The Guggenheim Museum | March 13 – June 3, 2015
“The other world is not another world at all. It is our own historicity, revealed to us here and now.”
—Boris Groys, History Becomes Form
To reach Infinite Possibility, the viewer passes the Guggenheim’s permanent collection, and all of its iconic works that shape the common understanding of art history. At the other end of this room is Monir’s work: sculptures made out of mirrors and colorful abstract geometrical paintings. One quick look tells us that that Infinite Possibility is not just another exhibition of abstract art, but something quite different. The exhibit’s juxtaposition with selections from the Western art historical canon highlights the absurdity of a linear, Western narrative of art history and the relegation of anything outside of that canon to the “traditional.” More importantly, it tells the story of a brave female artist from Iran who engaged with post-war American art on a very deep level, and returned to her roots to develop a new hybrid of both visual cultures.
Born in Iran in 1924 into a privileged life, Monir belonged to the first generation to face the tension between her country’s past and the desired future. (This conflict still haunts the region—and perhaps other cultures that do not share the Judeo-Christian tradition.) A widespread longing amidst the upper class for modern values may have precipitated the artist’s move to the U.S. in 1943. But with the firsthand experience of the modern world came the knowledge that these ideals were formed by a history she did not share. Monir became torn between the pull of her nationality and history, and the push of modernity.
Monir managed to cull what she needed from the best of the two worlds. In New York, she befriended its most fascinating characters; Milton Avery, Willem de Kooning, Joan Mitchell, Louise Nevelson, Barnett Newman, and even Andy Warhol. And during her time in Iran, she explored all that the country has to offer: collecting jewelry, craft, and carpets, and studying the practices and past forms of Persian culture.
The first piece one encounters in Infinite Possibility is Monir’s “Mirror Ball” project(1974),four different spheres covered by mirror. On each a distinct form is achieved by the specific placement of mirrors. This piece is emblematic of the dynamic in Farmanfarmaian’s work; it is not in any way “traditional” and yet it is definitely not fully western either. Monir somehow successfully manages to make Islamic art meet disco.
“Glass Sculpture on Geometric Design” (1976) is Monir’s quietest piece, a simple medium-size, minimalist geometrical work. A hexagon, a square, and a triangle—made out of blue/green thick glass—form a hierarchy. This is Farmanfarmaian’s most “Western” piece, completely in accord with its conceptual anxieties. Acknowledging the artist’s understanding of Western art history, the artist faces these hard questions: where does this place her own practice? What is the lesson of the Western movements if one is not part of that culture and history? How can she be influenced by the pure dance of materials in the works of abstract expressionists, if she has not shared a history long obsessed with narration and representation? How can she embrace the merging of the high and the low with Pop Art, if consumerism did not ever exist where she grew up? How can she celebrate the freedom from all distractions and become simply lost in the forms as Minimalists do, if none of it was a revolt? What about the root and weight of geometry and mathematics as the norm of her visual history?
One can imagine the Iranian explorer with her enthusiasm for modernism suddenly wondering: what if tomorrow’s globalized world was to be built on a exclusionary vision of art history? To find a path true to herself Monir moved back to Tehran in 1957 and spent the following decades exploring her own visual culture. This very personal search for an integration of the East and the West gives Farmanfarmaian’s work its special dynamic, as is demonstrated by the majority of works in this exhibit that were made after 1957.
It is clear how the opposing forces of each world inform Farmanfarmaian’s work. In general, the Western influence is apparent in the artist’s pure devotion to abstraction. Her understanding of the modern world gave her freedom. Pop art allowed her to explore pop and high art alike. Abstract Expressionism gave her confirmation to embrace the poetry of materials. Minimalism provided the confidence to comfortably reside in the world of forms, mathematics, and geometry. Postmodernism freed her from the burden of skill.
There are frequent undeniable references to Iran’s art history. Her fascination with abstraction is continuously explored in the geometric art practices of Iran. And her medium of choice is the mirror—a material frequently used in the popular architecture of the Qajar. Monir had found a way for creation, true both to her time and her history.
At times, this mash-up becomes superficial and even forced and imposed. In her later Muqarnas works, the sculptures borrow the forms of the famous decorative corbels of Iranian/Islamic architecture. Taken out of context in this white cube, they turn into high art objects. One can enjoy the odd reflections created in these mirror objects. One can even take pleasure in the conceptual irony. But take a closer look at these massive mirror pieces, and they fall apart. The small slices of mirror forming the details—put together not by the artist, but the professional craftsman—are placed carelessly. Conversely, when absorbed as a whole, all that is left of these Muqarnas pieces, separated from their original transcendental environments and isolated, is design.
One could argue that there is enough to exclude Monir’s art from either world. From the Western perspective the work seems too decorative, too abstracted from life, and not invested enough in the conceptual dilemmas of art. For Abstract Expressionism, it’s too interested in design, for Pop Art, too precious with art, for Minimalism, too concerned with poetry. From the Eastern vantage point it is too cognitive, too material, too self involved. To fit the cliché of the mystical artist, it is too self-conscious and lacking the labor, skill, and devotion. For the socialist/activist ideal, she is too pronounced as an individual and not devoted enough to the struggles of the common man.
But this homelessness is not exclusive to these pieces; it is the reality of our contemporary, globalized world. The inability of anyone to fit Farmanfarmaian’s work into a neatly defined box is a clear sign of her work’s ultimate success. Although the two worlds still frequently define themselves in contrast to the other, this artist has continuously reminded us that the interaction of visual cultures is a factual necessity and isolation is only an illusion. Herein lies the true beauty and pleasure of Infinite Possibility: the opportunity to let go of all the preconceptions, so that for a few brief moments, one can simply enjoy the shapes dancing.