Eleven years after the 2002 show Between Word and Image: Modern Iranian Visual Culture, a landmark exhibition featuring selections from NYU’s renowned Abby Weed Grey Collection, the Grey Art Gallery is presenting Modern Iranian Art: Selections from the Abby Weed Grey Collection, which includes some 25 key works of Iranian modernism. Featuring paintings, sculpture, drawings, and jewelry made in the 1960s and ’70s, the exhibition highlights the creativity of artists who drew on their Persian heritage to redefine Iran’s visual identity at a time of increasing international exposure during the two decades preceding the 1979 Revolution. The works housed at the Grey—part of the Abby Weed Grey Collection of Modern Asian and Middle Eastern Art—comprise the largest public holding of Iranian modern art outside Iran. Modern Iranian Art is accompanied by an e-book and complements Iran Modern, a major survey concurrently on view at Asia Society.
Abby Grey amassed her remarkably prescient collection totaling some 700 pieces—representing countries as diverse as India, Japan, Turkey, Nepal, Israel, and Iran—on numerous trips to the Middle East and Asia in the 1960s and ’70s to promote artistic exchange. In 1974, Mrs. Grey established the Grey Art Gallery at NYU as a permanent home for her collection, with the intention of furthering her cross-cultural approach in a global academic setting as well as complementing NYU’s Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies. A self-described naïf, Grey nonetheless—as she notesin her memoir The Picture Is the Window, The Window Is the Picture—“was able to arrange the first exhibition of original contemporary American art to be seen by Turkish and Iranian artists. Moreover, my informal contacts … laid the groundwork for precedent-setting shows in the United States.”
“Mrs. Grey was truly ahead of her time,” notes Lynn Gumpert, director of the Grey Art Gallery. “When she travelled abroad, she sought out artists who were aware of what was happening internationally. It has been extremely rewarding to study the works in the collection and to collaborate with NYU colleagues and other scholars to situate them in broader cultural and historical contexts. We are proud to have introduced modern Iranian art to American audiences.”
Adopting increasingly social roles, Iranian modern artists grappled with questions of how to reconcile their contemporary sensibilities with their Persian heritage. Inspired by classical Persian poetry, calligraphy, and miniature paintings, they also appropriated images from Shiism, the dominant form of Islam in Iran, to convey abstract concepts. The Abby Weed Grey Collection includes major early works by the most prominent Iranian artists,such as Siah Armajani, Kamran Diba, Faramarz Pilaram, Parviz Tanavoli, and Charles Hossein Zenderoudi. One work, Sealed Letter, a 1964 drawing by the noted sculptor Siah Armajani—who lives in Minneapolis and is today best-known for his large-scale public artworks—links calligraphy with the highly revered tradition of Persian poetry as a form of social critique. In the series Heech by renowned sculptor Parviz Tanavoli, abstract forms simultaneously constitute both word and image. Tanavoli, with the help of Mrs. Grey, established the first foundry in Iran at the University of Teheran. In his large bronze sculpture We Are Happy Locked Within Holes(1970), he demonstrates the distinct artistic vocabulary he forged from contemporary tools and artisanal objects—such as faucets, grillwork, keys—that he collected in local bazaars. The work converts a prison towerinto a temple of love. Clasped hands inhabit a lower cell while an upper cell encloses a phallus.Charles Hossein Zenderoudi, in Lock, n.d., likewise reveals his interest in Iranian folk cultures by depicting locks which, in Shiite culture, are believed to contain special powers. Often locks were attached to ceremonial public structures known as saqqakhaneh, a term that came to denote an Iranian art movement ofthe 1960s. Painter Faramarz Pilaram is— along with Tanavoli and Zenderoudi—among the first modern Iranian artists to employ both calligraphic forms and Shiite iconography. Pilaram’s Mosques of Isfahan series(c. 1962) refers to the famed houses of worship in his native city of Isfahan when it was the capital of the Safavid Empire.
In 2002, Shiva Balaghi, then associate director of the Kevorkian Center and now visiting professor of Iranian Studies at Brown University, observed, “The construction of modernity in Iran was an act of resistance and creation. It entailed seeking out new ways in which the arts could engage social and political concerns. In the 1960s and ’70s, Iranian visual artists began to appropriate the traditional role of the poet as Iranian society’s conscious and all-seeing critic. In this sense, Iran’s visual culture of this period is an archival record of the social and political problems that were emerging; it serves as the artistic pre-history to the Iranian Revolution of 1979.”
As Fereshteh Daftari, a co-curator of Between Word and Image and former assistant curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, observed, “Iranian modernism, like many of the culturally specific modernisms that emerged around the globe, was not synonymous with the one constructed in the West. Both nationalist and internationalist, it looked inward as well as outward. In art its languages included realism and abstraction, but formal issues were not its primary problems: the fundamental questions addressed by Iranian modernism had to do with the notion of identity.” As modern Iranian art is becoming more well-known, it is fascinating to parse the myriad ways that its unique visual culture both reflected and affected Iran in the 1960s and ’70s. Since the show in 2002, the Grey Art Gallery has catalogued the Iranian works on its website, featuring there, as well, a bibliography and some brief essays. The Abby Grey Weed Collection continues to provide inspiration, triggering new scholarship and insights.
Between Word and Image was accompanied by a volume of essays entitled Picturing Iran: Art, Society and Revolution. Co-edited by Shiva Balaghi and Lynn Gumpert, it was published by I.B. Tauris in London and New York in association with the Grey Art Gallery and the Hagop Kevorkian Center. No longer available, it is currently being reprinted. The e-book accompanying Modern Iranian Art: Selections from the Abby Weed Grey Collection will include an introduction by Lynn Gumpert, “A Brief History of 20th Century Iran” by Shiva Balaghi that was first published in 2002 in the Grey Gazette, and an essay by Leili Sreberny-Mohammadi on Mrs. Grey and Iran, as well as color illustrations of works in the exhibition with brief commentaries. The e-book will be offered both as a free PDF download and via print on demand.
Modern Iranian Art: Selections from the Abby Weed Grey Collection has been made possible, in part, by the Grey’s Director’s Circle, Inter/National Council, and Friends; and by the Abby Weed Grey Trust.
The Grey Art Gallery is New York University’s fine-arts museum, located on historic Washington Square Park in New York City’s Greenwich Village. It offers the NYU community and the general public a dynamic roster of engaging and thought-provoking exhibitions, all of them enriched by public programs. With its emphasis on experimentation and interpretation, and its focus on exploring art in its historical, cultural, and social contexts, the Grey serves as a museum-laboratory for the exploration of art’s environments.
Exhibitions organized by the Grey have encompassed all the visual arts: painting, sculpture, drawing and printmaking, photography, architecture and decorative arts, video, film, and performance. In addition to producing its own exhibitions, which often travel to other venues in the United States and abroad, the Gallery hosts traveling shows that might otherwise not be seen in New York and produces scholarly publications that are distributed worldwide.