Life and Art
“I set up my first studio in New York in 1968 less than a year after the 1967 Arab Israeli War and under the atmosphere of the Vietnam War. There were so many chaotic and catastrophic events during that year [including] the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy.” – Nabil Kanso
Kanso works in his Atlanta studio during the mid-1980s
Born in Beirut in 1940 and educated in London and New York, artist Nabil Kanso launched his career when he established his New York studio in 1968 as a pioneer in the emergence of the neo-expressionist movement. Kanso was a leading exponent of figurative expressionism and a force of radical innovation in twentieth and twenty-first century art. Over his five-plus decade career, Kanso drew global acclaim for his monumental canvases that depict the realities of war and suffering, where violence can often be traced back to brutal regimes, power struggles, and central human and social issues explored in his work.
Beyond the hundreds of large, mural-size paintings that are synonymous with Kanso’s style, his oeuvre includes a strong body of major works, completed across a diverse range of media and sizes. Kanso’s work spans subjects from the global conflicts that punctuate modern history, such as Vietnam, the Lebanese Civil War, and the Iraq War, to literary works, such as Othello, Faust and the Raven, to numerous historical and humanist themes, with a strong focus on directly engaging the viewer to experience visual expressions of issues involving wars and conflicts, gender, mythology, race, religion, sexuality, and the ways in which power and corruption affect humanity.
“Wars have had a profound effect on my life. By responding to war and violence through my work, I have the opportunity to bring before the public a visual transmission of personal emotions, experiences, and visions in the hope of engaging the viewer and establishing a dialogue about art and important issues affecting our lives.” – Nabil Kanso
Kanso in Beirut, Lebanon in 1978 during the nation’s civil war, which raged from 1975-1990
In 1961, Kanso left Lebanon to attend the London Polytechnic, where he studied for four years before moving to New York. After establishing his studio in New York in 1968, Kanso founded the 76th Street Gallery in 1970, where he held several large solo exhibitions through the mid-1970s. Kanso's work at 76th Street Gallery attracted the attention of prominent critics and museum directors, including Alfred Barr who provided early praise that Kanso recalls as a memorable source of encouragement. The publication Our World (September 1984) quotes Barr calling Kanso’s work “the most innovative and original on the contemporary art scene.”
During the mid-to-late 1970s, Kanso traveled across the southern and mid-western United States, working and exhibiting his paintings from the Carolinas to New Orleans to Ohio. In 1980, Kanso established a large studio in Atlanta, where he settled with his family and continued to work until his death in 2019. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Kanso exhibited his work in North and South America, Asia, the Middle East, and Europe.
Kanso's earliest exhibitions in the South included shows with the Atlanta Art Workers Coalition (1980,1981). In 1984, Kanso began a series of exhibitions that traveled throughout Latin America under the theme of, “The Journey of Art for Peace,” which attracted a reported attendance of over 100,000 people, from Museo Caracas (1987) to Museo Universitario Del Chopo in Mexico City (1989).
Notably, Kanso held a landmark exhibit at the Free Atelier in Kuwait immediately after the Gulf War that then traveled to the Museum of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in Geneva, Switzerland. At the time of Kanso’s exhibition in April 1992, Kuwaiti artist and Director of the Free Atelier, Jassem al-Sultan remarked:
“There is no precedent in Kuwait for an exhibition like this. For us, these works represent great achievements of a world artist depicting the tragedy inflicted on us by the war, and holding an exhibition here of these works offer a new and different perspective for us as Arabs.” [Sawt At-Kuwait, 22 April, 1992, translated from Arabic.]
Between the mid-1990s and 2010s, Kanso continued to work prolifically, but rejected pressure to avoid confrontational subjects and sought to avoid commercial influence. In 2016, Kanso was awarded the Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation's prestigious Individual Support Grant for his work on his Behind Bars series on mass incarceration and injustice in the criminal legal system. Kanso remained dedicated to painting until his death in 2019, working on the critically important topics of criminal justice, racial and ethnic discrimination, wars and conflicts, feminist figures, the global refugee crisis, the Arab Spring, and reflecting his life-long, deep-felt commitment to universal human issues.
Nabil Kanso in 2017, looks up at a sculpture by Alexander Calder at the Guggenheim Museum.