Interviews

Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian

Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, Untitled (Sculpture 2), 2008, mirror, paint, plaster, wood, 29 x 29 x 19”.

Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian was born in Iran in 1924 and is well known for her dazzling approach to geometric abstraction, primarily in the mirror reliefs and drawings she has been making since the 1970s that derive from ornamental elements in traditional Islamic architecture. The first museum retrospective of her work, curated by Suzanne Cotter, was on view at the Serralves Museum in Porto, Portugal, from October 9, 2014 through January 11, 2015 and travels to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York from March 13 to June 3, 2015.

LAST SPRING, I had a survey exhibition at the Third Line in Dubai which then traveled to Doha. Suzanne Cotter had seen these shows, and she invited me to bring my drawings and sculptures from the past forty years to Porto. My work is largely based on geometry, which, as you know, always begins with a single point and can move from there into a circle. Or a point can become three leading to a triangle, or four to a square, five to a pentagon, hexagon, octagon, and so on—it’s endless. I was inspired by the geometry I found in old mosques with their tile, metal, wood, and plaster work. A master metalworker that I studied with once told me, “Everything is in geometry.” I then found out that with a hexagon you could do so much. And today, I still work on geometry—it’s at the base of my art because it has an infinite amount of possibilities. You can create thousands and thousands of designs in textiles, metal, tiles, everything.

These recent shows have been a remarkable time in my life because for so long I was really a nobody. Little by little, I’ve become…I don’t know…better known? Certainly the Guggenheim wasn’t giving me a show until now. I lived in New York for almost forty years, and moved there initially in 1944 to be a student. I was friends with many poets and artists at the time: Calder, Mitchell, Avery. I used to go to a club once a month on Tenth Street; all the artists would gather there and one would give a talk. I remember Philip Johnson, de Kooning, Newman, and then after that they would all go to the Cedar Tavern. I would follow but I wouldn’t drink. I had a lot of fun, though. Anyway, these days in Tehran the disco doesn’t let me in!

I met Warhol a little later on. After studying at Parsons, I got a job through a classmate of mine at Bonwit Teller. I met the head of the art department, and they hired me for eighty dollars a week. I used to also do freelance work for them, drawing a bottle of perfume, slippers, or a bag. Andy was drawing his shoes. He was very friendly, and at the time we thought we were making a lot of money. We used to go to picnics for lunch. When I returned to Iran in the ’60s, I knew Andy was becoming a very famous Pop artist in New York. So he came to Tehran to make a portrait of the queen. I had a big luncheon for him and his crew. My daughter arranged it. At the time we exchanged some works. I had so many great works in my collection until they were confiscated during the revolution in 1979, which also marked the beginning of my twenty-six-year exile in New York. Thankfully, many of my drawings were still in New York at Denise René’s gallery, where I had a show in 1977, as well as at her Paris gallery that year.

The Serralves show is an honor for me. Suzanne was the first one to notice that my drawings are something different and deserve a special focus, particularly those that were made when I didn’t have a studio following the early years of being exiled in the US. Many of these drawings will be in Porto and New York, and they’ve never been exhibited before. Honest to God, I’m grateful to those who have helped me to get my work back into the world. From Chris Dercon at Tate Modern to Gary Tinterow at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston to Hans Ulrich Obrist to Frank Stella to Suzanne, and to everyone else I might be missing.

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