Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian

The Third Line

We tend to think of abstraction as apolitical. Sealed to questions of narrative, portraiture, or identity, geometric abstraction seems detached, or at least distant from, contemporary issues of conceptual or material representation. But it seems insufficient to study Iranian artist Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian’s pro- ductions without learning her personal history as well, especially when approaching her most recent body of work, “Infinite Geometry,” which consists of new mirror mosaics in addition to graphic geometric patterns designed by the artist on woven rugs, paper, and jewelry.

The series encapsulates a number of the past century’s political and cultural shifts within her own experience and practices. The artist was born into an established family in the ancient Persian city of Qazvin in 1924, growing up in a home adorned with ornately carved birds and flowers on its ceilings and Persian gardens outside her windows. She eventually moved to New York to study art. In the 1950s, she worked with Andy Warhol, designing advertisements for Bonwit Teller, and hung out at the Cedar Tavern with Frank Stella; in the ’70s, she made mirror-mosaic disco balls for Park Avenue homes. Returning to Iran in the early aughts, she rededicated her studio practice to Qajar Dynasty–era (1795–1925) ayeneh kari, creating intricate mosaics based on Islamic principles of sacred geometry, with master craftsman Haji Ostad Navid and a team of artisans, many of them the very same craftspeople she had employed when she was based in Tehran before the revolution in 1979.

Iran has a long history of broken mirrors, beginning with the Safavid period (1501–1722), when kings ordered large mirror panels to line their palace walls so that their
wives, trapped inside, could admire their own beauty and feel a little free. Inevitably, the mirrors didn’t make it intact over the long Silk Road, and the damaged precious material was repurposed into reflective tiles laid out in precise yet abstract designs.

The gleaming seductions gathered here are contradistinctively more streamlined and also lusher than the artist’s previous ayeneh kari: The bold, heavy lines of
Triangle (Maze), 2014, and Untitled (Maze – Red), 2015, are cleaner and more confident than earlier mirrors, leaving no room for baroque deviation. Untitled (Eye), 2015, a vertically oriented evil eye, stares right back at you without blinking, dismissing a demure glance away.

Midcareer in Tehran, Farmanfarmaian was something of an anthropologist, traveling through the countryside and deserts to gather tribal jewelry, “coffeehouse paintings,” and objects. Most of her collection from that time, including her own work from her studio, was confiscated by the Ayatollah and is un- traceable. We see her carry on these traditional crafts here in her own rugs, made in the ’90s but not shown until now, as well as a handful of jewelry pieces: lovingly hammered metals studded with rubies and emeralds, and mystical, knife-edge diamond and star shapes. The veiled material and interpersonal histories recede into the sharp, glittering angles.

T, April 2016


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