Installation shot of Parviz Tanavoli exhibition at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College. Photo by Charles Mayer.

PARVIZ TANAVOLI, Neon Heech, 2012, neon, 54 × 20 × 31.5 cm. Photo by Charles Mayer.

PARVIZ TANAVOLIPersian Telephone I, 1963, bronze, 45.7 cm x 25.4 cm. Grey Art Gallery, New York University Art Gallery. Gift of Abby Weed Grey, 1975, G1975.50. Photo by Charles Mayer.

PARVIZ TANAVOLILast Poet of Iran, 1962, oil on canvas, 119.1 × 114.3 cm. Grey Art Gallery, New York University Art Collection, Abby Weed Grey Bequest, 1983, G1983.32. Photo by Charles Mayer.

Parviz Tanavoli

Davis Museum at Wellesley College
Iran USA

In 1958, after studying sculpture in Italy, Parviz Tanavoli returned to Iran and, at the age of 21, participated in the first Tehran Biennial, as well as that year’s Venice Biennale. Ever precocious, he opened the Atelier Kaboud exhibition space two years later. There, he and his compatriot Charles Hossein Zenderoudi exhibited their richly symbolic, abstracted works inspired by vernacular Iranian styles and mythologies—and in doing so, launched a modernist movement later named Saqqakhaneh, after the Shia-Islamic-inspired decorations on public water fountains. A prodigious and active collector of textiles and folk objects beginning in those days, Tanavoli’s artistic lexicon is based around a set of recurring motifs: the semi-mythic figures of the poet and the prophet, pairs of lovers, birds, lions, and, later, keys, locked cages and walls. Perhaps his most iconic form, however, is the Farsi word “Heech” (meaning “nothing” or “nothingness” and a central subject for Sufi philosopher-poets like Rumi), which he has been making into free-standing sculptures since 1965, continuing the series even after emigrating to Canada in 1989.

A renowned figure at home and within the Iranian diaspora—the gap between the two can be very wide—Tanavoli was long overdue for a comprehensive retrospective. That opportunity was furnished by the Davis Museum at Wellesley College, a prestigious women’s university in the suburbs of Boston, where the urgency to acquaint viewers with all of Tanavoli’s prodigious artistic talents and intellectual interests, even in a limited gallery space, was understandable and quite apparent. The show’s two curators, Lisa Fischman, director of the Davis Museum, and Brown University professor Shiva Balaghi, displayed more than 175 objects in a 4,000-square-foot gallery. Leaving just enough space for viewers to navigate the show, the pair assembled paintings, free-standing sculptures (many of which were on pedestals), collages, silkscreens, lithographs, ceramic works, cases of his jewelry that were modeled on his sculptures, all of the books published about his works and textile collections, and videos about his productions. The show would have also included samples from his legendary tapestry collection, as well as a few of his precious early paintings and sculptures, if not for Iranian export regulations. Regrettably, the desire to present so much of his oeuvre far surpassed the capacity of the space and constrained the curators’ ability to articulate the narrative of his artistic development.

Tanavoli’s formative period of the late 1950s and early 1960s, and through the early 1970s, were plainly his most innovative eras—and the most interesting from an art-historical perspective. In the late 1950s, his absorption of European modernism, together with his capacious love of Iranian folk forms and beliefs, inspired objects that belong to neither world, but to a realm that would become postmodernism and, later, international contemporary art. Unfortunately, this period is under-represented in the Davis Museum exhibition, with just a sample of works such as The Last Poet of Tehran (1962), a canvas of silhouetted, abstracted figurative forms, and the amusing Persian Telephone (1963), which incorporates vernacular decorations and “male and female forms” into a payphone. Noticeably absent are two iconic works by Tanavoli that were recently shown in “Iran Modern” (2012) at Asia Society in New York: his proto-Pop collage of Persian rugs and ewers, entitled Innovation in Art (1964); and the colorfully painted, almost robotic-looking figures of The Poet and the King (1964), which key viewers into his early appreciation of everyday materials, colors and even kitsch. By the 1970s, he was deep into the “Heech” series, pairing the calligraphic form with walls, tables, chairs and cages, creating seemingly endless variations on the idea of nothing.

Though billed as his first United States retrospective in 40 years (he showed at the Grey Art Gallery, at New York University, in 1976), the Davis Museum exhibition is dominated by objects from the last two decades, which lack a historical patina and suffer from almost excessive facility with form and production. In particular, too much is made of recent iterations of the “Heech” series, which are obviously very dear to the artist himself. A huge, brushed-aluminum Heech looms over the entrance, flanked by a grouping of two small red ones, two medium-sized pink versions and a trio rendered in neon, with another in bronze sitting on a chair. However, seeing so many of them altogether, the effect is repetitive rather than revealing, and borderline solipsistic. Furthermore, the impact of such forms—in brushed metals, many sitting on white pedestals—is diminished by how outdated and mass-produced they appear. It is a paradox, perhaps, that the oldest works in the show are still the most alive and rebellious.

More judicious curators might have reigned the artist in and placed more emphasis on the first half of his career, with a better-framed narrative of his development, particularly in the context of Iran’s midcentury society. (Again, it seemed likely that the difficulty of moving objects between Iran and the United States might have made sourcing objects from this period a challenge or near impossibility for the curators.) Enlivening and deepening this crucial earlier period of his life would have made a stronger case for his artistic importance, both to Iranians at the time and to those of us coming to his work decades later. Additionally, the curators could have jettisoned a few of his extraneous creative projects, like the miniature versions of his sculptures that pass for jewelry, which are hardly integral to his artistic practice. Nevertheless, the Davis Museum’s retrospective will likely be regarded as the first of its kind, as more institutions revise their postwar art-historical narratives to reflect the global proliferation of extraordinary, singular figures like Parviz Tanavoli.

A garden of Tanavoli’s colorful fiberglass Heeches (2007–12). Photo by Charles Mayer.