NEW YORK — Above the buzz of tool-wielding contractors installing two floors’ worth of her artwork at the Guggenheim Museum on Monday morning, even Iranian artist Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian had to ask, “Did I do that all?”
An understandable reaction considering the 91-year-old was taking in her first major U.S. museum show. When her “Infinite Possibility. Mirror Works and Drawings, 1974-2014” exhibition bows Wednesday, museumgoers will get a kaleidoscopic look at one of the more involved, yet untold stories in the modern art world.
When the outbreak of World War II derailed Farmanfarmaian’s plans to study in Paris, the artist wound up in New York — a decision by default that turned out to be a formative one. After studying at Parsons School of Design and Cornell University, she later worked as a Bonwit Teller fashion illustrator with her picnic-loving pal Andy Warhol and became ensconced in the influential New York art world of the Fifties and Seventies. Immersed in the Greenwich Village scene, she befriended Frank Stella, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Alexander Calder and Milton Avery. After marrying Abol Bashar Farmanfarmaian, an international lawyer and investor, and returning to Iran in 1957, she experimented with reverse-glass painting, mirror mosaics and the Sufi symbolism of classical Islamic geometrical designs. She refers to her geometric drawings on acetates sheets as “minarets.” She designed one for the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but it was never realized, nor was the glass minaret concept she has spoken with architects about. I.M. Pei told her that her drawings and sculptures could be made into buildings.
American art fans might be more familiar with her sketch of Iranian violets that Bonwit Teller used for its signature shopping bag or the mirrored disco balls she designed that Andy Warhol was so fond of photographing. She even used the plastic egg-like containers that L’eggs pantyhose were sold in as a canvas. Playfully posing dramatically for a photographer on Monday, Farmanfarmaian offered, “I used to be a model and a fashion stylist.”
In the Sixties, she traveled all over Iran, spending time with tribes, touring old cities, architectural ruins, Sassanian palaces and mosques. Farmanfarmaian and her husband fled Iran for New York after the Islamic Revolution of 1979, leaving without the bulk of her work and folk art collection, which was confiscated, sold or destroyed as a result. She returned to Tehran in 2004 to rediscover the source of her inspiration.
Throughout her career, she remained focused on whatever project was in front of her. Glancing around one of the Guggenheim galleries, she said, “In my studio, there is not a lot of space. So I see one piece next to the other and I am so involved with the other pieces that I am making.” So much so that the exhibition, which runs through June 3, has tweaked her own perspective of her work. “That looks so much better on the wall. The space, the distance looks completely different to me than what I had done. That looks unbelievable to me now. It is like another universe.”
Farmanfarmaian has delved into all sorts of mediums, not afraid to downsize as a means of stretching her skills. “Before the revolution, I was doing geometry [drawings] in 1974. After that, in 1979, because of the revolution, I did a lot of drawings. I came to New York so as not to be involved in the revolution, so for 30 years I was doing drawings, making collages, getting commissions. I was working a lot because I didn’t have the studio yet. I just had my living room, so I was doing a lot of small things — collages, memory boxes, Rumi-inspired drawings…” she said.
Having just released “Monir: Works on Paper” through Koenig Books and the Luma Foundation, the curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist said, “She has always been a bridge between art and architecture. She’s a real transformative person. She’s an artist who inspires many artists not only in Iran but all over the world.”
Here, Farmanfarmaian talks about her work, New York and more.
WWD: How did New York play such a pivotal role in your career?
MONIR SHAHROUDY FARMANFARMAIAN: I came to New York in 1945 to study and stayed for 15 years. I went to Cornell and then Parsons School of Design. Then I got married and went to Iran, where I lived for years.
WWD: What was working with Andy Warhol like?
MSF: I was working as a staff artist at Bonwit Teller, and then I was making their ads for magazines and newspapers. Andy was doing the drawings for the I. Miller shoes and I used to give the layout for 12 shoes to draw for one big page in The New York Times. The shoes would be in one position, the heels would be on this side and the toes would be in another. He was a very shy type of person, very quiet and very gentle. On the weekends, for example, we used to go picnicking in Central Park with all these other people, like this French guy who was his boyfriend. And there was the photographer Frederick [McDarrah.]
WWD: What was New York like then?
MSF: It was quieter but not so much unconscious about art. For example, if we wanted to listen to good jazz, we would go to Harlem. If we wanted good music and singing, we would go to Greenwich Village. There used to be a lot of private clubs. When I was working at Bonwit Teller, there was a lot of artistry in art. I used to go to all the galleries. There was one by the name of Kootz, and the son of [Henri] Matisse, Pierre, had a gallery with very avant-garde artists showing there.
WWD: Your own work for Bonwit Teller — the sketch of violets — became iconic. The company used it for its shopping bags and advertising for years.
MSF: That was not the time when I was working at Bonwit Teller. Long ago, when I came out of Parsons, I was looking for a job so I had my leather portfolio in my hand and I went from one agent to another agent. And one agent liked this small sketch of mine which was of violets. He bought it for $150 and I was very happy and pleased. After a while, two years, or a year, something like that, it became, printed for a paper shopping bag for Bonwit Teller.
WWD: You did not receive royalties, right?
MSF: Nothing. I don’t remember who was the agent. One hundred and fifty [dollars] was a lot of money for me. I was very happy about that for one piece of my drawings.
WWD: What do you think of how the art market has escalated, as with Gauguin’s “When Will You Marry” selling recently for $300 million? Do you think it has gotten away from the creativity in that it has become so commercial to some degree?
MSF: Well, every period has a different effect. When Pop Art came out with Robert Rauschenberg, Jackson Pollock and all these people, I used to see them. It was the greatest group that would get together once a month at this club on West 10th. The artists and the art critics would be there. I used to go to this club and Jackson Pollock would be there, [Willem] de Kooning, Barnett Newman, who did the obelisk sculpture in the center of the Museum of Modern Art. I knew him and his wife and Larry Rivers. Every period has some excitement.
WWD: When all of you would get together, were you having conversations, debating or drinking?
MSF: No, somebody would give a talk and then there would be questions and answers, and an argument. There were many, many artists there. Then everyone would go to the Cedar bar to have a drink. We would stay for hours. I was not drinking. I was a good Muslim at that time. Now I’ve become very bad [laughs].
WWD: In the early Seventies, you started to do architectural commissions — the first was for the Intercontinental Hotel in Tehran, which was built by Pan American Airlines.
MSF: Najeeb Halaby was the director of Pan Am and my husband and I were friends with him and his wife. [Their daughter Lisa became Queen Noor of Jordan.] He talked to the decorator of the hotel and said, “I have an Iranian friend with a studio. If you go and like it, you can use art in your hotel.” So he came and liked the mirror balls very much. That was in 1974 or 1975. During the revolution, they covered up much of them with wooden panels. Two walls were left and now people in the Iranian government have realized this art that must stay. They have removed the panels off of the space so you can walk into the lobby and see it. I haven’t seen it myself yet.
WWD: What about the recent news reports of art being destroyed in Iraq and Syria?
MSF: It’s a shame, really. The whole universe has changed — it’s such a shame.
WWD: What do you hope people would learn or gain from your art?
MSF: They have to be more educated and cultural to give them some advantage through art museums and in the schools.
WWD: What are you most proud of?
MSF: I am very proud that at this age I am showing my work at the Guggenheim Museum. I am really very happy about that. I could never even dream about that.
WWD: What did your friend Frank Stella say when he found out?
MSF: He came to Portugal for the opening of my show there. He is such a great artist and such a great friend. My children love him, his wife and his children. They’re like family. It has been years since we have been friendly, since 1975. [Speaking of their friendship in “Monir: Works on Paper” Stella said, “There’s very little art in the art world, I find — people don’t talk about ideas, they mostly gossip. We’d talk about our life in the city and our children.”]
WWD: You work in so any different mediums, with the drawings, memory boxes and collages. Is there one you enjoy more than other?
MSF: The mirror boxes with geometry. There is symbolism in the hexagon, and the infinity of a circle. The triangle is human consciousness; the square is north, south, west and east; the pentagon is the five senses: hearing, smelling, seeing, taste and touch.
WWD: Is it the pleasure of creating art, the challenge, the search for something — what is it that keeps you working so diligently?
MSF: Just to do something with my time. My husband passed away 21 years ago and I had nothing to do. My children were married. You know, he believed in me and my art and my talent very much. That’s why I kept working so hard. I had nothing else to do.