Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian (1922-2019) was one of Iran’s most famous and revered visual artists, internationally known for her geometric mirror sculptures that combined the mathematical order and beauty of ancient Persian architectural motifs with the forms and patterns of sharp-edged abstraction of the post-war period. The High Museum of Art presents Monir Farmanfarmaian: A Mirror Garden (Nov. 18, 2022–April 9, 2023), the first posthumous exhibition of her work in an American museum.
The exhibition was inspired by the High’s acquisition in 2019 of Farmanfarmaian’s 2012 cut-mirror sculpture Untitled (Muqarnas) (2012) and her 2014 drawing Untitled (Circles and Squares). Muqarnas was realized with funds from the Farideh & Al Azadi Foundation acquired as part of a significant donation to the Woodruff Arts Center, of which the High is an arts partner, to purchase and display works by Persian artists.
“Untitled (Murqarnas) is among the most popular works to be seen in our collection galleries. We’re excited to showcase more of Farmanfarmaian’s work, providing a broader context for understanding her creative process and practice,” said Rand Suffolk, The High’s Nancy and Holcombe T. Green, Jr., Director.
Michael Rooks, Wieland Family Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at High’s Wieland, added: “We are honored to recognize the importance of Farmanfarmaian as a unique creative force through this exhibition. For generations of artists in post-revolutionary Iran, Farmanfarmaian represented the paradigm of an independent artist whose work was not constrained by the history and customs of its context, but existed in dialogue with contemporary art practices across cultures. At the same time, her work reflects a deep understanding and reverence for Iranian culture.”
The title of the exhibition is borrowed from Farmanfarmaian’s 2007 memoir, co-authored by Zara Houshmand, which evokes the visual splendor of the artist’s mirror mosaic sculptures. The more than 60 works featured in the exhibition include a selection of sculptures, drawings, textiles and collages spanning four decades from 1974 to 2018. Early drawings explore the infinity of geometric space and the myriad possible variations of geometric patterns Her series Nomadic Tents from the late 1970s years uses various combinations of shapes based on the triangle. Farmanfarmaians Nomadic Tents refer to the nomadic tribes of Iran that the artist studied in her youth and hint at the artist’s diasporic relationship with her homeland after the Iranian Revolution of 1979.
In addition, the exhibition features a selection of rarely seen Heartache Boxes, small assemblages that provide a poetic visual reminder of the artist’s mid-career life. Begun after the death of her husband in 1991, the intricately designed Heartache Boxes are arranged with objects related to longing, memory and dreams. They include prints, photographs, and a variety of objects related to the artist’s life, times, and career, including miniature images of her early work and references to her “lost” life in Tehran before the Iranian Revolution.
The exhibition will also include a series of mirror mosaic sculptures by the artist throughout her career. Farmanfarmaian’s best-known sculptures combine fragments of mirror and reverse glass painting in rich mosaic designs, using a 17th-century Persian technique called aineh-kari. Some of their earliest mosaics were made in the form of mirror balls, such as Mirror Ball (1974), which demonstrates the endless possibilities for mosaic designs on a sphere. Farmanfarmaian’s mirrored spheres hint at the artist’s later sculpture, which is notable for its intricate patterning and complex form.
Among the late works in the exhibition, Untitled (Muqarnas) from the House Collection refers to the honeycomb ceilings found in Persian shrines and palaces, while its wing-like forms are reminiscent of the wings of the Faravahar, an ancient Zoroastrian symbol associated with Persian cultural identity is connected. Another late work entitled Gabbeh (2009) features a triangular pattern of overlapping hexagons that serves as the basis for an irregular combination of colorful polygons, arcs and diagonals. Its title refers to a type of Persian carpet made by nomadic weavers. The exhibition also includes a selection of silk carpets designed by Farmanfarmaian.
Between 2010 and 2014 Farmanfarmaian produced a series of works she called “Families” – five groupings of eight sculptures based on the eight regular polygons in Euclidean geometry. The exhibition shows all eight geometric shapes, which come from several “families”. The variation of form, pattern and structure in the families will demonstrate the advanced complexity of the artist’s concept while revealing the fluidity of geometry and the fundamental mathematical principles at the heart of Farmanfarmaian’s practice.
The exhibit is presented on the second level of the Anne Cox Chambers Wing of the High School.
About the artist
Farmanfarmaian was born in Qazvin, Iran in 1922 and studied at the College of Fine Arts of the University of Tehran in the early 1940s. She later traveled to New York for further education. There she attended Parsons School of Design, Cornell University and the Arts Student League. In New York, Farmanfarmaian embraced the development of geometric abstraction and observed its burgeoning permutations in contemporary art. Her community of artist friends and colleagues there included Milton Avery, Alexander Calder, Joan Mitchell, Louise Nevelson, Frank Stella, Andy Warhol and other. These experiences, combined with her deep knowledge of Iranian arts and crafts, led to her personal vision for a truly global modernism.
After her marriage in 1957, the artist returned to Iran, where she began studying, collecting and preserving the traditional decorative arts of her homeland. However, the Islamic Revolution of 1979 brought Farmanfarmaian and her family back to New York, where they would remain in exile for the next 26 years. In 2004 Farmanfarmaian moved back to Tehran and opened a studio, working with some of the same artisans she knew in the 1970s.
The artist first attracted widespread attention in 1958 when she was awarded a gold medal for her work in the Iranian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, which led to exhibitions in Tehran, Paris and New York. Since then her work has been shown in major institutions and exhibitions around the world. Most recently, major retrospective exhibitions of her work have been shown at the Sharjah Art Foundation, UAE; the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin; the Guggenheim Museum, New York; and the Fundação de Serralves, Museu de Arte Contemporânea, Porto.
Farmanfarmaian’s work is represented in important public collections around the world, including the Guggenheim Museum, New York; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; the High Museum of Art, Atlanta; the Museum of Modern Art, Tehran; Tate Modern, London; and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
She is the subject of the monograph Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian: Cosmic Geometry edited by Hans Ulrich Obrist and co-author of her autobiography A Mirror Garden (Knopf, 2007). In December 2017, the Monir Museum opened in Tehran, the only museum dedicated to a single artist in Iran.