Apr 21 2019

Obituary: Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian (1922–2019)

by HG Masters

MONIR SHAHROUDY FARMANFARMAIAN standing in front of one of her mirror-mosiac creations in Tehran in the 1970s.

One of Iran’s most iconic artists, Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian died in Tehran on April 20, at the age of 97. Farmanfarmaian is celebrated for her abstractions created with mirrored mosaics and reverse-painted glass, which she transformed into dazzlingly complex two- and three-dimensional abstract forms that burst through modernist dichotomies of fine art and craft, Islamic geometry and Euro-American abstraction, painting and sculpture. She remained active in producing artworks in the last year of her life. A museum dedicated to her work opened in Tehran in late 2017 in the historical Negarestan Museum Park Gardens and keeps on display more than 50 of her works from across her six-decade-long career.

Monir’s life was a storied one. She moved to New York in 1945, and met many members of the New York School movement while studying art at Cornell University and fashion illustration at Parsons School of Art and Design and the The Art Students League of New York. Modernist painter Milton Avery taught her to make monotype prints, and she worked on illustration projects with Pop artist Andy Warhol, who later kept one of her mirrored-covered spheres in the living room of his Madison Avenue townhouse. 

Together with her second husband Abolbashar Farmanfarmaian, she returned to Iran in 1957 and began collecting Turkoman jewelry and coffee-house paintings in an effort to preserve the country’s diverse heritages. In 1966, the minimalist painter Marcia Hafif and sculptor Robert Morris visited Iran. Farmanfarmaian took them to the Shah Cheragh shrine in Shiraz. There, she recalls in her memoir A Mirror Garden (2007), co-authored with Iranian-American writer Zara Houshmand: “The three of us sat for hours in a high-domed hall that was covered entirely—every inch of surface—in a mosaic of tiny mirrors cut into hexagons, squares and triangles.” As she describes it: “I imagined myself inside a many-faceted diamond and looking out at the sun . . . It was a universe unto itself, architecture transformed into performance, all movement and fluid light, all solids fractured and dissolved into brilliance, in space, in prayer.”

Two panels from Lightning for Neda, 2009, created for the sixth Asia-Pacific Triennial at the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane.

These experiences informed her own work as she began to work with Iranian craftsman Hajji Ostad Mohammad Navid to use the mirror-mosaic technique of aineh-kari—which dates back to the 16th century—and reverse-painted glass, to create panels that fused the geometrical complexity of Islamic architecture with a style of postwar abstraction. In 1958, she participated in the first Tehran Biennial, organized by Armenian-Iranian artist Marcos Grigorian under Tehran’s General Administration of Fine Arts, and the Iran Pavilion at the 1958 Venice Biennale, where she won a gold medal. Throughout the 1970s, she exhibited at galleries in New York and Paris, and was commissioned to create works for the Empress Farah Diba’s office and living spaces in the Niavaran Palace in Tehran.

Following the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Farmanfarmaian and her husband were forced into exile and her collections of Iranian decorative arts, and many of her works from the time, were confiscated. Though she continued to make artwork and hold exhibitions, from the late 1980s until the mid-1990s, her activity tapered. Following the death of her husband in 1991 she returned to Iran for the first time after the revolution, and eventually relocated back to Tehran in the early 2000s.

In collaboration with a team of craftspeople, she burst back onto the international scene with shows at the Grey Art Gallery at New York University (2002); the Victoria and Albert Museum in London (2006–07); and The Third Line Gallery, Dubai (2007). At the sixth Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art at the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA), she produced a massive six-panel mirrored mosaic titled Lightning for Neda (2009) as a tribute to the young woman killed in a pro-democracy protest in Tehran. A planned exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tehran was cancelled after the conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became president of Iran in 2005.  

A retrospective of her works “Infinite Possibility: Mirror Works and Drawings 1974–2014” was curated by Suzanne Cotter at the Fundação de Serralves in Porto, Portugal and toured to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York in 2015. Her retrospective “Sunset, Sunrise,” which was first staged at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin in 2018, will travel to the Sharjah Art Foundation this November. Her works are in numerous prestigious private and public collections, including the Guggenheim; The Metropolitan Museum, New York; the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Jameel Collection, London; QAGOMA, Brisbane; The Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; Swisscorp Bank, Geneva; and The Sharjah Art Foundation.

HG Masters is deputy editor and deputy publisher of ArtAsiaPacific.

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