Maybe, rather than “The gulf war did not take place,” as the French cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard declared in 1991, he should have said, “Two gulf wars took place,” two completely different but overlapping events: the “electronic war,” as he called it, that was vaguely registered around the world, and the war that was experienced by those who were there, whether as residents of Kuwait or Iraq or as participants in the US-led military coalition. That first Persian Gulf war of 1990–91—or first pair of gulf wars—seemed to end quickly and decisively. The Iraqis were pushed out of Kuwait, where the status quo ante of authoritarian rule was restored, and Saddam Hussein’s regime was permitted to continue essentially undisturbed in Iraq. The Iraq War, launched by the United States in 2003, of course is another story. In theory, American involvement ended in 2011 (though the conflict didn’t end), but our troops returned three years later, and there they remain.

An ambitious and thought-provoking recent exhibition at New York’s MoMA PS1, “Theater of Operations: The Gulf Wars 1991–2011,” curated by Peter Eleey and Ruba Katrib, surveyed artists’ responses to the two conflicts. And as is happening more and more these days, the exhibition sparked its own conflicts. The English artist Phil Collins withdrew his work from the show to protest MoMA board member Larry Fink’s ties to the private prison industry, saying, “Museums and cultural spaces, their collections, exhibitions and programs, should not be aligned with or funded by investments in mass incarceration, war profiteering, ecological catastrophe, debt ownership, devastation, oppression and the pain of others.” Michael Rakowitz, an American artist of Iraqi descent, decried not only Fink’s involvement with the museum, but also that of Leon Black, an investor, according to Rakowitz, in “Constellis Holdings, formerly called Blackwater… infamous for its role in the Nisour Square Massacre, during which Blackwater guards killed 17 Iraqi civilians and injured 20 more.” He pressed the pause button on his video work in protest, and the museum promptly turned it back on.

Like the wars themselves, “Theater of Operations” also seemed to be not a single show but two almost unconnected shows: One was an exhibition concerning the media wars as seen through the eyes of Western artists—mostly but not exclusively Americans—and the other was a very different exhibition imbued with the experience of people who were on the ground as the wars took place. Many of the artists whose work was featured in this second show within the show, I should add, are now residents of Europe, North America, or relatively safer Arab states away from home. The devastation endured by Iraq forced many of its artists into exile.

For those of us who, whether with dismay or indifference, could only read about our country’s wars in the newspaper, watch televised reports, or later, access information via the Internet, it was always war at a distance (as a 2003 video here with that title by German artist Harun Farocki would have it). Yet what could be experienced at a distance in 2003 was very different from the experiences available to those on the sidelines of past wars. As Katrib points out in her catalog essay, the 1990s was a time when “many Western artists and thinkers…were focused on analyzing the role of the image within the rise of digital media technology.” Probably she would have been more accurate had she written “mass media technology”—a specific concern with the digital was not yet widespread, if I remember correctly; the dial-up modems, command-line interfaces, and online communities operating as bulletin board systems felt closer, in retrospect, to legacy media than to the hyperconnected digital ecosystem we’re familiar with today—but she is right to recall the prevalent fascination with media imagery at the time. The influence not only of Baudrillard but also of figures such as Paul Virilio and Manuel DeLanda was burgeoning. They were constant references in art discourse.

Many of the works by American and European artists at PS1 exemplify the concern, at just the time the first gulf war was in the offing, that media had become in contemporary life an ineluctable presence with opaque contents and obscure effects. Typical are Michel Auder’s found-footage video Gulf War TV War (1991, edited 2007) and Robert Morris’s work consisting of an overpainted newspaper page (Untitled, 1990). Jean-Luc Moulène’s pencil drawing 28 janvier 1991 (1991) is traced from a talking head on his TV screen, and British pop artist Richard Hamilton’s War Games (1991–2010), a photographically derived painting, shows television as a domestic appliance piping war imagery into the home. The circulation of information hardly seemed to be making anyone more informed, or it changed the value of being informed, which appeared to have been delinked from any possibility of effective action. An essential unreality was felt to have seeped in everywhere.

Michel Auder’s “Gulf War TV War,” 1981. (Courtesy the artist and Martos Gallery, New York / MOMA PS1)

Not all Western artists felt they could discern the realities of war only through a technologically induced haze. The photographer Judith Joy Ross produced fiercely attentive black-and-white portraits of service members and their families at a farewell dinner for departing troops in Allentown, Pennsylvania, in 1990. Other portraits she took at this time are captioned as taken at “gulf war rallies” in Allentown and nearby Easton. It’s not clear to me what kind of rallies these were—in support of the war effort or in protest? Maybe that would have been evident at the time, but I suspect that Ross left the ambiguity deliberately. The portraits’ tight framing and blurred backgrounds present these people in isolation. There’s no sense of them being part of a community either at the rallies or the dinner. Nor, for the most part, does one feel that these individuals are in communication with the person taking their picture. Some of their eyes avoid contact, and when they look straight into the camera, that is, at the photographer, it’s as if their thoughts are reflected back into themselves. They don’t appear to expect a response. Perhaps they are too immersed in the question of their future. In any case, they seem intensely alone, thrown back on themselves, tragically disconnected, even as we have to imagine the crowd nearby. They are trapped, perhaps, in the American ideal of self-reliance. Or maybe it’s simply that the call to war places everyone who hears it, whether they realize it or not and whether they choose obedience or dissent, in a state of acute moral solitude and unknowing.

A photographer who shared Ross’s sense that the image maker might still confront a kind of reality and not just convey images of images with no ultimate reference was Allan Sekula, who is otherwise a very different sort of artist from Ross. The show includes his installation War Without Bodies (1991/1996), which includes a grid of nine color photographs taken at a “military air show and Gulf War victory celebration, El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, Santa Ana, California, April 28, 1991,” according to the caption. The photos, originally published with Sekula’s essay of the same title in Artforum that year, depict people at the air show poking their fingers into the openings of a many-barreled artillery gun. One thinks of doubting Thomas, thrusting his finger into the resurrected Christ’s wound, placing empiricism before faith. Sekula’s “war without bodies” is not exactly Baudrillard’s war that did not take place, but it’s closer than one might expect from the artist who derisively observed, in response to theories of simulation and spectacle, that “the old myth that photographs tell the truth has been replaced by the new myth that they lie.” The moments of tentative touch Sekula pictures appear to represent the moment when skepticism and credulity momentarily coincide. The spectacle of our all-powerful weaponry—another kind of image—may be a source of fascination, but fascination turns out to mean seduction by what can neither quite compel belief nor be dismissed as illusory.

The reuse and reframing of media imagery was not a strategy exclusive to Westerners like Auder and Hamilton. Artists from the gulf region, too, were intent on getting information through any channels available—and all the more so, I imagine, if they were far from home. Tarek al-Ghoussein, a Palestinian born in Kuwait and currently living in Abu Dhabi, shows a group of Polaroids from 1991, apparently of his TV screen: blurred scenes of battles and burning landscapes, anonymous troops as well as leaders such as Saddam and George H.W. Bush. It’s all hallucinatory, intangible, and yet the hallucination is a persistent one, the intangibility terribly vivid.

The Iraqi artist Dia al-Azzawi, living in London in 1991, found a photograph, published in the Observer, of the grotesquely charred head of a man burned to death in his tank during the Iraqi retreat from Kuwait—“The real face of war,” according to the newspaper’s headline. This became the source for Azzawi’s painting Victim’s Portrait (1991), exhibited in juxtaposition with the original clipping. The face is painted in colorful, quasi-abstract brushstrokes against a dark ground, though the blank, empty-eyed countenance remains minatory. For Katrib, “Azzawi returns humanity to the soldier,” but I wonder how true that is. To my eye, the unseeing, unresponsive, masklike face suggests that the very idea of humanity has been hollowed out.

Many of the works by Iraqi artists shown here, including others by Azzawi, take the form of handmade books, known as dafatir (singular daftar, Arabic for “notebook”). What the form offers is flexibility; it can include painting, writing, collage, or just about anything else, and it doesn’t demand that it all be synthesized in a single space. Each page or spread is its own space, and yet the sequence is meaningful too. Some beautiful examples here are by Kareem Risan, who was an Iraqi soldier in the first gulf war and is now based in Canada. Reflection and vehemence mix in his pages: “I utilized the idea of painting in a notebook to deal with important issues that I experienced during my life in Baghdad, the center of events (the war, the sanctions, and all subsequent events that destroyed the infrastructure of the country and promoted human and social destruction). Dafatir allowed for a visual depth not possible through a conventional painting.” The visual depth Risan refers to is built up through time—the medium of the book allowing for a pictorial language that does not cultivate the fiction of a single encapsulated moment as an easel painting does—and of the emotional vicissitudes that can be conveyed by imagery that unfolds in time.

Another Iraqi artist whose dafatir are particularly striking is Hanaa Malallah, who left Baghdad in 2006 and now lives in London. Her dafatir follow what she calls a “ruins technique”—their pages burned and, as it were, attacked, like relics of violence rather than representations of it. Nada Shabout writes in the exhibition catalog that such works offer “a contemplative space in which to articulate the contemporary moment through an abstraction akin to that of installation, offering a full exhibition through its various pages as a complete, discrete project, and as such provides an alternative interpretation of monumentality.” In other words, the space between the covers of a book allows for a grand scale in the imagination, if not in literal space like an installation. Such books burrow into a space of intimacy and enlarge it to convey a realm of experience that is at once collective and individual. Ghassan Ghaib, who now lives in Los Angeles, offers in his Homage to al-Mutanabbi Street 1 (2007), a book-object closed in on itself, at once destroyed and preserved, tied shut with barbed wire. Its explosive content, which we can only imagine, seems to be contained, but only under immense pressure.

I couldn’t help feeling that “Theater of Operations” as an exhibition of Western artists responding to the gulf wars was far less moving than “Theater of Operations” as a show of artists responding to the fate of their lands, whether or not they were living there when these wars took place. Maybe it’s just that the work of artists from the Persian Gulfis less familiar. The truth is that, probably, the proportion of works in which the artists succeeded in finding a form for their experiences is probably about the same for both and probably not very high in either. But that kind of judgment hardly seems urgent here. Let time winnow out success from failure.

For now, what’s more important is how this show demonstrates the urgency with which artists around the world obeyed their felt need to use their work to come to terms with events to which they were mostly condemned to be mute witnesses. Living in a time when images had become part of the arsenal of war, they were moved to respond with images of their own or with attempts to plumb the images that confronted them—to work out and work through the meaning of what they’d seen, however indirectly, and what they’d felt.

It’s somehow fitting that the most comprehensive efforts to come to terms with what happened in these wars come through handmade books, an ancient form made new out of necessity. It would be wonderful to see, sometime soon, a show devoted just to dafatir. But one would also like to see the contemporary art of Iraq, its neighbors, and its diaspora shown in a larger historical context. For most American viewers, this art, striking as it is, comes out of the blue. We know little of its roots, its trajectory in the decades before these wars tore up the landscape. War did not destroy this art—artists are too hardy for that—and war didn’t create it, either.

Luckily, we were afforded a glimpse of what was going on in the art of the Middle East in another show, “Taking Shape: Abstraction From the Arab World, 1950s–1980s,” curated by Lynn Gumpert and Suheyla Takesh and which had been scheduled to be on view at the Grey Art Gallery at New York University through April 4. Those decades were a period of experimentation, in which artists from all over the world—and not just from the Middle East and North Africa, the subject of this particular show—were enthusiastically attempting to come to terms with their modernities and essaying all sorts of hybrids (often in the long run barren, as hybrids tend to be, but not always) between aesthetic forms derived from their countries’ artistic heritages and the Western modernism that seemed so alluring. Abstraction, as it turns out, was a most flexible vehicle for such attempts, able to absorb forms from all sorts of pictorial idioms and oblique recollections of many distinct perceptions, from the incisive dynamics of Arabic calligraphy to the textures of earth and architecture and the unforgettable presences of light and darkness.

I visited “Taking Shape” after “Theater of Operations,” and it was hard not to see the very optimism that permeated so many of these abstract works through the eyes of disillusionment. Looking at the work of the most renowned of the artists included in “Taking Shape,” Etel Adnan—a Lebanese-born painter who spent most of her life in California and who is also an extraordinary writer and poet—I couldn’t help recalling the critic Kaelen Wilson-Goldie’s perception of “the difficulty in reconciling the brutality of [Adnan’s] writings, which tackle subjects such as war, violence, environmental degradation, and corruption, with the beauty of her paintings.” One feels her paintings, with their solar hues, might be intended as a healing for everything that’s so violently anatomized in her poetry and prose works, like The Arab Apocalypse (1989).

At its best (I should also quickly mention works by Adam Henein from Egypt, Jafar Islah from Kuwait, Saliba Douaihy from Lebanon, Abdallah Benanteur from Algeria, and Maliheh Afnan from Palestine as among those that made the strongest impression on me), the art in “Taking Shape” testifies to the artists’ refinement of perception. But the range of feeling in the show is hardly limited to the hedonic. It might not be obvious that an untitled 1983 painting by the Lebanese-born American artist Nabil Nahas, with its white drips on a mainly black ground, is a response to his homeland’s invasion by the Israeli army the previous year, but the work’s seriousness of intent is evident enough without the viewer’s having to identify a specific subject. That’s another strength of abstraction: The artist’s intention need not override the viewer’s response. There was not much abstraction in “Theater of Operations,” by contrast, and yet the makers of many of the remarkable dafatir in it have very well understood how a work’s subject can be constructed, above all, by the manner of its making more than by the referents of its imagery.