View of “Parviz Tanavoli,” 2015. Background, from left: Big Heech Lovers, 2007; Twisted Heech, 2007. Foreground, from left: Horizontal Heech Lovers, 2008; Standing Heech Lovers, 2007. Photo: Charles Mayer.

View of “Parviz Tanavoli,” 2015. Background, from left: Big Heech Lovers, 2007; Twisted Heech, 2007. Foreground, from left: Horizontal Heech Lovers, 2008; Standing Heech Lovers, 2007. Photo: Charles Mayer.

Parviz Tanavoli

View of “Parviz Tanavoli,” 2015. Background, from left: Big Heech Lovers, 2007; Twisted Heech, 2007. Foreground, from left: Horizontal Heech Lovers, 2008; Standing Heech Lovers, 2007. Photo: Charles Mayer.

PARVIZ TANAVOLI recalls that, as a teenager, he signed up for the first modern sculpture class ever offered in his native Iran. The year was 1952, and the course was almost canceled—not just because Tanavoli was its only student, but because there was no one to teach it. Iran’s nascent modern art scene had no sculptors to speak of, and art training was strictly academic. A European-trained painter was eventually found to run the course, but Iranian arts pedagogy would remain old-fashioned; Tanavoli’s senior-year project was completed under the stern eye of a colonel whose own practice involved carving busts of the shah for public squares. Tanavoli would continue his fine-arts education abroad, returning to Iran in the 1960s to design the curriculum for Tehran’s College of Decorative Arts—the training ground for the nation’s first recognizable modern art movement, the Saqqakhaneh, in which the artist played a pivotal role. His own distinctive style, which commingled the legacies of Surrealism and postwar figuration with Pop-inspired citations of Iranian folk traditions and urban iconography, perfectly exemplifies the movement’s merging of ornament with hybrid cultural references.

Tanavoli’s current retrospective at the Davis Museum puts admirable effort into covering nearly six decades of production. One hundred and seventy-five objects—ranging from large sculptures in bronze, steel, ceramic, and scrap metal to paintings, prints, and jewelry (everything except his rugs, which US sanctions against Iran prohibited the Davis from “importing”)—crowd the modest galleries. Most prominent is the artist’s series of “Heech” sculptures, three-dimensional renderings of the Persian word for “nothing.” Tanavoli first employed the curvy calligraphic character in a relief work in 1965. “At the beginning it was like a protest against calligraphy,” he recalls of this ironic appropriation, “because everybody was using calligraphy as their art.” Having discovered the word’s aesthetic potential for his practice, he would return to it intermittently throughout his career.

Tanavoli has always been attracted to sculpture’s ability to evoke the historic sublime. For inspiration he looks to Iran’s ancient architecture and mythological heroes, aiming for similarly dramatic impact. The steel Big Heech, 2012, that greets visitors at the entrance to the exhibition, for example, stands eleven feet high and towers over the viewer, its formal simplicity offset by a profusion of smaller adjacent versions. Fiberglass variants in red, pink, and turquoise to the sculpture’s right look insouciantly contemporary, while on its left, statelier bronzes create a shimmering field of polished metal. The dates of these works range from the ’70s to the present; once Tanavoli settles on a form, he cultivates it, varying only his choices of scale and material.

At its best, the densely packed, profuse installation creates an immersive encounter with the artist’s thematic preoccupations. But in many cases, numerous versions of the same formal device overwhelm without informing; the larger sculptures lack breathing room, and the overall effect is of a taxonomic survey. A row of hands clutching grilles and cages, a procession of poets, a vitrine of “Heech” rings and brooches, a corner with various iterations of Farhad the Mountain Carver (a medieval hero that Tanavoli resurrected as his artistic forefather)—the absence of development within the artist’s visual vocabulary suggests that the years have simply expanded Tanavoli’s range of subject matter rather than maturing his practice.

But this typological impulse may well be central to the artist’s approach. One of the show’s earliest works, Standing Poet, 1953, is an anthropomorphic bronze sculpture recalling a potbellied stove. In The Last Poet of Iran, 1962, a deftly painted oil on canvas produced nearly a decade later, the same blocky figure is rehearsed row upon row, the placement of head and legs varying, the shadows on the flat body adjusted. The silk-screened Poets and Birds, 1974, takes up the theme more playfully, with a series of googly-eyed “poets” courting abstract birds—a trippy take on Middle Eastern rug designs.

Poets and Birds also hints at another, lesser-known Tanavoli: not the master of epic bronzes, but the fearless bricoleur who is as invested in irreverence and humor as he is in reinventing his country’s sculptural tradition. We see glimpses of this persona in Persian Telephone I, 1963: From afar, it resembles an antique telephone rendered in rough, unpolished bronze, but up close, one discovers that the earpiece is ringed by sharp teeth, the mouthpiece held by claws, and the whole surface scratched with graffiti. The effect is funny rather than menacing, a vividly surreal reimagining of an everyday object.

In general, however, the more experimental Tanavoli is subsumed by a sense of decorum that no doubt reflects the show’s circumstances—remarkably, this retrospective is the venerated artist’s first in the US. Despite Tanavoli having lived in Vancouver for most of the three-and-a-half decades since the Iranian revolution of 1979, it was market interest that reignited his international career in 2008, when a 1975 work fetched $2.8 million at a Christie’s auction in Dubai. Group shows in North America gradually followed, most of them careful to acknowledge his central role as the “father of modern Iranian sculpture.” His respectable “masterworks” have come to eclipse the radicalism and vibrant, vulgar force of his early work.

Indeed, Neon Heech, 2012—one of the strongest revisitations of that form—which stands at the main gallery’s entrance, flattens into almost a logo for his practice, solidifying the Tanavoli brand even before his work has gained the critical consideration it deserves. His career illustrates the art market’s celebration and canonization of a relatively unknown pioneer before the critical and curatorial establishment has had time to catch up. Despite its limitations, the Davis show both reflects and counters this process. By opening up the heterogeneous range and breadth of the artist’s accomplishments, it challenges the entrenched hierarchies of a globalized art world, which must find new ways to accommodate a diversity of positions and histories.

Media Farzin is a New York–based art historian and critic.

“Parviz Tanavoli” is on view through June 7.