For Hans Ulrich Obrist, Artistic Director of the Serpentine Galleries in London, Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian (1924-2019) was one of the most important artists of her generation. ‘She was one of the first artists to leave the “centre” of the art world and maintain a global practice,’ wrote Obrist in the monograph Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian: Cosmic Geometry (2011). ‘In this respect, she has been a role model for the artist of the 21st century.’
Born to a liberal family in Qazvin, Iran, in 1924, Farmanfarmaian would not only become a pioneering figure of Iranian art, but also ‘a forerunner of current artistic models that participate in global dialogues without annihilating local difference,’ says Obrist.
‘Her practice epitomises the Caribbean novelist and poet Edouard Glissant’s concept of mondialité,’ the curator explained during an intimate talk held at Christie’s in London during Frieze Week. Glissant’s social theory calls for a global dialogue that does not erase local culture. ‘She was embracing this concept long before other artists,’ added Obrist. ‘Her vision was extraordinary and remains as relevant today as it did 50 years ago.’
Over the course of her six-decade career, which was primarily split between Iran and the United States, Farmanfarmaian experimented with a wide range of materials and styles, but it’s probably her reverse-glass paintings and mirror mosaics for which she is most famous.
These distinctive works are built around the principles of Islamic geometry, together with the rhythms of Modern Western abstraction made popular by her New York contemporaries in the 1960s.
‘They exemplify Monir’s embrace of the local [the cosmic patterning of traditional Islamic geometry] and the global [Modern expressionism], as well as her interest in repetition and progression,’ says Dina Nasser-Khadivi, an international Christie’s consultant who specialises in Modern and Contemporary Iranian Art.
The untitled reverse-glass painting from 2008 pictured above, which is offered in the Middle Eastern, Modern & Contemporary Art sale on 23 October in London, is one such example. The work is composed of a series of triangular mirrors repeated in geometric rhythm, which reflects light in every which way. Its form is inspired by the grandiose wings of Faravahar, explains Nasser-Khadivi, which is an important symbol in the ancient Iranian religion of Zoroastrianism.
‘This is a seminal work that reflects Monir’s interest in merging symbolistic geometry with Sufi cosmology,’ says Nasser-Khadivi. ‘But I also see very clear influences of the American artist Frank Stella.’ Farmanfarmaian met Stella (b. 1936), who has long explored the geometric potential of traditional forms of Islamic art, during the artist’s second visit to Tehran in 1974; they would go on to enjoy a lifelong friendship, sharing the belief that geometry is ‘an inescapable foundation for artistic output’.
Farmanfarmaian’s fascination with the traditional Iranian mirror mosaic form known as aineh-kari was sparked by a visit to the Shah Cheragh shrine in the Iranian city of Shiraz in 1966. ‘[We] sat for hours in a high-domed hall that was covered entirely in a mosaic of tiny mirrors cut into hexagons, squares and triangles,’ she wrote in A Mirror Garden: A Memoir (2007), imagining this transformative encounter to be similar to ‘standing inside a many-faceted diamond and looking out at the sun’.
The artist’s visit to the Iranian shrine marked a turning point in her practice, says Sunny Rahbar, Director of the Third Line Gallery in Dubai, which has represented her since 2007. ‘It led to her continued explorations of the infinite possibilities of sacred geometry.’
Suzanne Cotter, curator of Infinite Possibility: Mirror Works and Drawings, 1974-2014, which opened at the Serralves Foundation in Porto and then toured to the Guggenheim Museum in New York, said her art ‘conveyed light and joy’, adding that she ‘brought to our pent-up Western eyes a completely new perspective as to the possibilities of abstraction as an aesthetic and narrative form’.
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In 2017, Monir Farmanfarmaian donated more than 50 of her own works from her private collection to Tehran University, with the resulting Monir Museum becoming the first solo artist museum in Iran dedicated to a woman.
Today, her work can be seen in public museums around the world, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Tate Modern, The Victoria and Albert Museum and Queensland Gallery of Contemporary Art.
The Sharjah Art Foundation in the United Arab Emirates, in collaboration with IMMA, presents Sunset, Sunrise, a retrospective of more than 70 works, which runs until 28 December