New York's Asia Society to unveil first US exhibition of pre-revolutionary modern Iranian art

Although Iranian art heavyweights made their reservations about the show clear, it will go on to tour North America


New York’s Asia Society museum will launch the first major US exhibition devoted to pre-revolutionary modern Iranian art made between the 1950s and 1970s in autumn 2013. The show will spend a total of three months in New York before embarking on a tour of North American museums. The exhibition, which will feature pieces never seen before from private and museum collections around the world, marks the beginning of the non-profit institution’s four-year focus on modern Iranian art.

“To understand contemporary Iranian art you have to understand the modern period,” said Melissa Chiu, the director of the Asia Society’s museum. “Many don’t know that this was an incredibly cosmopolitan period for Iranian artists and institutions.” Previously the society has highlighted historical projects that mostly focused on Safavid and Sassanian periods.

Given the attention modern Iranian art has recently received, Layla Diba, the adviser to the exhibition, says now is the ideal moment for modern art to take the spotlight. “This period is one that has been neglected,” she says. “Today, we have the historical distance of 30 to 40 years, which enables us to understand it and have a critical outlook on the period.” Diba says the exhibition has the potential to start a scholarly re-evaluation of the era, which she describes as a “chapter of lost history.” Importantly, several of the artists featured in the exhibition, including Charles Hossein Zenderoudi and Parviz Tanavoli, are still alive.


The planned exhibition has received a mixed reception from some in the Iranian art community, however. Kamran Diba, the founding director of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art (TMCA), told The Art Newspaper that he and Fereshteh Daftari, a former curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, who are leading experts of Iranian modern art, were asked to participate in a discussion on the modern era at the Asia Society in October, “but thus far were not asked to act as advisers for the 2013 exhibition.” Diba, who amassed a substantial collection of modern and contemporary art for the TMCA, said the concept for the show is a “challenging” one because of a limited amount of source material. “If the [Asia Society] wants to make a high calibre show, then they have to involve people who were active during those years,” he said.

Linda Komaroff, curator of Islamic art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, said the show has “enormous potential”. “Contemporary Iranian artists stand on the shoulders of these artists, and yet it is a blank spot. This exhibition can make the public thirsty for the origins of modernism in Iran and potentially give us a new view,” she said.

Funding will come from a mixture of foundations and individuals from the Iranian-American community. Past private donors to the Asia Society’s Iran shows include Sharmin and Bijan Mossavar-Rahmani, who after making a $10m donation to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art have a gallery named in their honour (The Art Newspaper, November, p16), and Leila Taghinia-Milani Heller, owner of New York’s LTMH Gallery. The Asia Society has yet to confirm the full scope of the show or finalise the list of participating museums.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Modern Iranian art in the New York spotlight'