Ways to support us
About The Art Story a 501(c)3 Non-Profit Org
Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian Photo

Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian

Iranian Mosaic Artist

Born: December 16, 1922 - Qazvin, Persia (now Iran)
Died: April 20, 2019 - Tehran, Iran
Movements and Styles:
Minimalism
,
Feminist Art
"For me inspiration always comes from Iran, from my history, from my childhood, for better or for worse. I always go with the feeling of my eyes, and with my heart, and that is my main inspiration."
1 of 7
Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian
"My work is largely based on geometry which, as you know, always begins with a single point and can move from there into a circle. Or a point can become three leading to a triangle, or four to a square, five to a pentagon, hexagon, octagon, and so on - it's endless. I was inspired by the geometry I found in old mosques with their tile, metal, wood, and plaster work."
2 of 7
Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian
"Around 1971, I went to a certain shrine [in Iran],...and I became very awed with the way the mirror pieces were reflecting back images of the people there - the beggars, the holy men. It was so beautiful, so magnificent. I was crying like a baby."
3 of 7
Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian
"I read up on Sufi cosmology and the arcane symbolism of shapes," Farmanfarmaian wrote in A Mirror Garden, "how the universe is expressed through points and lines and angles, how form is born of numbers and the elements lock in the hexagon."
4 of 7
Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian
"The mirror reflects the sky, the water, and every color. It is a symbol of light and life, and when you stand in front of my mirror work and see the reflections, you are part of the work itself."
5 of 7
Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian
"Geometry has many different possibilities to create unlimited designs."
6 of 7
Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian
"I am not intellectual. I am very optical."
7 of 7
Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian

Summary of Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian

Monir Farmanfarmaian switched her residency between Iran and the United States frequently throughout her life. Her artwork was equally cross-cultural, bringing together the time-honored craft traditions of her Persian homeland with the stylistic innovations of the international avant-garde. A vibrant, adventurous individual and artist, Farmanfarmaian was born into political and religious "royalty," but was equally at home with the progressive, rebellious New York City art scene of the 1950s and 60s.

Best known for her kaleidoscopic, superbly crafted mirror-pieces Farmanfarmaian the artist was as multifaceted as her work, someone who flew in the face of artistic and societal expectations. As a woman who worked in the conventionally male craft tradition of mosaic, and as an Iranian who easily bridged the divide between the sacred geometry of Islam and the minimalist geometry of Western contemporary art, Farmanfarmaian defied the existing categories and preconceptions of the art world, reinterpreting media, styles, and motifs with her own singular vision.

Accomplishments

  • Farmanfarmaian's "epiphany" while visiting the mirrored interior of the 14th century mosque Shah Cheragh in Iran led to a remarkable period of artistic innovation, one which saw her experimenting constantly at the intersection between craftsmanship and conceptualism and between folk art and fine art traditions.
  • Farmanfarmaian's famous Mirror Balls, which superficially resemble 70s disco balls but are based on her experiences in Iran and time-honored Persian painted and cut-glass techniques, are the perfect emblem of the seamlessness and flair with which she reconciles the dual realms of her life and art, as well as of the past and present.
  • Although Farmanfarmaian did not directly describe her work as feminist, critics have seen in the dazzling and sensual surfaces of her mosaic mirrored pieces a desire to highlight the feminine at the heart of Islamic ornamental form and to subvert and literally fracture the conventional image of woman as object, not subject, of the artistic gaze.
  • Geometry was the visual basis as well as the symbolic foundation of Farmanfarmaian's mature style, encapsulating her beliefs in cosmology, mathematical purity, and the spiritual principle of infinitude.

Biography of Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian

Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian Life and Legacy

Farmanfarmaian, who early on complained that her American peers treated her like a pretty, exotic Persian carpet, lived for decades in New York City; for much of that time in exile from her homeland, Iran. She never forgot her origins, however. Her art is deeply imbued with the Islamic principles of harmony, balance, and unity, which she combined with the minimalist abstract vocabulary of Western Modern art she shared with her close friends Andy Warhol, Frank Stella, and Robert Morris, among others.



Progression of Art

1974

Mirror Ball

Farmanfarmaian's best known series, Mirror Balls, was a watershed moment in her artistic production. Despite their superficial resemblance to disco balls, these pieces were inspired by her background in the traditions of Iran, especially her revelatory visit to Shah Cheragh mosque, whose 14th century redesign was undertaken by a Persian queen, Tashi Khatun. Khatun ordered a nondescript mausoleum to be covered with millions of pieces of colored glass mirrors that, in Farmanfarmaian's words, seemed to set the space "on fire, the lamps blazing in hundreds of thousands of reflections."

Farmanfarmaian attributed the globe shape of these pieces to when she happened to be driving by a group of children playing soccer in the streets of Tehran and being fascinated by the flash of light created by the moving ball. A photograph from the 1970s shows Faramafarmaian throwing a mirror ball up in the air, the camera catching both her and the ball as a double image.

In seeking to recreate the impact of Shah Cheragh in a much more everyday object, Farmanfarmaian was attempting to bring the sacred, dematerialized quality of the mosque to everyday life. The effort, moreover, brought her deeply into the ornamental craft tradition of her homeland, a tradition known as Ayeneh Kari, the art of inlaying finely cut mirrors on plastered surfaces. In Mirror Ball, pieces of reverse-painted colored glass are interspersed to create a minimal but deliberate design, while the rest of the pattern is created from the shape and placement of the cut mirrors. Not quite traditional and yet not quite Western, sometimes characterized as "gaudy" or "kitsch," these pieces show Farmanfarmaian's capacity for reinvention and recombination, her ability, as one critic noted, "to cull what she needed from the best of two worlds." In an apparent nod to what could be considered the Pop-art quality of these works, Farmanfarmaian gifted one of these pieces to Andy Warhol in return for one of his Marilyn silkscreens when he visited Iran in the 1970s.

Mirror, reverse-glass painting, plaster on wood

1978

Untitled

The humble materials Farmanfarmaian used for these works on paper reflect the fact of her exile from Iran at the time of the Islamic Revolution. Without access to a studio, or her artistic collaborator, Farmanfarmaian could no longer produce her mirrored pieces. Instead, she found ways to experiment with a similar pictorial language of geometry and ornament using simple materials and methods, drawing in felt-tipped pens and colored pencils on paper.

Although two-dimensional, the drawings exhibit the sculptural qualities of Farmanfarmaian's other work, as well as her reliance on a visual vocabulary that references both Islamic art and Minimalism. The geometric shapes formed from outlines of different colors create spatial ambiguity and a mesmerizing layering effect, at times appearing to interlock, at other times to overlap or simply end in a suggestion of infinite movement. There is, in these works, a quality not unlike that found in early Cubism, of forms blown apart, as the architectonic lines and ornamental details recall the elements of an Islamic mosque in a fractured, multi-perspective view.

Felt-tipped pen and colored pencil on paper - Haines Gallery, San Francisco, California

1994

Heartache No. 7

Following the death of her husband in 1991 and while still in exile from Iran, Farmanfarmaian created a series of twenty-five sculptural assemblage memory boxes referred to as Heartaches, filled with family photographs, jewelry, and other ephemera she had either collected or produced that reminded her of her homeland. She explained that she called them "Heartaches" because they evoked a strong sense of nostalgia within her and recalled memories of the homes and people she had lost.

Used to working in a workshop with a team of artisans and craftsmen, Farmanfarmaian produced these works on her own, inside her apartment, engaging in a highly personal exercise in representing both grief/despair and beauty/happiness. As she told curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, "Each of them have a lot of meaning. For instance, I have two, three boxes that were made out of the fabric my mother used to wear and use. It was leftover and she gave it to me." As the Heartaches were meant to serve as memory boxes, the references to her homeland abound. In this instance, the reference to Persian carpets is evident, ¬as are the allusions to Persian miniature paintings, which often borrow from carpet design and are characterized by jewel-like colors.

Mixed media

2008

Untitled (Faravahar wings, Zarathustra)

This large sculptural "painting", comprised of series of triangular mirrors set rhythmically upon a panel backing, was inspired both by the mirrored decorations that cover the interior of the Shah Cheragh mosque in Shiraz, Iran, as well as by the Faravahar, one of the most important symbols from ancient Persia. Although typically the Faravahar is represented by a male figure at the center of a winged sun disc, here, Farmanfarmaian has removed the figural elements to create a more abstract and universal suggestion of expansiveness and flight. Some critics have seen a clear influence in this piece of the American artist Frank Stella, who was a close friend of Farmanfarmaian's since they first met in 1970 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Although visually simple, the piece thus represents an admixture, typical of Farmanfarmaian, of various histories and traditions. Moreover, the reference to Zoroastrianism in the title heightens the complexity. Zoroastrianism, based on the teachings of the Iranian-speaking prophet Zoroaster, is considered to be the world's oldest known monotheistic religion, and one which predates the presence of Islam in Persia. Farmanfarmaian's interest in this ancient religion was sparked when she herself attended a Zoroastrian high school. But it may also be that the piece contains a celebration of persistence and survival, especially given Farmanfarmaian's years of exile during the reign of the Ayatollah Khomeini; interestingly, the Faravahar icons were one of the few traditional national symbols not banned after the Iranian Revolution of 1979.

Mirror, reverse-glass painting and plaster on panel in aluminum artist's frame - Private collection

2009

Gabbeh

Back in Iran, toward the end of her life, Farmanfarmaian returned to her mirror work, continuing to experiment with geometric form and introducing greater amounts of color into her work. Gabbeh features a complex pattern of mirrors and colored, iridescent, porcelain pieces made by Persian ceramist Abbas Akbari. The work blends vertical and diagonal lines, triangles, hexagons, and circles. Unlike in many of her previous mirror works, Farmanfarmaian leaves the white plaster seams between each fragment visible, explaining that "Revealing the plaster opened a whole new vista of possibilities. The snowy matte surfaces made a beautiful contrast with the glistening mirror, like earth and water distilled into two different faces of purity, the colors of painted-glass accents gleamed with startling clarity against the white."

The title of the work, "Gabbeh", references a centuries-old rug-weaving tradition practiced by nomadic tribes in Persia. Gabbeh rugs are characterized by their bold colors and either geometric, or stylized human, animal and plant forms. They served many purposes, functioning as floor coverings, blankets, saddle pads, drapes, and more. Works such as this were an inspiration for Farmanfarmaian's great-nephew, Taher Asad-Bakhtiari, a textile artist who uses ancient techniques and traditional materials to create unique, modern re-interpretations of traditional tribal gabbeh works.

Mirrors, plaster, and ceramic - Haines Gallery, San Francisco, California

2013

Fourth Family, Hexagon

Although she continued to experiment with increasingly complex forms and compositions right up until her death, the main geometric underpinnings of Farmanfarmaian's art remained the same from the beginning to the end of her career. Fourth Family, Hexagon, a three-dimensional form comprised of tessellating and interlocking series of geometric forms, with an overall hexagonal shape, serves as a prime example of this.

From her early years of making mirror balls, Farmanfarmaian referred to her pieces as "geometric families", at once referencing the importance of family in her personal life and in Iranian culture, as well as the tendency toward seriality in Western Modern art. More crucial, however, is the form of the hexagon, which, according to Farmanfarmaian, "reflects the six virtues: generosity, self-discipline, patience, determination, insight, and compassion," and was the most important geometric form she employed throughout her career. As she explained to curator Hans Ulrich Obrist in a 2013 interview, "Sol LeWitt had his square, and it was wonderful how far he went with the square. For me everything connects with the hexagon. And the hexagon has the most potential for three-dimensional sculpture and architectural forms."

Mirror and reverse-glass painting on plaster on plastic - James Cohan Gallery, New York


Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian
Influenced by Artist
Artists
  • No image available
    Pari Ehsan
  • No image available
    Mandana Moghaddam
  • No image available
    Taher Asad-Bakhtiari
Movements & Ideas
Open Influences
Close Influences

Useful Resources on Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian

websites
articles
video clips

Related Artists

Related Movements & Topics

Share
Do more

Content compiled and written by Alexandra Duncan

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Nina Rosenblatt

"Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Alexandra Duncan
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Nina Rosenblatt
Available from:
First published on 14 Nov 2021. Updated and modified regularly
[Accessed ]