painter educated in Europe and teaching art at the International College, and who often worked with Haddad and Zerbe; and many other artists, international and local writers, and intellectuals regularly congregating for various artistic events around AUB in West Beirut at the time (Figure 4).

The first Haddad-Zerbe collaboration began in 1969, for an exhibition launched the next year. Screens and Bugus opened on Wednesday, January 21 (7:00 pm) in the Nicely Hall lobby of the Department of Fine and Performing Arts at AUB. Screens and Bugus showed 24 graphic works on paper (12 per artist) all produced in 1969. The highlight of the exhibition was a book with the same title (Figure 5), which was not intended to serve as the exhibition's catalogue, but rather (as Haddad and Zerbe recall) was an “object on its own." In hindsight, it also provided the venue for an encounter between Lebanese and American artists. Printed by Harb Bijjani Press in Beirut, using photo-etched zinc “cut" plates mounted on wood, the book was published in an edition of 200 copies (all numbered and signed by the artists). The title itself, Screens and Bugus raised many questions, which the artists refused to explain. However, as Mirèse Akar (a prominent art critic at the time, who reviewed many art events in town under the initials “M.A.") explained when reviewing this exhibition, “Screens" was a reference to Haddad's drawings, while “Bugus" related to a character named Bugu, invented by Zerbe and frequently used in his titles. 3


In her 1969 review for L’Orient, Akar also highlights the importance of the book for this project, insisting that it was the first time in Beirut that artists had presented their work in such an unusual format. From the position of today, we may add that Screens and Bugus was an early instance of “site-specificity” within the West Beirut artistic scene, whose members often proposed formats of display that challenged the traditional venues (the studio, the white cube, the gallery, the museum) as the only context able to confer status and meaning on the work of art. The display of the work of art in the format of a book signaled the entrance of the work of art into the domain of information​ ​


Such challenges to the usual presentation practices went hand in hand with other acts and gestures of radical art that introduced ephemeral, performative, and/or proto-conceptual artistic practices. Site-specificity was also practiced by other practitioners at AUB—by the professor John Carswell, for example, who was at the time making many attempts to de-contextualize, de-materialize, and de-centralize artistic production and display, in the form of provocative events on and outside campus (one notorious example of site-specific action was called Tyed in 1972, when Carswell and his students used a long rope to wrap the entire university campus, starting from the door of the office of the president (Figure 7).

Helen Khal wrote a short “Introduction" for the Screens and Bugus book, pointing out interesting aspects of this collaboration (Figure 8). Khal writes: “Haddad, Lebanese; Zerbe, American—yet each has expressed himself in the other's cultural idiom." 4

What Khal saw in the Haddad-Zerbe collaboration was a sort of exchange of aesthetic principles reflecting dominant attitudes in twentieth-century modern art and global politics. These two principles might even be called modernist “extremes": a constructivist pragmatism invested in the machine aesthetics of the Bauhaus and the fruit of rationalism and progress, elicited in the drawings that Haddad called “screens" (an object used for construction and division or for projection)—versus the more elusive, emotive, or expressive aesthetic dimension enacted by the Zerbe, following the adventures of his character “Bugu." Indeed, we witness a debate between two aesthetic and world-political principles dominant at the time: in short, between construction and expression. Zerbe, perhaps, had traveled to Beirut in order to discover, adopt, or develop the “humanist" side of his art, (which, stereotypically perhaps, or in Orientalist terms, has often been associated with “emotions" and “feelings," or as Khal puts it a “closed intimacy and stillness…highly suggestive of the contemplative structure of the ancient oriental east"); whereas Haddad – who had just finished one year of studying fine arts in the United States, and whose main source of inspiration was Laszlo Maholy-Nagy and other members of the Central European Bauhaus – was clearly committed to the rational, pragmatic impulses of “Western" high modernism.

As Khal suggests, Screens and Bugus presented a kind of mutually beneficial exchange. On the one hand, a character like Bugu attempted to evade the laws of reason and profit that dominated the post-WWII corporate US, in search of “mystery” and “humanity”; on the other hand, Haddad’s desperate yearning for progress and modernity represented in linear and geometric machinic patterns associated with Western thought and a technical problem-solving mode of being (at the time, the US State Department listed Lebanon among the so-called “traditional societies” in need of modernization). 

In comparing the artistic approaches in these drawings, Khal outlines two frames of mind: the “highways of a future landscape" and the “machine-forged, sharp and unpeopled" graphic universe that one finds in Haddad, versus “Zerbe's quiet containment, closed intimacy and stillness … highly suggestive of the contemplative structure of the ancient oriental world." 5 Here, for Khal, it is almost as if the two worlds – the machine-forged West, and the contemplative East – were yearning for each other in and through these collaborations. Khal, in fact, contraposes opposing principles arranged in two facing columns: Haddad vs. Zerbe stand in for Modernity vs. Tradition, or maybe machinic modernity vs. humanistic modernity. Khal's columns also compare attitudes with regard to the fate and direction of the post-WWII world, including those dominating international politics and made known through so-called “modernization theory," which sought to “awaken" the traditional societies in the so-called “Third World." In the process of this “awakening," AUB was not only a primary agent for economic, political, and cultural modernization but also a place of exchange between the so-called “old" and the “new" worlds.

In the graphic encounter that Khal stages between Haddad and Zerbe, and between some of the key categories of modernism and tradition, we find, on Haddad's side, “motion" (belief in progress) versus Zerbe's “stillness" (longing and respect for tradition and the past); then “machine" (entrustment of life to mechanical devices and tools) versus “human" (the wish to retain humanistic ideals and values); “out" (escaping human fate) and “in" (complying with fate, or with what is inescapable in life); “line" (reason) versus “surface" (feeling); “geometric" (knowledge of methods and forms) versus “informal" (rejection of disciplinary forms and norms), and many more.

One follows the same dialectics between modernism and tradition in Haddad-Zerbe's next project: An ​Exhibition of Experimental and Emotional Drawings by Farid Haddad and Jay Zerbe, opening in Jafet Memorial Library Gallery on March 11, 1970 (also at 7:00 pm, according to Haddad). This time the exhibition set on display 45 graphic works on paper—drawings of various sizes, listed in the exhibition brochure along with their prices (Figure 9). Today, the artists have been able to locate only 17 drawings from that exhibition, along with several reviews published in the local press, such as Mirèse Akar's review for L'Orient (Figure 10) and Gordon Olsen's text published in the brochure distributed at the opening of the exhibition in the Jafet library (Figure 11)


Like Screens and Bugus, the 1970 exhibition at Jafet also presented two opposing poles of modernist aesthetics. This time, however, the key terms were “experimental" and “emotional." Each term has its art historical or cultural lineage: on Haddad's side, a modern-age utopian optimism invested in scientific “experimentation" and belief in art's participation in progress (which one could trace from nineteenth-century Social Realism to twentieth-century Constructivism and the Bauhaus); and on Zerbe's side, a form of thought preoccupied by its “other," and an agnosticism about what humans want or need, traceable from the historical Romantics to the twentieth-century expressionists, magic realists, surrealists, and other “ists" invested in dreams, the irrational, mysticism, or the unconscious.

These opposing terms are at the center of the dialectics of modernism. The term “experimental," in Haddad's case, points to an essential procedure of the natural sciences and its attempts to conquer and domesticate nature, and on Zerbe's side we have the “emotional," soul-searching expression associated with the fallible human element and our inability to fully know the universe. As Olsen writes in his introduction to the exhibition brochure, Haddad is primarily interested in the “external world," whereas Zerbe is invested in the “soul" (Figure 10) – Khal, in her earlier introduction, calls this “out" and “in."6 For Haddad, it is the external world that is to be entrusted to the machine, to the architectural-engineering mode of thought, with its predisposition for planning, arranging, dividing, and managing life's needs and resources. And that was, in fact, what modernization theories suggested Lebanon most needed. And for Zerbe, perhaps the “emotional" provides an escape for Bugu from a totally administered society—an inward break away from the rules of pure reason, logic, interest, or the promises that come with the rise of the machines.

Mirèse Akar also returns one year later in the pages of L'Orient to remind her readers of the 1970 book Screens and Bugus, and to suggest that Haddad's screens had become “experiments," and that Zerbe's Bugus had become “emotions" (Figure 9). As Khal had done, Akar divides the review into opposite categories that both unite and divide the two artists: on one side, there is Haddad and his experiments, equations, logic, geometrical rigor; and on the other, there are the emotions, pure poetry, and elements of the fantastic in the graphic universe of Zerbe's drawings.7

The reconciliation of opposites outlined above lies at the heart of the dialectics of modernization that was gathering steam in the second half of the past century. In most simple terms, modernization refers to adapting needs, desires, beliefs, practices, and habits associated with the modern age, accompanied by struggles between the old and the new, between traditional and innovative practices, values, or faculties of human nature. But this opposition is also a mediation, a reconciliation of seemingly opposing forces, or even an interdependence and mutual co-existence, as in the Haddad-Zerbe bridge of 1969-1970, or in the interaction between the East and West Beirut artistic scenes prior to the Lebanese Civil War. It is their different nature that holds together cultural phenomena, providing fuel for the dynamics of modernization.


The Haddad-Zerbe collaboration is paradigmatic for many other polarizing attitudes of the epoch. The attitude is noticeable not only in the works of these artists but also in the context where they operated: at AUB, in Beirut's art scene, in Lebanon, in the Middle East, and in the divided and rapidly changing world of post-WWII. At AUB, for example, the dialectics of modernization manifested in ongoing debates and reconciliations regarding what was the most appropriate model of art education for the Fine and Performing Arts Department. Should this department embrace more abstract, pragmatic, experimental, progressive, or Bauhaus-inflected “American" forms of neo-avant-garde and neo-constructivism (as advocated by John Carswell); or was the department to cultivate a more restrained, emotional, humanist, or traditional aesthetic philosophy and pedagogic approach (a direction associated with Arthur C. Frick)? This spirit of negotiation was present in the symbols, artworks, and even in artists' outfits at the time, as in the many archival photographs of John Carswell and Gordon Olsen wearing black-and-white striped tunics or shirts (Figure 11). The monochromatic black-and-whiteness of Carswell's art at the time, for example, was a solution to his reluctance to paint “bright-colored canvases in the conditions of Mediterranean light," as the “vulgar" European Orientalist painters did.8 

Haddad's black-and-white flatbed experimental “screens" made in dialogue with Zerbe's emotional Bugu allow us, as it were, to see the processes of intense cultural modernization at the time. These processes moved forward through constant negotiations and reconciliations of oppositions: experiment  and emotion, machines and humans, West and East, motion and stillness, inwardness and outwardness, side by side in one historical fabric. The stripes, however, separated. Haddad left Lebanon in 1972 for a one-year Fulbright grant in New York, and then left Lebanon for good in 1975. In 1983 he became a US citizen and visited Lebanon only once, in 1980. And Zerbe graduated from AUB and left Beirut in the summer of 1970. He returned once in 1973 to work for one year as a graphic designer, then he left in 1974, never to visit Lebanon again. Carswell, Olsen, Frick and many others all left West Beirut in 1975—the first year of the Lebanese Civil War.

Octavian Esanu 
AUB Art Galleries, 2020​

  1. Octavian Esanu, Email exchange with Farid Haddad, November 5, 2020.
  2. For the formative years of the AUB Fine Art Department see “Reflections John Carswell and Arthur C. Frick" in Main Gate 7, no. 1-4 (2008-2009).
  3. M.A. (Mirèse Akar), “Farid Haddad et Jay Zerbe ont dédié “Screens and Bugus" aux couleurs jaune et rouge" in L'Orient, December 30, (1969).
  4. Helen Khal, “Introduction," Screens and Bugus (Beirut: Harb Bijjani Press, 1970)
  5. Ibid
  6. Gordon Olsen, Exhibition of Experimental and Emotional Drawings by Farid Haddad and Jay Zerbe (Brochure, Fine and Performing Arts Department, AUB, 1970).
  7. M.A. (Mirèse Akar), “Exhibition of Experimental and Emotional Drawings by Farid Haddad and Jay Zerbe," L'Orient, March 16, 1970.
  8. Octavian Esanu, Interview with John Carswell, (2014). See also Octavian Esanu “Monochrome Orientalism" text published in the brochure for the exhibition Trans-Oriental Monochrome: John Carswell (Beirut: AUB Art Galleries, 2014).  ​

For this publication we are reproducing drawings (below) from these two events that have survived in the personal archives of the artists

Recording of Virtual Discussion with t​he Artists

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