NYU Shows How Modern Art Popped in 1960s Iran

Zarrine-Asfar’s 1970s Black Plaster Hand in oil and pencil on canvas with plaster. Source: Grey

Zarrine-Asfar’s 1970s Black Plaster Hand in oil and pencil on canvas with plaster. Source: Grey

If you go downstairs at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery, a collection of seemingly quiet works will show you how a cadre of avant-Garde painters injected the spirit of 1960s downtown New York into Iran’s gallery scene just before the 1979 revolution transformed Persian society. Get down to Washington Square to contemplate Modern Iranian Art before December 7.

Gallery founder and woman-about-the-world, Abby Weed Grey, made it her priority to collect modern-influenced Iranian artists in the 1960s and 1970s just before the transition from the Shah to the Ayatollah, amassing (and ultimately bequeathing to NYU) the largest Iranian modern art collection outside the country.

Tanavoli’s Persian Telephone I, a 1963 bronze sculpture inspired by Johns and Warhol. Source: Grey

Tanavoli’s Persian Telephone I, a 1963 bronze sculpture inspired by Johns and Warhol. Source: Grey

This show and its scholarship is first rate, hitting a home run with Sixties connoisseurs. Good job, Grey team, with your first-ever e-book on the web site, which connects the dots in some unexpected places.

Consider Parviz Tanavoli, who experimented with some Jasper Johns techniques — incorporating dishes into ceramics and playing with bronzed objects. Hamid Zarrine-Asfar was also experimenting with whitewashed 3D grids in a refined, painterly, and Johns-like way. Not copies, but reinterpretations that resonated with cosmopolitan Persians. Abby bought 35 of his works.

Robert Indiana wasn’t the only one playing with letters-as-art during the Sixties.  Abby collected work by a lot of artists who used the calligraphy of their own culture in their work — a more lyrical, poetic approach than the brash American appropriations.

Two extremely understated painting in the show were influenced by one artist’s interest in Cage and Duchamp. Read the label copy, and you’ll learn that they were done by a young revolutionary artist, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, fresh out of school, who later served as Iran’s Prime Minister in the 1980s and challenged Ahmadinejad in a run for president in 2009. He lost, but the work makes you wonder about the number of political candidates (anywhere in the world), who are trained architects interested in channeling the I Ching, playing with alt notation, or using chess as a visual metaphor.

Mir-Hossein Mousavi (Khameneh), Musical Notations, a 1967 mixed media work inspired by Cage. Source: Grey

Mir-Hossein Mousavi (Khameneh), Musical Notations, a 1967 mixed media work inspired by Cage. Source: Grey

The startling image of Kamran Diba’s Diver at the foot of the stairs debuted as part of a multimedia piece, with two actors’ voices repeating the “conversation” that appears on the canvas – a reminder of performance mash-ups that young Yoko Ono might experimenting with around the same time.

The more you probe, the more you’ll see. No Ben Day dots or photo imagery — just glimmers of interdisciplinary thought normally associated with that boundary-pushing Black Mountain crowd.

Abby, you wanted your Middle East buying spree to inspire cross-cultural associations among generations of US scholars. Grey Gallery team, you did your founder proud. Well done in supplying this special lens.

Kamran Diba’s Diver, a 1967 oil that originally included an audio track with two actors’ voices. Source: Grey

Kamran Diba’s 1967 Diver,  whch originally included an audio track with two actors’ voices. Source: Grey

If you can’t get there, browse the e-book and photos of the work here. Abby’s collection of Iranian modern art has its own website, and you can browse through dozens of examples by each of her favorite artists.

If you’re up on Park Avenue, works that Abby collected are also at the Asia Society until January 5 in another exhibition shining the light on Iranian modernism.

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