New York

Reza Mafi, Untitled, 1973, oil on cardboard, 30 3/4 x 11".

Reza Mafi, Untitled, 1973, oil on cardboard, 30 3/4 x 11".

“Iran Modern”

Asia Society and Museum

Reza Mafi, Untitled, 1973, oil on cardboard, 30 3/4 x 11".

THE STORY OF MODERNISM is about a time but it is also about a place; even today, curators and art historians struggle to draw an adequate map of the global flows of modernity. “Iran Modern,” on view at the Asia Society, (through January 5) poses one such cartography, charting the distinctive and heterogeneous visual expressions that flourished in Iran during the postwar years.

The show’s temporal frame falls between the 1953 CIA coup that ousted Iran’s democratically elected government and the 1979 revolution that overthrew the last shah. In the intervening decades, the country became a case study of the trials and tribulations of progress as it is defined in the West. Rising oil wealth fueled massive development programs, yet rapid urbanization and unequal distribution of resources wrought social disjunctions. It was also, of course, a time of dense cultural flows between Iran and Western countries. Some of these exchanges were supported by the patronage of the state, others by artists squeezed out of the Iranian political landscape who then traveled to Europe and the US.

Curated by Fereshteh Daftari and Layla Diba, “Iran Modern” includes one hundred works by twenty-six artists selected from collections in New York, LA, London, Paris, and Dubai. (Due to UN sanctions on Iran, only one work in the show is on loan from the country—Ahmad Aali’s multimedia Self-Portrait, 1964.) The curators have organized the exhibition into four thematic clusters—saqqakhaneh, abstraction, calligraphic modernism, and political art. The first of these demonstrates that the modernity propagated in the Pahlavi era did not look only to the West: It was also rooted in a particular articulation of Iran’s ancient past and folk culture. Iranian artists reshaped that cultural heritage in their own distinct ways as they forged an art that was liberated from Iranian academicism and traditional art and that reckoned with both vernacular and burgeoning mass cultures. The critic Karim Emam first used the term saqqakhaneh in 1962 to characterize a movement “approaching, if not exactly creating, an Iranian school of modern art.” Kamran Diba, the former director of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, dubbed it a “spiritual Pop art.”

Here, saqqakhaneh is anchored by several important sculptures by Parviz Tanavoli, among them the rather modest, vaguely figurative Bronze Prophet, 1963. Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, Tanavoli would scour the pottery workshops and foundries of South Tehran’s economically disenfranchised neighborhoods, acquiring forms and images for his sculptures and paintings. This work, meant to incorporate “as many Persian elements” as possible, reveals the impact of these explorations. A box at the sculpture’s top, suggesting the figure’s chest, is perforated to resemble “fretted decorations of a window in a Persian house.” Inside it, two faucets allude to Iran’s public fountains. From its torso, etched to mimic traditional metalwork, hangs a lock. The closed lock, Tanavoli explains, signals “the religious element in my prophet.” The poet and the prophet, the secular and the divine, merge into one. Thus, Tanavoli not only reinscribes Iranian cultural heritage into modern sculpture but seeks to reconcile the seeming dichotomy of secular and religious Iran into a spirituality that remains embedded in Iranian Sufism.

Just beyond Tanavoli’s sculptures, a stunning juxtaposition of Marcos Grigorian’s earth paintings and Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian’s mosaic mirror works introduces the section on abstraction. Grigorian’s Untitled, 1963, made of dried earth on canvas and inspired by the sunbaked, windswept Iranian deserts, preceded seminal shows of Earthworks in the US. Farmanfarmaian, by contrast, began experimenting with mosaic after a trip to a shrine in Shiraz whose central hall was covered in ayeneh kari. A hallmark of traditional Iranian architecture, the intricate mirrorwork in the geometric patterns of Islamic art takes on new shape here: Mirror Ball, 1975, which once sat on a table in Andy Warhol’s apartment, seems to wink at the disco balls of the time.

Such correspondences were also accompanied by cultural dissonance in the ’70s, a fact apparent in the gallery dedicated to calligraphic modernism. For many Iranians, calligraphy lessons are one’s introduction to artmaking. These classes, taught by stern tutors, serve as rigid exercises in discipline and precision. To circumvent the rules and regulations of calligraphy, then, is subversion of the highest order. A case in point is Faramarz Pilaram’s Untitled, 1968, in which black calligraphy cascades across a richly layered study of red paint etched with line drawings. The work jettisons tradition in a manner characteristic of modernisms globally, while the crimson background may suggest a politics of another sort: In the shah’s Iran, the color was closely associated with banned leftists groups. Reza Mafi’s Untitled, 1973, is more overt in its political resonance. Against a dark background, the Islamic evocation ALLAH O AKBAR rises, flame-like, to reveal raised fists.

The section on politics includes two paintings by Nicky Nodjoumi, both produced while he was living in the US. The canvases reveal his formal engagement with Western artists of the time; Untitled, 1976, for instance, recalls the gestural figuration of Francis Bacon. The painting, perhaps Nodjoumi’s most autobiographical work, features three men dragging a protester through a Tehran street; a bold patch of red hangs above the shadowed scene. As a student in the US, Nodjoumi became involved in the broader student movement, designing posters for the Black Panthers and for Iranian student groups opposing the shah. Returning to Tehran in 1974, he was interrogated by the shah’s secret police repeatedly over three months, an experience that would have a profound influence on his work as an artist and that signaled the limits of the modernization agenda of the Pahlavi state.

Modernity, after all, did not only augur “Machinery, Speed, and the Atom,” as the scholar Akbar Tajvidi rather earnestly put it in 1962, writing for the exhibition catalogue accompanying the first presentation of modern Iranian art in the US; it was also marked by social dislocations, economic inequality, and political closures. The complex tableau of this exhibition shows artists grappling with what it meant to be at once modern and Iranian, as the optimism of modernity gave rise to revolution.

Shiva Balaghi teaches history and art history at Brown University.