Magazine article Artforum International

"Iran Modern": Asia Society, New York

Magazine article Artforum International

"Iran Modern": Asia Society, New York

Article excerpt

THE STORY OF MODERNISM is about a time but it is also about a place; even today, curators and art historians struggle to draw an adequate map of the global flows of modernity. "Iran Modern," on view at the Asia Society, (through January 5) poses one such cartography, charting the distinctive and heterogeneous visual expressions that flourished in Iran during the postwar years.

The show's temporal frame falls between the 1953 CIA coup that ousted Iran's democratically elected government and the 1979 revolution that overthrew the last shah. In the intervening decades, the country became a case study of the trials and tribulations of progress as it is defined in the West. Rising oil wealth fueled massive development programs, yet rapid urbanization and unequal distribution of resources wrought social disjunctions. It was also, of course, a time of dense cultural flows between Iran and Western countries. Some of these exchanges were supported by the patronage of the state, others by artists squeezed out of the Iranian political landscape who then traveled to Europe and the US.

Curated by Fereshteh Daftari and Layla Diba, "Iran Modern" includes one hundred works by twenty-six artists selected from collections in New York, LA, London, Paris, and Dubai. (Due to UN sanctions on Iran, only one work in the show is on loan from the country--Ahmad Aali's multimedia Self-Portrait, 1964.) The curators have organized the exhibition into four thematic clusters--saqqakhaneh, abstraction, calligraphic modernism, and political art. The first of these demonstrates that the modernity propagated in the Pahlavi era did not look only to the West: It was also rooted in a particular articulation of Iran's ancient past and folk culture. Iranian artists reshaped that cultural heritage in their own distinct ways as they forged an art that was liberated from Iranian academicism and traditional art and that reckoned with both vernacular and burgeoning mass cultures. The critic Karim Emam first used the term saqqa-khaneh in 1962 to characterize a movement "approaching, if not exactly creating, an Iranian school of modern art." Kamran Diba, the former director of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, dubbed it a "spiritual Pop art."

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Here, saqqakhaneh is anchored by several important sculptures by Parviz Tanavoli, among them the rather modest, vaguely figurative Bronze Prophet, 1963. Throughout the 1960s and '70s, Tanavoli would scour the pottery workshops and foundries of South Tehran's economically disenfranchised neighborhoods, acquiring forms and images for his sculptures and paintings. This work, meant to incorporate "as many Persian elements" as possible, reveals the impact of these explorations. A box at the sculpture's top, suggesting the figure's chest, is perforated to resemble "fretted decorations of a window in a Persian house." Inside it, two faucets allude to Iran's public fountains. From its torso, etched to mimic traditional metalwork, hangs a lock. The closed lock, Tanavoli explains, signals "the religious element in my prophet." The poet and the prophet, the secular and the divine, merge into one. Thus, Tanavoli not only reinscribes Iranian cultural heritage into modern sculpture but seeks to reconcile the seeming dichotomy of secular and religious Iran into a spirituality that remains embedded in Iranian Sufism. …

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