On View
November 21, 2012–January 27, 2013

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, honors one of Iran’s foremost contemporary artists with a special installation: Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian: Convertibles and Polygons. Farmanfarmaian’s mirrored mosaics represent a tradition that stretches back to 16th-century Iran. The installation is part of the museum’s larger program of global initiatives. 

“The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, has made a fundamental commitment to present art from the Islamic world,” commented Gary Tinterow, MFAH director. “With the great treasures of The al-Sabah Collection coming to Houston on long-term loan in January 2013, and celebrated with a gala on January 25, we also wanted to take this opportunity to introduce Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian to Texas audiences. Her mirror reliefs bridge two cultures as she draws on traditions in Islamic architecture and decoration to push the boundaries of Minimalism and today’s avant-garde. To underscore this aspect of Farmanfarmaian’s work, we have also installed two major canvases by Frank Stella, who shares her fascination with Islamic art and geometric design.”

About the Artist
Monir Sharoudy Farmanfarmaian was born in Qaazvin, Iran, in 1924 and raised in Tehran. She studied at the Fine Arts College at Tehran University before coming to New York in 1946, where she continued her studies at the Parsons School of Design and Cornell University. Working in New York in the 1950s as a commercial artist and designer, she became acquainted with the leading figures of the Abstract Expressionist avant-garde, as well as the young Andy Warhol, before returning to Iran in 1957. 

Once back in Iran, Farmanfarmaian found inspiration in both folk-art traditions and the intricate mirror mosaics that decorated mosques such as the Shāh Chérāgh in Shiraz. She later recalled a visit to this shrine as a pivotal experience: “We sat there for half an hour, and it was like a living theater . . . I said to myself, I must do something like that.”

In the 1960s and 1970s Farmanfarmaian also continued to follow advances among New York artists, and by the mid-1970s she formed important friendships with Frank Stella, Louise Nevelson and Robert Irwin, among others. Farmanfarmaian left Tehran in 1979 and lived for two decades in exile in New York. After 2000, she returned to her native country, where she is now recognized as a leading artist.

Convertibles and Polygons
Mirror mosaics are Farmanfarmaian’s chief means of expression. Mirror mosaics are pieced together in densely interwoven geometric arrays, reflecting every nuance of light and movement in the surrounding environment. Inserts of reverse-painted glass allow for further elaborations in color and design.

Farmanfarmaian both adds to and boldly redefines this practice. Collaborating with traditionally trained artisans, she applies the technique to densely worked reliefs, meant to be regarded as individual works of art, rather than decorations assimilated into an architectural whole. The artist’s forms are freed from their conventional use as surface decoration.

Farmanfarmaian is keenly aware of the mystical implications of these universal forms. However, her fluid treatment of forms suggests a more intuitive understanding of geometry, rather than a set language of symbols. The series Convertibles and Polygons reflects the artist’s conscious ordering and creation of a new visual language based on the principles of geometry. This fluidity is particularly apparent in her Convertible reliefs, which are made up of separate elements that can be arranged in different sequences. The diamond-shaped elements of Convertible Series, Group 12, currently on view, can be configured in a number of different patterns.

Similarly, while individual works in Farmanfarmaian’s Polygon Series can be identified as either an octagon or a nonagon (eight- or nine-sided shape), close observation of these reliefs reveals a seemingly infinite range of new geometries within each form.

Frank Stella
Frank Stella and Monir Sharoudy Farmanfarmaian met when Stella made his second visit to Tehran in 1974 and, in turn, she sought him out in New York later that year. Already interested in traditional forms of Islamic art, Stella recognized a kindred spirit in Farmanfarmaian. Complementing the Farmanfarmaian installation, the MFAH also has two works by Stella on view: Moultonville 1 (1966) and Lunna Wola I (1972).

In 2006, Stella wrote an appreciation of Farmanfarmaian’s work. After describing the desert landscape of her native Iran and her early career among the New York avant-garde of the 1950s and early 1960s, he asked how an aspiring young artist of her background could find a truly personal pictorial language.

This special installation is organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston / Caroline Wiess Law Building (mezzanine) / 1001 Bissonnet

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