Iran Modern exhibit spans three decades leading to the 1979 Revolution
I went to see Iran Modern with a mixture of excitement and apprehension. On the one hand, I was eager for the chance to see the works, many of which have been hidden away for decades; on the other, I had the sour memory of past exhibitions curated through a western orientalist lens. This unprecedented display of Iranian art from the 1950s up to the Revolution of 1979, on view at Asia Society in New York, brings together works from private and public collections around the world, including the Andy Warhol Foundation, New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), and the Mathaf in Doha, Qatar. From the first pieces I encountered, I sensed that this was to be no exotic narrative of Iranian modernism meant for a western market. The quality of curation and scholarship involved has produced an exciting and valuable exhibition.
At first, I found myself playing the comparison game, looking at the dates on the labels to see how the works stacked up against their western counterparts. Who influenced Manoucher Yektai to use such heavy impasto in the 1950s? Do Marcos Grigorian’s earthworks of the 1960s precede or follow those of Robert Smithson? The game can continue down to the year and even the month, but it is senseless and soon tiresome. And, thankfully, it is hardly the point of the exhibition. Indeed, many of the works, especially those in the distinctly Iranian Saqqakhaneh style, well represented, do not have European counterparts. The show soon takes you out of comparison mode and into richer considerations.
Bringing together more than a hundred pieces by 26 artists, Iran Modern makes clear that despite common threads, Iranian modernism is pluralist in practice. Standing before some of the works, decades after they were conceived, I could easily imagine a performer skipping by, singing Tino Sehgal’s catchy tune: “Oh, this is so contemporary, contemporary, contemporary.” The questions of what appears “contemporary” and what the appellation signifies become particularly thorny when the works hail from a culture conceived of as “other”; as stand-ins here, “fresh” and “relevant” will serve for much of the art on view in Iran Modern.
Monir Shahroudi Farmanfarmaian (b. 1924), whose mirror painting Untitled (1977) appears on the exhibition catalogue’s cover, continues a prolific, internationally recognized career. Her work, inspired by the traditional, highly decorative architecture of Iranian shrines and palaces, blurs the lines between painting, sculpture, architecture, craft, and pop culture. Her use of mirrors is echoed in the sculptures of young American artists such as Rashid Johnson.
A Number Between Zero and One (1970), by Siah Armajani (b. 1939), is an elegant steel tower holding a nearly nine-foot stack of papers printed by computer. The work – which was shown in Information, an important exhibition of conceptual art held at MoMA in 1970 – is relevant to contemporary practices in its employment of alternative materials and (like Armajani’s drawings) elusive narratives.
Parviz Tanavoli’s (b. 1937) sculptures Innovation in Art and The Poet and the Beloved King (Lovers), both from 1964, are the exhibition’s most memorable surprises. Lovers refers to the epic Iranian tale of the love triangle between Shirin, the sculptor Farhad, and Khosrow, the king. Its two oversized, brightly painted Lego-like robot figures speak of legend and poetry, power and play, humor and sexuality. A lit sign, reminiscent of those on the tops of old Iranian cabs, takes the place of the larger robot’s mouth. It reads in Farsi, “Does anyone open the gates to anyone else?” The word “lemon” written on a yellow circle suggests breasts on the smaller figure, while a large arrow pointing upward from where a robot penis would be yields an ambiguous sexuality. I found it difficult to walk away from Tanavoli’s lovers.
Unlike me, Iran Modern has not picked favorites. More importantly, the exhibition does not attempt to define Iranian modernism as a singular style. Co-curator Fereshteh Daftari writes in her catalogue essay, “The landscape of diversity during this time period, with its disparity of individual experiences, should prevent homogenizing perceptions of a monolithic modernism that is exotically ‘other,’ hermetically sealed, and consistently in tune with local agendas or foreign preconceptions.” She makes the case for a complex “notion of Iranian art and identity, which has not always been in conflict with the West, nor synonymous with Islam, miniature painting, calligraphy, or the veil.”
The works in the exhibition all express a need to forge an artistic identity that is perhaps Iranian, but more certainly personal. The country in which the respective artists were educated – whether Iran, France, Italy, or the US – and their subsequent itineraries have clearly played important roles in their development.
In the years leading up to the 1979 revolution, there was substantial government support for artists’ travels and studies abroad. Despite considerable censorship and the constant threat posed by the SAVAK, the Shah’s brutal secret police, the Pahlavis were enthusiastic about the arts. Among Queen Farah’s accomplishments were the founding of Tehran’s Museum of Contemporary Art and the acquisition of what has been called the most significant collection of modern art outside of Europe and the US. The collection has been largely locked away since the revolution, much of it deemed too un-Islamic for public viewing.
Last year at the Museum of Modern Art in Tehran, I had the rare opportunity to see some of the collection in a show, Pop Art & Op Art, featuring works by Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns, and David Hockney, among others. I had to gasp before a series of Andy Warhol’s portraits of Mao Zedong. I was surprised not by their current display but by their original acquisition, at a time when the SAVAK was rounding up Iranian Maoists for imprisonment and execution.
Iran Modern does not and cannot deny the political tensions and turmoil of the period to which it looks. Though only a handful of the works on display are directly political (in particular, paintings by Nicky Nodjoumi never before shown publicly, one depicting a group of SAVAK agents dragging a prisoner, another inspired by the execution of Khosrow Golsorkhi, a Marxist militant), an air of surveillance and repression still fills some of the rooms.
Perhaps this is why Iran Modern does not feel tediously nostalgic, romanticizing the past to the point of condemning the present. Perhaps this is why the exhibition can inspire a viewer simultaneously to look back while seeing forward. Iranian artists have had and can continue to have their own distinct character, some demonstrating a formal and conceptual sophistication on a par with their colleagues around the world, no matter the political climate at home, then or now.
Iranian contemporary art must be held to high standards and its practitioners not patronized, so that relevant and challenging works – as opposed to thinned-out copies – may be promoted internationally. Iran Modern is a great argument against lazy curatorial practices, promoting a more critical approach to art coming out of Iran and the diaspora. With so many noteworthy Iranian artists working throughout the world, this exhibition does an essential service in documenting a lineage that belongs as much to them as to the rest of art history.
Iran Modern is on view at New York’s Asia Society through January 5, 2014
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