Iranian Art Thrives in New York

NEW YORK – Little did I know as I stepped off the plane at JFK on Sept 5 that Javad Zarif, Iran’s Foreign Minister was at that very moment tweeting a Jewish new year greeting, to which Nancy Pelosi’s daughter Christina replied, “Thanks. The New Year would be even sweeter if you would end Iran’s Holocaust denial, sir.” Zarif promptly responded, “Iran never denied it. The man who was perceived to be denying it is now gone. Happy New Year.” A momentous exchange, which the New York Times instantly publicised.

This virtual thawing seemed to herald the warm September sunshine that bathed NYC for the next few days, and also the ‘Iranomania’ that swept the Big Apple in its wake. The Leila Heller Gallery opened its doors that same evening to no fewer than 3,000 guests in its prominently located Chelsea space amidst naked performance artists and a hugely international audience. Heller, famed for her fearless and pioneering drive in launching the market for Middle East contemporary art, hosted VIPs such as the lovely Sheikha Paula Al Sabah all the way from Kuwait, and dedicated art lovers from near and far.

Leila Pazooki’s This is Not Green, 2009. Courtesy of Leila Heller Gallery.

Calligraffitti 1994-2013’ celebrates modern and contemporary artists who have experimented with the use of language in art. A dazzling array of choices made it hard for me to put my money on just one but I need not have worried as brisk sales left few remainders! Big names such as Haring, Basquiat and Neshat vied with lesser knowns, but my eye was caught by a charming small lithograph by Mehdi Qotbi. Barely through this show, I dashed down the road to Shirin Art Gallery to catch the opening of another exhibition, this time focused on Iranian artists using the miniature style. ‘My Name is Not Rouge’ drew throngs of visitors as well, and here I was immediately fascinated by a Tanavoli miniature (who knew?) and a large Farah Ossoui ditypch.

Nicky Nodjoumi’s Inspector’s Scrutiny, 2012. Courtesy of Taymour Grahne.

Two nights later Taymour Grahne launched his beautiful new space on Hudson Street with Nicky Noujoumi’s solo show, ‘Chasing the Butterfly and Other Paintings.’ This modern master captivated the audience with his large-scale compositions, layering traditional and contemporary imagery with cutting satirical socio-political commentary. The audience here was predominantly Iranian but again the support was visibly international, and a fabulous post-party celebrated the occasion.

Artist Nicky Noujoumi in front of The Accident (2013) at the opening of his exhibition ‘Chasing the Butterfly and Other Paintings’ at Taymour Grahne. Courtesy of Taymour Grahne.

The culmination of these Iran-focused shows was of course the landmark ‘Iran Modern’ exhibition at Asia Society, the gala opening of which took place on Sept 9. I am not sure whether it was the quality of the exhibition or the nostalgia of the era itself that evoked an emotional response from many in the audience, myself included. But the significance of the Empress Farah Pahlavi viewing iconic Saqqakhaneh works from a period when Iran was experiencing huge artistic growth was appreciated by everyone. Iranian artists were at the forefront of what is today a thriving and vibrant market. A poster for the 1958 Tehran Biennale reminded us just how early it all began! In fact, three decades prior to the 1979 Revolution Iranian artistic output was being recognized at the Venice Biennale and other art festivals.

Art dealer Jeffrey Deitch, co-curator of ‘Iran Modern’ Layla Diba and writer Bob Colacello at the ‘Calligraffitti 1994-2013’ exhibition.

Melissa Chiu and co-curators Layla Diba and Fereshteh Daftari should be congratulated for their courageous and faultless initiative to bring to public attention the importance of the modernist era. It seemed to me as if every iconic work I had seen at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art (under the Directorship of Kamran Diba) was on loan to this exhibition! Later that evening, Sotheby’s Henry Howard-Sneyd brought down the hammer on three fabulous works after some frantic bidding in the charity auction, showing how lively the interest was. Public preview and special events followed the next day, but this sated traveller had to return home for the next exciting events at the Istanbul Biennale.