November 17, 2011 | by Lauren O'Neill-Butler
Born in a small town in northwest Iran in 1924, Monir Farmanfarmaian studied fine arts at the University of Tehran for only six months before deciding to move to Paris. But, with World War II raging, the ambitious young artist was denied entry in France; she opted instead for the United States, landing in New York City in 1944. “She traveled to the right place at the right time,” argues her old friend Frank Stella in Cosmic Geometry, Farmanfarmaian’s first and much-anticipated monograph, a testament of her continuing importance to contemporary Iranian art. Stella goes on to describe her facility with Abstract Expressionism’s “flatness” and “imagelessness”—her childhood home was filled with stained glass and wall murals—but neglects to mention all the other juicy details of her first decade in New York: how she rubbed elbows with the great artists of the day, including Pollock, de Kooning, and Rothko, at the Cedar Tavern and at the Arts Students League; how she worked as an illustrator for Bonwit Teller under Andy Warhol. “I wasn’t bad looking,” she says, “so everyone invited me to their parties.”
In 1957, she moved back to Tehran, married a young, American-educated lawyer named Abolbashar Farmanfarmaian, and began working with broken glass and mirrors in her studio—materials that became her hallmarks. She recounts traveling in 1966 to the Shāh Chérāgh mosque in Shiraz, Iran, a shrine “filled with high ceilings, domes, and mirror mosaics with fantastic reflections.” “We sat there for half an hour, and it was like a living theater,” she notes. “People came in all their different outfits and wailed and begged to the shrine, and all the crying was reflected all over the ceiling … I said to myself, I must do something like that, something that people can hang in their homes.”
Farmanfarmaian’s glimmering output reflects her reverence for and study of traditional Iranian art, especially patterned crafts from nomadic tribes and the mystical geometry of Islamic monuments. Her art also showcases a deep affection for handmade materials and ancient techniques. She often works with master craftsmen to produce her large-scale three-dimensional designs, complex and colorful panels that easily evoke both Sufism and modern architecture.
When the Iranian revolution broke out in 1979 and her possessions were seized—among them her Marilyn painting, a gift from Warhol, which was consigned to Tehran’s Museum of Contemporary Art—she took refuge in New York and focused on her daily practice of drawing flowers, tending her garden, and designing brilliant geometric rugs and intricate glass sculptures. She returned to Tehran in 2000 and, at eighty-eight, lives there today.
The Marilyn was recently put up for auction at Sotheby’s, her address still on the back of the piece, alongside the dedication “to Monir with love.”
Lauren O’Neill-Butler is managing editor of artforum.com.