Behjat Sadr, Untitled, ca. 1974, oil on aluminum, painted steel, 78 6⁄8 × 39 3⁄8".

Behjat Sadr, Untitled, ca. 1974, oil on aluminum, painted steel, 78 6⁄8 × 39 3⁄8".

Behjat Sadr

In Le temps suspendu (Time Suspended), Mitra Farahani’s 2006 documentary on the Iranian painter Behjat Sadr, the artist explains that “in painting, you suspend time.” Sadr passed away ten years ago at the age of eighty-five, but in this exhibition, her decades-long practice crystallized in nine oil paintings (one supported by steel struts running from floor to ceiling), seven collages, and four photographs. Her canvases often read as abstractions, but they are squarely grounded in the real: in the materiality of the varied surfaces and the viscosity of oil paint.

As an art student in Italy in the late 1950s, Sadr took European art informel as a reference point. Here, two paintings dated ca. 1957, around the time the artist exhibited at Rome’s Galerie Il Pincio with the support of her teacher Roberto Melli, bore witness to the influence of that movement. Both Untitled, like all of the works on view, these two vertically formatted canvases feature wide strokes of black oil paint and muted flickers of red and green. But Sadr did not adhere to the tenets of European modernism; instead, she created a practice that was expansive—“cosmogonic,” according to the writer and curator Morad Montazami. Fragments of “Persian tapestry or calligraphy, Islamic architecture, sculpture on wood, Italian marquetry, and even Chinese painting on silk” surface in the artist’s work like “recollections.”

Following her studies, Sadr returned to Tehran, where she placed diverse painting supports (canvas, paper, cardboard, aluminum, and glass) on her studio floor and began manipulating line and color with a palette knife. Black oil paint predominates. “If black, present in many of her paintings, represents oil,” the curator Fabrice Hergott has written, “it symbolizes the immense stain, the indelible oil slick like a gob that this oil represents in the history of Iran, through which this country was restored to the rank of producer, eliciting covetousness and the darkest passions of the human soul.”

In the oil-and-photocollage Untitled, ca.1985, tangled swirls of black paint surround a color image of woven bistro chairs on a sun-filled terrace. A semicircular shape, like a black sun, seems to emerge from ominous clouds. A tangible darkness closes in on a space of dialogue and exchange. In a collage from the 1990s, the image of tire treads cover the mouth of a black-and-white shot of a grimacing man. “Can the anguish and terror of this end of the century be represented by a painting on canvas?” Sadr asked in 1995, writing about her collage works. “Should we express them with words? Should we photograph them? . . . We must use and take everything that can express the feelings of our time, tear off pages from magazines, glue them . . . and find again new tools.”

Sadr’s Untitled, ca.1974, is an aluminum panel of about forty by eighty inches fastened to the gallery’s ceiling and floor by vertical metal bars and painted on both sides in black and green oil paint; the artist’s color photographs were displayed behind it. Exhibited here for the first time, each of these images was a pensive still life; one allowed a glimpse into the artist’s studio as it appeared around 1980. In it, the bottom edge of a black-and-blue oil painting is visible; seashells, dried coral, and a fish out of water sit before it, as if in offering. The other three photos pictured containers for water, beer, champagne, and a bouquet of flowers. Like Sadr’s paintings, these pictures freeze time, but not without eliciting a pang of nostalgia for childhood, for youth.