Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Grey Art Gallery’s Enhanced Database of Modern Art from Iran, with Annotated Bibliography

by Caitlin McKenna, IFA NYU M.A. ’11, former Graduate Assistant, Grey Art Gallery, NYU; and Curatorial Assistant, Arts of Asia, Africa and the Islamic World, Brooklyn Museum

Part One

Siah Armajani, Sealed Letter, 1964. Acrylic, ink, string, and sealing wax, 10 1/4 in. x 13 in. Grey Art Gallery, New York University Art Collection, Gift of Abby Weed Grey

While the Grey Art Gallery regularly organizes loan exhibitions, it is also home to an “in-house” landmark—the Abby Weed Grey Collection of Modern Art from the Middle East and South Asia. This collection, one of the most comprehensive of modern art from Iran outside the Middle East, comprises works by Iranian artists working in the pre-revolutionary period of the 1960s and ’70s. It includes examples by many well-known figures of the Iranian art scene, such as Siah Armajani, Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, Faramarz Pilaram, Parviz Tanavoli, and Charles Hossein Zenderoudi. As Graduate Assistant at the Grey during 2010, I wrote “chat” labels for about forty of the works in Mrs. Grey’s collection and compiled an annotated bibliography on modern and contemporary art from Iran. I am happy to announce their publication on the Grey’s website, to discuss the nature of the project, and to share a few personal reflections.

For readers unfamiliar with the collection’s history at NYU: Mrs. Grey was a philanthropist from Minneapolis who amassed a substantial collection of modern art from the Middle East and Asia, about one-fifth of it from Iran. While it may be difficult to imagine the international art scene before the recent upsurge of interest in the “global contemporary,” Mrs. Grey’s interests were unique in the 1960s and ’70s. She eventually chose NYU as the home for her collection, endowing the Abby Weed Grey Art Gallery and Fine Arts Library. Selected works from Mrs. Grey’s collection were on view during the gallery’s inaugural exhibition in 1975 and were included in the groundbreaking exhibition "Between Word and Image: Modern Iranian Visual Culture" presented by the Grey Art Gallery in 2002. The latter exhibition’s accompanying publication, Picturing Iran: Art, Society, and Revolution, edited by Shiva Balaghi and Lynn Gumpert with contributions by Fereshteh Daftari, Haggai Ram, and Peter Chelkowski (I.B. Tauris, 2002) remains one of the most comprehensive scholarly treatments of the subject. Along with the database of the Iranian works from Mrs. Grey’s collection that appeared on the Grey’s website in 2007, the research begun with “Between Word and Image” formed the basis of my project to publish in more detail this important resource for the study of Iranian art.

 Faramarz Pilaram, Mosques of Isfahan (A), 1963. Ink, watercolor, gold, and silver paint on paper on board, 54 in. x 38 1/4 in. Grey Art Gallery, New York University Art Collection, Gift of Abby Weed Grey

Researching artworks, artists, and approaches taken by scholars and curators in presenting Iranian art was the first, more straightforward stage of my project. The second phase, writing the “chat” labels and bibliography, required me to consider my readers’ needs. I had to develop coherent themes while taking into account the fact that the history of Iranian art, culture, and religion might be unfamiliar topics for them. The didactic purpose of my texts is similar to that of a museum’s interpretative materials, although the point of access for my project is a remote computer screen rather than a gallery wall. As a graduate student at the outset of the project and a full-time museum professional at its conclusion, I found this aspect of the project both instructive and rewarding. In Part Two of this blogpost, I will focus on some of the major artists whose work is included in the NYU Art Collection and discuss its important role in preserving and disseminating knowledge about Iran’s modern artistic heritage.

Part Two

Charles Hossein Zenderoudi, Lock, n.d. Ink and tempera on paper, sight: 19 1/2 in. x 14 3/8 in. Grey Art Gallery, New York University Art Collection, Gift of Abby Weed Grey

In Part One of this blogpost, I sketched the history of the Abby Weed Grey Collection of Modern Art from the Middle East and South Asia, which forms part of the Grey Art Gallery, NYU Art Collection. I also discussed my role in writing “chat” labels for the Grey’s online database of Iranian works from Mrs. Grey’s collection, along with an annotated bibliography. Below I introduce some of the major artists whose work is included and discuss the collection’s importance in preserving and disseminating knowledge about Iran’s modern artistic heritage.

Modern Iranian artists’ turn inward to their own culture’s source material to create a visual language that was both Iranian and modern is one of the most important broad themes that I strove to convey. Many of the artists whose work was collected by Mrs. Grey were associated with the Saqqakhaneh movement. An art critic coined this term retrospectively to characterize works that draw upon the imagery of Iranian culture and religion to consciously create a specifically Iranian modern art. Although many Iranian artists spent time in Europe, this new Iranian art was not derivative of European or American modernism. It was less concerned with form than Western modernism, focusing instead on the creation of an Iranian identity. The word saqqakhaneh refers to public water fountains upon which locks were affixed in Shi‘a devotional rituals. Related imagery appears in many of the works in Mrs. Grey’s collection, for example Parviz Tanavoli’s Heech Tablet (1973) and Charles Hossein Zenderoudi’s Lock (n.d.). Other significant allusions to Iranian culture appear in imagery or titles referring to the Shi‘a martyr Husayn ibn ‘Ali; Persepolis, the ancient capital of the Achaemenid Empire; or Rostam, the legendary Persian hero who appears in the epic poem Shahnama (“Book of Kings”). Iranian architecture plays a role in the work of Faramarz Pilaram, who evokes the famous 17th-century mosques of his hometown of Isfahan, Iran, in his series of mixed-media works entitled Mosques of Isfahan. Artists used these allusions to Iranian culture in new ways, eschewing the academic realism of the University of Tehran’s Faculty of Fine Arts and its Beaux-Arts curriculum.

 Parviz Tanavoli, Heech Tablet, 1973. Bronze on travertine stone base, 71 1/2 in. x 18 1/2 in. x 11 7/8 in. Grey Art Gallery , New York University Art Collection, Gift of Abby Weed Grey

The Grey Art Gallery’s collection is one of the most important collections of modern art from Iran outside the Middle East not only because it includes so many works of the Saqqakhaneh movement, but also because it is in the hands of an institution rather than an individual. I know of no other Western museum with similar works in its permanent collection, and most exhibitions of Iranian art in the United States and Europe have been held at commercial galleries. Two American exceptions are “Iran Inside Out” an exhibition held at the Chelsea Art Museum in New York in 2009 (the majority of the works were lent by galleries or private collectors) and a forthcoming exhibition at the Asia Society. Artists such as Parviz Tanavoli and Charles Hossein Zenderoudi often appear in exhibitions (and even auctions) as “modern masters” of Iran and are often acknowledged as precursors to Iranian contemporary artists—but there is a lot more research still left to do on both their own work and that of other Iranian artists working in the later 20th century.

As I have become more involved with the fields of modern and contemporary art from the Middle East and Islamic art (and more aware of the quandaries of using such over-essentialized and problematic terms), I have come to realize a further significance of Mrs. Grey’s collection. Contemporary art from the region is presented in exhibitions and art books with increasing frequency (and future increases are likely in the wake of the Arab Spring). The earlier story of modern art, however, demands to be told in more detail, both for its own merits as well as to provide important historical context for the contemporary period. Mrs. Grey’s collection and its documentation is valuable, then, both as visual evidence of modern Iranian art and as a model for the writing and exhibiting of the history of modern art from other countries in the region. Here I do not refer to a formal model, but rather an example of the kind of research that should occur: exhibitions that cover in detail one country or period, scholarly exhibition catalogues and monographs, and, eventually, catalogue raisonnés of the individual artists’ works.

This project’s two-year timeline allowed space for reflection in editing the texts and, of course, for additional research. Although these “chat” labels and bibliography are only a small start, I hope that they will serve as a valuable educational resource and inspire a broader audience to discover modern Iranian art. They certainly inspired me.

Note: To readers interested in further exploring the visual references to Iranian culture made by artists whose work Mrs. Grey collected, I highly recommend visiting the new galleries for the Art of Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the Arts of the Islamic World gallery at the Brooklyn Museum; and the Ancient Near Eastern galleries at both institutions. Particularly noteworthy at the Brooklyn Museum is its excellent collection of art from the Iranian Qajar dynasty (1785–1925), during which the seeds of modernism were planted.

Written by Caitlin McKenna

Via New York University Blogs


  1. We are happy to announce that the Grey's enhanced database of modern Iranian works in the NYU Art Collection is now online--with extended texts and an annotated bibliography.

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