Marcos Grigorian, Untitled, n.d. Sand and enamel on canvas H. 30 x W. 25 in. (76.2 x 63.5 cm) Grey Art Gallery, New York University Art Collection Gift of Abby Weed Grey, G1975.570

ON 6 SEPTEMBER, the first large-scale exhibition of Iranian Modern Art in the United States will take over two floors at the Asia Society in New York. While the exhibition focuses on the artistic period just preceding political revolution, featuring artists Marcos Grigorian, and Charles Houssein Zenderoudi. Visually, it successfully chronicles a nearly 100-year trajectory of escalating artistic counterculture.

Iran Modern is curated by Fereshteh Daftari and Layla Diba. Among a myriad of other accomplishments, Daftari served as curator at New York’s Museum of Modern Art’s Department of Painting and Sculpture from 1988-2009, and Layla Diba was curator of the newly opened Negarestan Museum from 1975-1979. Diba was also the art advisor for the Private Secretarian of the former Queen Farah Diba Pahlavi of Iran.

Iran Modern

The Asia Society seeks to demonstrate the evolution of Modernism as an idea, to illuminate both the artistic and political heritage of Iran. The showcase begins with Mohammad Ghaffari’s (also known as Kamal-al-Molk) 1896 Hall of Mirrors, culminating with the parallel nationalistic movements of the 1960s, and closing with the end of the Tehran Museum of Art in 1979. Ghaffari’s work was made at the same year as Nasir Al-Din Shah ended his reign (1848-1896). Nasir Al-Din Shah’s reign was an artistic period heavily rooted in European exchange, and the interconnectivity allowed for dialogue between countries and technologies.

In addition to the influence of the newly invented camera, Ghaffari’s work also speaks to changing politics. Hall of Mirrors radically diminishes the size of the ruler in relation to the exaggerated room. The stylistic choice is partially due to a lack of reliance on photography, but ultimately suggests a deviation from the longstanding tradition of deifying the ruler in Persian hierarchy.

Modern Iranian art was considered separate from the Western tableau prevalent in the early 20th century. The rhetoric of 1930s Museum of Modern Art Director Alfred J. Barr categorized Persian art among ‘Near-Eastern’ influences to Western Expressionism, then predominately based in Paris. The French influence is evidenced with the subject matter of Hall of Mirrors – there is a famous Galerie des Glaces at Versailles, outside Paris.

Modern Iranian Art Scene

As the Modern Iranian art scene was developing, French-born Andre Godard (curator of the Iran Bastan Museum beginning in 1936) founded the Faculty of Fine Arts in Tehran in 1940. The school was rooted in the traditions of Godard’s alma mater, the French institution of L’Ecole des Beaux-Arts, and as such was dually conservative and European.

Over the proceeding decade, there was a series of Tehran-based art administration. Despite the initial Francophile oeuvre, the influence of the changing art capital of New York allowed for a distinctly Iranian contemporary art base. Noted personality Marcos Grigorian, director of Galerie Esthetique from 1954-1959, organised the first Tehran Biennial in 1958.

The Parisian Influence

While the Parisian influence informed what Daftari refers to as the initial ‘old master modernism’ of the late 19th century into the Beaux Arts education, the innovation of New York-based abstract expressionism into pop art allowed for the growth of a ‘local modernism’, or Saqqakhaneh. At the helm of articulating the American art movement, critic Clement Greenberg denied Asian influence. Regardless of the initial resources, commercialised imagery of the early 1960s in American pop art inspired uniquely Iranian and subsequently Anti-Western countermovement.

The deviation from pathos in American art provided a timely juxtaposition to the formation of Saqqakhaneh. Without the vehicle of abstract American art, Modern Iranian art would not have spring-boarded into such a distinctive genre. The word Saqqakhaneh originally referred to a type of water-fountain shrine found locally, and came to represent a movement characterised heavily by symbolism.  Other motifs found throughout the region were incorporated into the artistic movement – the hand being a prime example.

Andy Warhol produced his first Campbell’s Soup Can in 1962, the same year Charles Hossein Zenderoudi made K+L+32+H+4: Mon père et moi. While the French influence remains in the title, the edification of the two-dimensional can parallels Zenderoudi’s stark, angular motifs. The abstract shapes are cutting, but the ideology of family behind them is powerful, particularly with the use of hands.

Saqqakhaneh Art

The recurring image of the hand was also frequently used in Saqqakhaneh art, as nationalistic an image as the American flag of Jasper Johns. The severed hand evoked the suffering of legendary warrior Al-Abbas ibn Ali (Hazrat-e-Abbas), who was injured during the battle of Karbala in 680.

This battle is represented in a work of the same name at the Brooklyn Museum in their Islamic Art Department, similarly once curated by this exhibition’s Layla Diba. It is a ‘coffeehouse painting’ rather than Saqqakhaneh, a concurrently burgeoning artistic movement prevalent to communicate Iranian stories during the late 19th and early 20th century. It is important to note that despite the examination of Iranian history in both Saqqakhaneh and coffeehouse painting, neither classification was synonymous with Islam. Another hand-centred work, The Hand, features Al-Abbas hand alongside motifs from Judaism and Christianity, all springing from one another in succession. All monotheistic religions are represented.

Heech by Parviz Tanavoli

Completely devoid of any religious insinuation is Parviz Tanavoli’s (b. 1937) Heech, (1973) a bronze sculpture. The word heech means ‘nothing’ in Persian, and as such is existential, exactingly stripped of religious or aesthetic significance. Despite its departure from Western motifs, Tanavoli spent time in Minneapolis, Minnesota in the United States, using this period to collaborate and learn from American art. In 1977, just four years after Heech, the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art was opened, under the authority of the newly minted Shahbanou Farah Foundation.

The Revolution in 1979

The artistic evolution, and consequently the exhibition, comes to an abrupt end at the revolution of 1979. Heech, an example of near-existential disconnect from political authority, came to represent extravagance and imperialism due to its endorsement during the Shah’s reign. Many of the artists fled west, such as Marcos Griogrian, who died in Paris in 2007. Some of the institutions remain, such as University of Tehran, founded in 1934.

In the press release, Asia Society Museum Director Melissa Chiu alludes to the politicized nature of the exhibition, and the potential for change. ‘Against the backdrop of the current global political climate,’ she said, ‘exhibitions like Iran Modern are essential to fostering a better understanding of Iran’s history’.


Iran Modern, 6 September to 5 January 2014 at Asia Society, 725 Park Avenue, New York NY-10021, For a list of related programmes, visit the society’s website.