Monir at the Guggenheim

Iranian artist Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian does not make jewelry, but her work shares many of the qualities of a beautifully wrought pendant or brooch: symmetry, geometric precision, and the use of glittering, eye-catching materials. “Flawless” in the sense of a saleable diamond, Monir’s “mirror sculptures” and drawings do however differ from jewelry in size: think, intricate like a diamond necklace on the scale of a large painting. The effect is dazzling, much like that of a religious decoration. Though she describes her work as strictly secular, the influence of Islamic art—observed in the mosques and marketplaces of her home country—is apparent, as is the attitude of perfectionism shared by all devotional art.

This month the Guggenheim shows a retrospective of Monir’s work titled Infinite Possibility. Mirror Works and Drawings 1974–2014. The sense of infinite possibility is attributable not only to the zealous degree of detail and complexity in Monir’s works, but also to her extensive use of mirror, a medium that compounds an already dazzling geometric mirage.  

Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian 

Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian 

Monir, who is now 90, divided her career between Tehran and New York, and the double-influence is evident in her style. The stark angles and powerful forms, along with the very concept of abstract sculpture relates Monir to her minimalist contemporaries such as Frank Stella. But knowing the company she kept—Willem de Kooning, Barnett Newman, Andy Warhol—helps one appreciate just how radical her work really was in post-50’s America. At a time when most progressive artists were experimenting in chaos, accident, and extreme reduction, Monir reverted to the cautious, mathematical, and systematic methods of ancient craftsmen.  

Surprisingly, many of the works on view at the Guggenheim have never been seen by the public. During her twenty-six-year exile in New York (a result of the Iranian Revolution), Monir was mostly confined to making drawings and collages. Since her return to Iran, she has continued her sculptural practice including the development of moving sculptures—yet another level of dynamism added to an already reeling effect. The satisfaction of seeing these in person, I can only imagine, is like that of examining a good piece of jewelry compounded by so many mirrors.