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Survey: Modern Iranian Art

IRAN MODERN AT ASIA SOCIETY | SEPTEMBER 6, 2013 – JANUARY 5, 2014

MODERN IRANIAN ART: SELECTIONS FROM THE ABBY WEED GREY COLLECTION AT N.Y.U. AT GREY ART GALLERY | SEPTEMBER 10 – DECEMBER 7, 2013

CALLIGRAFFITI: 1984 – 2013 AT LEILA HELLER GALLERY | SEPTEMBER 7 – OCTOBER 7, 2013

What’s so apparent from Iran Modern is the relative obscurity of Iranian art in galleries and institutions since the American collector Abby Weed Grey began buying art from Iran in the 1960s. With the largest collection of modern Iranian Art outside Iran, Ms. Grey established the Grey Art Gallery at New York University in 1974 to provide a greater understanding of non-Western art. Although her vision was realized in a major art fair titled One World Through Art that she helped organize in Minnesota in 1972, and the seminal exhibition Between Word and Image: Modern Iranian Visual Culture at the Grey Art Gallery in 2002 was well received, these works have received short shrift since then. Now, for the first time, Iran Modern at the Asia Society, alongside Modern Iranian Art: Selections from the Abby Weed Grey Collection at N.Y.U. at the Grey Art Gallery, which features some of Ms. Grey’s collection, and Calligraffiti: 1984 – 2013 at the Leila Heller Gallery, highlight salient features of Iranian modernism and its inspiration for current artists from the region.

Marcos Grigorian, Untitled. Sand and enamel on canvas 30 x W. 25". Image courtesy Grey Art Gallery, New York University Art Collection. Gift of Abby Weed Grey, G1975.570.

The path of modern Iranian art is perhaps no different than the journey of postcolonial modernisms in South and Southeast Asia that began in the ’50s. The stride toward modernity in these territories and a new notion of nationhood were inextricably linked. In Iran, economic reform after World War II led to a major rehauling of cultural conservatism that revolutionized the mode of expression. What emerged in the three decades prior to the revolution of 1979, which instated the religious regime of Ayatollah Khomeini, completely altered the scope and possibilities of art from this country.

The inception of this cultural phenomenon in the ’60s led toward a new dynamic of autonomy, identity, and authenticity. Pioneered by Parviz Tanavoli, and Charles Hossein Zenderoudi, the Saqqakhaneh movement (named after water fountains in local bazaars built in honor of Shiite martyrs) was influenced by pre-Islamist iconography, Shiite folk art, and international formal strategies. Inspired by their training in Western institutions and exposure to Western concepts, these artists combined Islamic motifs and objects from bazaars in the vein of Duchampian artistry. For example, Parviz Tanavoli’s mixed media composition, “Innovation in Art” (1964) at the Asia Society consists of a Persian carpet adorned with hand painted Islamic motifs and a jug (used in toilets in lieu of bidets) inserted in the center. Although the work is replete with allusions to traditional Islamic imagery, the found object embedded amidst the iconography parodies the epic religious pictography prevalent at the time.

Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, Untitled, 1977. Mirror, reverse-glass painting, and plaster on wood. 41 1/2 × 41 1/2". Collection of Zahra Farmanfarmaian. Photo: Joshua Sage.

Because of the lack of an Iranian sculptural tradition, Tanavoli sought inspiration from Islamic mythology for “Shirin Beloved of King” (1963). The work pays tribute to Tanavoli’s ancestor, Farhad, who according to legend carved a mountain day and night in honor of Shirin. She was his muse and love, but she was also the beloved of his rival King Khosrow II. The glazed ceramic sculpture on view at the Grey Art Gallery resembles a minaret decorated with Islamic folk icons, and the epochal hand on top symbolizes the unity of three monotheistic religions—Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. Steeped in local references and flavor, Tanavoli’s use of ceramic to create a sculptural form set a precedent for a new language of authenticity and representation.

Unlike other modernist practices that experimented with figuration, the ban on depicting Islamic idols made abstraction the medium of choice. An autodidactic calligrapher, Charles Hossein Zenderoudi creates work that deviates from traditional calligraphy in a bold and beautiful manner. What appears to be dense green foliage in “The Golden Shower” (1966) on view at the Grey Art Gallery is in fact a conglomeration of calligraphic script. Never straying from the work’s overall aesthetic quality, he takes iconic letters and improvises by making them illegible while retaining the original conceptual form. These cuneiform inscriptions gave Zenderoudi leeway to explore new forms of expression.

Abstraction became the discourse and expression of a collective consciousness. Despite the individualistic character of the artists, their subversive methodologies coalesced to overturn conservative practices and deconstruct traditional narratives in innovative ways. Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian’s “Heart Beat” (1975) and “Untitled” (1977) both at the Asia Society use the Islamic technique of reverse glass painting on mirrors to create brilliant abstract forms. “Heart Beat,” which resembles an electrocardiogram, combines Minimalism’s spare lines with Sufi symbolism to communicate the unity of all people and religions. In “Untitled,” geometric patterns build into a fabulous kaleidoscope of colors that is reminiscent of Op Art.

None of these works display a self‐conscious appropriation of Western styles. The artists overcome the burden of influence by cementing their practice in native tradition, thereby circumventing the question of origin. In Marcos Grigorian’s Earthwork inspired “Crossroads (Earthworks)” (1975) at the Asia Society the parched, striated soil on canvas is reminiscent of the Iranian desert, and Mohammed Ehsai’s bright, eye-popping calligraphy from 1974 finds its inspiration in Pop Art. Siah Armajani’s “Calligraphy” (1964) at the Grey Art Gallery uses ancient poetry as source material for the illegible, dizzying array of images that resemble a finely woven black and white Persian carpet. No different than Picasso’s use of African masks, Iranian modernists found their own truth in a confluence of art languages and visual iconic forms. Through their work they engaged in a cross-cultural dialogue that resulted in a new and long lasting trajectory.

The connection between tradition and modernity, East and West, old and new puts forward the idea of modernism as a continuous, globally interconnected phenomenon. At the Leila Heller Gallery one of Zenderoudi’s paintings from 1981 is juxtaposed with works by Cy Twombly, Jean Dubuffet, and eL Seed, the French-Tunisian graffiti artist. The show explores the connection between modernist scrawlers and artists that transformed traditional Arabic script into abstract shapes and gestural marks. These two artistic forms demonstrate similarities between the two and make the crossover apparent.

EL Seed’s paintings on view are made up of pink, red, and black Arabic words that are painted in thick, arresting brushstrokes. Resembling the scrawl of the modernists and graffiti art like that of Keith Haring, his art that began as graffiti showcases the relationship and cross-fertilization between calligraphy and graffiti. The work also highlights the use of calligraphy as an important medium of dissent. With the recent Arab Spring uprisings, calligraphy puts Middle Eastern graffiti center stage as an evolving and important artistic form.

Iran Modern and the smaller exhibitions at the Grey Art Gallery and the Leila Heller Gallery establish the significance of this movement that is long overdue. But most of all, they cohere in reinstating the relevance of Abby Weed Grey’s vision for “one world through art.”




Asia Society: 725 Park Avenue // NY, NY 10021

Grey Art Gallery: 100 Washington Square East // NY, NY 10003

Leila Heller Gallery: 568 West 25th Street // NY, NY 10001

Contributor

Bansie Vasvani