Works by . “Iran Modern” installation view from exhibition at Asia Society Museum, New York, September 2013–January 2014. (Photo by Eileen Costa, all images courtesy Asia Society)

Mirrored works by Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian in “Iran Modern,” installation view at Asia Society Museum, New York, September 2013–January 2014 (photo by Eileen Costa, all images courtesy Asia Society unless otherwise noted)

In the history of civilization, Iran plays one of the starring roles, not only because of its geography at the crossroads of many empires, its ancient and largely uninterrupted history to the modern day, but also because it is a dynamic, multicultural civilization that has produced some of the world’s most outstanding art. Yet, within the last few decades Iran’s reputation has been tarnished and distorted by a fundamentalist revolution in 1979 and a former leader who used the insane denial of the Jewish Holocaust as a dangerous political football. What we’re faced with today when looking at Iran is a country in transition, slowly morphing from a nation lead by a very conservative leadership to a slightly more liberal one, but a nation, nonetheless, that is still hampered by extensive trade sanctions from Western governments that have largely failed to topple a regime they don’t like.

Faramarz Pilaram, “Untitled” (1972), oil on canvas, 47 x 47 in (119.4 x 119.4 cm), Houman M. Sarshar Collection, New York (click to enlarge)

Asia Society’s Iran Modern is a fascinating exhibition that begins in 1948 and ends with the 1979 Revolution (with a noticeable focus on the latter decades), and the show is a must-see exploration of a period little known in the West but infinitely interesting for numerous reasons, including its non-Western responses to modernity, the prevalence of prominent female artists at a time when the same wasn’t true most elsewhere, and its pushing of boundaries in an era when experiments in culture could be seen as cutting edge.

Curators Fereshteh Daftari and Layla S. Diba are veterans of the field. Daftari curated Between Word and Image: Modern Iranian Visual Culture at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery back in 2002, and Diba, who shares a very distinguished last name with the former Shah of Iran’s wife, Empress Farah Pahlavi (née Diba), is best known to New York audiences for her large Royal Persian Paintings: The Qajar Epoch, 1785–1925, exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum in 1998. Together, this curatorial team has pulled together a show that seeks to provide yet another example of how the traditional narrative of modernism is more fiction than fact.

Mohammad Ehsai, “Untitled” (1974), oil on canvas, 47 1/4 x 31 1/16 in (120 x 79 cm), collection of the artists (photo courtesy the artist) (click to enlarge)

Writing in the show’s excellent catalogue about Clement Greenberg’s attitudes towards the East, Daftari explains, “Reflecting American nationalistic sentiments in the post-World War II period, he denied Asian influences on the abstract expressionist artists by saying ‘the sources of their art lie entirely in the West.’ His views remained largely unchallenged well into the 1970s.”

Her essay, “Redefining Modernism: Pluralist Art Before the 1979 Revolution,” dissects Western bias in the field and explains how the “other” has slowly moved from the margins to a more central part of the narrative of modernism. She quotes Stanford professor Abbas Milani who wrote, “If the question of modernity and democracy can be disentangled from the question of western desires and designs for domination, and if its diverse cultural roots can be unearthed, then we can begin to talk of a new global modernity that celebrates and underscores difference rather than forced assimilation.” This tension is at the core of the show.

Abstraction to Representation

Installation view, “Iran Modern” at Asia Society Museum (photo by Eileen Costa)

One of the unique characteristics of modern art in Iran is the native responses that seem consciously free of Western crutches. One movement, Saqqakhaneh, created a largely secular art rooted in regional form and iconography. Paintings by Faramarz Pilaram are notable examples of this style, and he used bold colors and geometry that look primordial without veering towards cliché. “Mosques of Isfahan” (1962) and “Laminations (Les Lames)” (1962) are large, attractive works on paper that use metallic paint and gold in a manner that freely incorporates local imagery, like the alam panja of Shia Muslims, and abstraction.

While much of the art of the period is clearly trying to create a native language for visual art, it is a challenge not to see clear Western influences in some of the artists here, including the work of Manoucher Yektai, whose paintings of the 1950s were obviously informed by her studies at New York’s Art Students League. Yektai, like fellow Iranian turned New Yorker Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, was part of the first wave of Iranian artists to look towards America rather than Europe.

Farmanfarmaian, whose mirrored works are some of the most exciting on display, is one of the standouts in the show. After studying fashion and graphic design at the Parsons School of Design in New York, she met and worked with many of the great New York artists, including Andy Warhol, who would provide shoe illustrations for New York Times pages she designed. She socialized with Milton Avery and Alexander Calder, among others, and artist Frank Stella even tried to characterize her work as finding its origins in New York art. Curator Daftari takes issue with Stella’s claim and points to the mirror works of Shiraz, in northern Iran, as the real source for her best work.

Inside the Shah Cheragh Mosque in Shiraz, Iran (image via David Holt’s Flickrstream)

In 1966, Farmanfarmaian traveled to the shrine of Shah Cheragh (King of Light) in Shiraz with artists Robert Morris and Marcia Hafif, and there had what Daftari calls an “aesthetic epiphany,” when she encountered the geometrically incised mirror decorations of the holy site. Her mirrored works of the 1970s, like “Heart Beat” (1975) and “Untitled” (1977), capture that rich play of perspective, shape, and light that the Shiraz shrine must have evoked for the artist. She collapses notions of folk art, craft, and modernist art, but all with a strong taste for disco. Her art, like all great art, looks back but has its eyes focused intently on the present.

Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, “Untitled” (1977), mirror, reverse-glass painting, and plaster on wood, 41 1/2 x 41 1/2 in (105.4 x 105.4), collection of Zahra Farmanfarmaian (photo by Joshua Sage)

If Farmanfarmaian’s art seems to look at the world through refracted light and reflects her time with its shiny surfaces, Marcos Grigorian is her mirror opposite. One of the pioneers of Land Art, though hardly ever credited in the West for his contribution, Grigorian’s “Untitled” (1963) and “Crossroads (Earthwork)” (1975) are canvases of dried earth that have the monumentality of Assyrian or Achaemenid reliefs. But Grigorian, like many of the Iranian artists of his era, didn’t restrict himself to one type, so other works, like “Dizy Abgousht” (1979), incorporate real world objects that make them look more Pop. There is a clear social commentary in “Dizy Abgousht,” which has all the elements of a typical working-class meal in Iran, and in light of what happened in 1979 the art takes on a nostalgic tone: the world encapsulated by this tabletop was frozen, framed, and hung on the wall just moments before it was lost forever.

Marcos Grigorian, “Untitled” (1963), sand and enamel on canvas, 30 x 25 in (76.2 x 63.5 cm), Grey Art Gallery, New York University Art Collection, Gift of Abby Weed Grey, 1975

Iran Modern is not a perfect exhibition, even if it is one of the best of the year. The show would’ve benefited from tighter curation focused on more dramatic sight-lines and relationships between artists, rather than allotting each their own small section of the show. While the show’s catalogue argues for a more radical and expansive understanding of non-Western modernism, the exhibition adheres to a traditional attitude towards curation that privileges fine art while neglecting graphic design (at which Iranians excelled at in the 1960s and ’70s), cinema (at the close of the 1960s, Iran was producing roughly 65 movies a year), architecture (which thankfully gets a little attention in the catalogue), and music. Works like Ghasem Hajizadeh’s “Yesterday-Today” (1970) and “Sepideh” (1975) obviously suggest the drama of cinema and pop music, while Ardeshir Mohasses’s drawing are in dialogue with graphic design; placing them in context would’ve enabled viewers to make the connections. Thankfully, Asia Society did program numerous films during the month of November from the Iranian New Wave, as Iran’s cinema of the 1960s is known, and that helped.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of the exhibition is the focus on the rich calligraphic tradition of Iran. Many of these linear works are clustered in a small gallery devoted to the painted word. Works by Reza Mafi and Faramaz Pilaram vibrate with strong colors and the masterful line we commonly associate with contemporary graffiti, which seems fitting, since graffiti has been one of the many newer art forms that is enjoying some attention in contemporary Iran thanks to the innovative work of artists like A1one and others.

Parviz Tanavoli, “The Poet and the Beloved King (Lovers)” (1964), wood, tin plate, cooper, steel, flourescent light, plexiglass, and oil paint, 76 1/4 x 40 5/16 in (194 x 102 x 110 cm), Tate: purchased using funds provided by Edward and Maryam Eisler, 2011 (photo courtesy Tate) (click to enlarge)

If I had to choose an artist who typifies the modern Iranian artist, I would suggest Parviz Tanavoli, who is also one of the major talents of the era. His work captures both a colorful Pop sensibility in sculptures like “The Poet and the Beloved King (Lovers)” (1964), and a more meditative tendency towards minimalism in works like “Heech Tablet” (1973). Like many of the artists here, he is hard to characterize because of his stylistic promiscuity.

The best-known artist for Western audiences is undoubtedly the Minneapolis-based Siah Armajani, whose sculptures blur the line between object and architecture and often convey a sense of missed or lapsed utopia, like “Red School House for Thomas Paine (model)” (1978). But the real treat here is the early work, like “Shirt #1” (1958) and “A Number Between Zero and One” (1970), which both have a compulsive quality that feels distinctly conceptual — a term he only started to associate with after he met American artist Barry Le Va in the late 1960s.

Works by Siah Armajani at Iran Modern, including “Shirt #1” (1958) in back left

“A Number Between Zero and One” was included in the Museum of Modern Art’s (MoMA) important Information exhibition of 1970, and it fits perfectly with some of the best work that constitutes the mainstream of the era. It is notable that many of the artworks at Iran Modern come from the collections of MoMA and other Western museums, since in the 1960s and ’70s many of these same institutions were very interested in and collecting modern Iranian art.

Iran and the Modern World

Ardeshir Mohassess, “Untitled” (1978), ink on paper, 17 x 12 1/12 in (44.2 x 32.5 cm), Katayoun Beglari-Scarlet and Peter Scarlet Collection

It may be hard for us to imagine the larger cultural renaissance that was taking place in Iran after the Second World War, when the CIA-backed coup in 1953 toppled Iran’s democracy and installed in its place the Shah, who in a major push for modernization invested in culture and tried to open up the country to the world. The internationally renowned Shiraz Arts Festival, one of his regime’s initiatives, welcomed such luminaries as Peter Brook and Robert Wilson from the West, and helped revive local interest in folk music. Epic productions in 1971 celebrated the history of Iran and the Shah’s achievements, and the Iranian elite was not secretive about their huge appetite for luxury and art of all types.

By 1977, Iran even had an impressive center of modern art, Tehran’s Museum of Contemporary Art, which still contains a fantastic collection of works by Kandinsky, Duchamp, Pollock, Bacon, Warhol, and countless other standard bearers of Western modernism.

There are curious parallels between Shah-era Iran and the Arab Gulf states today, with their investment in culture (replete with global events: Shiraz Festival vs. Sharjah Biennial) and a lurking specter of severe human rights abuses, but what differentiates them is that Iran had a rich network of native institutions and a more developed art history upon which a modern identity was built.

Rana Javadi, “Breaking into the Police Station. 32 Brahman 1357 (February 12, 1979)”, (1979), gelatin silver print, 20 x 24 in (50.8 x 61 cm), private collection (photo courtesy Rana JavadiNicky)

Yet the story of modern art in Iran would be incomplete if I didn’t mention its collapse under the weight of the Islamic Revolution. The elephant in the room of Iran Modern is the theocratic forces that would soon beat down opposition groups and squash all types of freedom more thoroughly than the Shah ever did. There are artworks in the show that capture some of that fervor, including the black-and-white photographs of Rana Javadi that show a world in flux.

Iran’s love of art and culture certainly doesn’t end in 1979, even if the show does. In the 1990s, filmmakers like Abbas Kiarostami, Jafar Panahi, and Mohsen Makhmalbaf proved that even under the current regime the creation of great art is possible.

Iran Modern is an exhibition that could’ve easily filled triple or quadruple the space it was allotted, but I have no doubt that, to make up for the lack of space, it will inspire others to investigate the art of modern Iran and create their own shows and books.

What is obvious, though, is that Iran dances to its own beat, like it always has, and Iranians will continue to create work that defies our expectations. If Iran Modern is any indication, then it’s sure to be rich and unexpected, because this is a nation that seems intent on reinventing itself every few generations.

Iran Modern closes on January 5 at the Asia Society (725 Park Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan).

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Hrag Vartanian

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic. You can follow him at @hragv.