“Iran Modern” exhibition at Asia Society in New York

Iran Modern



September 6, 2013 to January 5, 2014

Asia Society

725 Park Avenue

 New York, NY 10021

“Invaluable … Stimulating”

— New York Times

Iran Modern is the first major museum exhibition mounted with loans from the United States, Europe, and the Middle East to focus on Iran’s dynamic modern art scene. The exhibition spans the three decades prior to the 1979 Revolution, a period of great economic, political, and societal change in the country. By the mid-1970s Tehran, its capital city, had become an important cosmopolitan destination. Artists found new patronage especially from the government for exhibitions and festivals, such as the annual Shiraz Arts Festival, and the creation of new museums such as the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, which was actively acquiring both Iranian and international art for its collection.

The exhibition is organized thematically across two floors to highlight the broad range of styles developed during this productive period. It is not a comprehensive overview but instead the works in the exhibition serve as key examples of the pluralism and innovative spirit of the time. The exhibition begins on the second floor by introducing artists associated with the Saqqakhaneh movement, the first culturally specific modernist group of note whose works were influenced as much by Shi’ite folk art, as by pre-Islamic art and international formal strategies. The exhibition also includes sections focusing on Abstraction, Calligraphy, and Politics. Within each section, monographic highlights will allow select artists’ work to be seen in greater depth. On the third floor a timeline and a selection of ephemera from the period provide greater context for the works on view.

Through the presentation of over one hundred works by 26 artists, the exhibition chronicles the conversation between tradition and modernity and puts forward the idea of modernism as a globally interconnected phenomenon. Iran Modern illuminates an overlooked time of artistic creation that continues to resonate with contemporary artists working both inside and outside Iran.

The guest co-curators of this exhibition are Fereshteh Daftari and Layla S. Diba.

untitled 1977 work in glass by Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian 26_-Monir-3

Calligraphy & Modernism

The art of calligraphy has a history of thousands of years in Iran and is one of the most important creative expressions of Iranian culture. Iranian calligraphers have been renowned for their skill in both angular and cursive script styles. Legible text was often used to communicate meaning but abstracted letters could also refer to religious symbols or signs. During the 1960s and 1970s Iranian artists successfully created an indigenous modern visual language by combining local writing styles with techniques and forms adopted and adapted from European modern art. The works featured in this section illustrate the striking and varied results of this cross-cultural experimentation.

Some artists identified with the Saqqakhaneh movement such as Faramarz Pilaram were not trained calligraphers and used stylized letters and words with other abstract forms to structure their compositions. Pilaram’s works of the early 1960s use a visual language similar to Charles Hossein Zenderoudi’s, while his later works focus exclusively on the aesthetic possibilities of script to create semi-abstract works.

Others, such as those of the Naqqashi Khat movement who were classically trained calligraphers who exclusively used text in their works, although the large scale compositions and oil on canvas technique differentiated their work from traditional calligraphy. Textual sources included celebrated Persian poets such as Hafez and Rumi or Qur’anic texts. Mohammad Ehsai’s work is characterized by flat forms composed of pure color and large-scale rhythmic compositions referencing mashq calligraphic exercises. Reza Mafi’s works encompass calligraphic compositions with encoded political messages; trompe l’oeil compositions referencing sixteenth-century manuscript folios; and shaped canvases inspired by colorful Persian tilework.