Iranian artist Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, better known simply as Monir, has long believed in the transcendental possibilities of mirrors. The surfaces of her abstract sculptures and reliefs, as well as some of her collages, are covered with small pieces of mirror in carefully arranged abstract mosaics. “Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian: Infinite Possibility. Mirror Works and Drawings 1974-2014,” comprising some 80 works, offered reflections on space, time and infinity. The intricate interweaving of geometric patterns in Monir’s work corresponds to Sufi cosmology and the meditative and spiritual aspirations of abstract design, a hallmark of Islamic art throughout history.
The exhibition—the first museum survey of the 91-year-old artist’s work held in the United States—was organized by Suzanne Cotter, director of the Museu de Arte Contemporânea de Serralves in Porto, Portugal, where it originated last fall. Born in 1924, in Qazvin, about 90 miles northwest of Tehran, Monir moved to the U.S. in the mid-1940s, studied at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., and later, Parsons School of Design in Manhattan. She worked as a graphic designer, and in the 1950s befriended Andy Warhol and other denizens of the New York avant-garde scene. In the 1960s and through the mid-’70s, she divided her time between the U.S. and Iran, where she began to develop the mirror-mosaic constructions for which she is best known.
The exhibition’s catalogue traces the advent of these pieces to Monir’s 1974 tour of the Shah Cheragh shrine in Shiraz, accompanied by visiting New York artist friends Robert Morris and Marcia Hafif. The mirror-mosaics covering all the walls and ceilings of this 14th-century Shiite pilgrimage site inspired most of Monir’s output in the succeeding years.
An exemplary piece from the period, Geometry of Hope (1976), is a 50-inch square of mirrored rectangles and triangles organized in tight patterns. The mirror bits throughout Monir’s work are usually mounted on translucently painted glass and wood. The low-relief panel melds the spare geometry of Minimalist sculpture with the ornate decorative elements of medieval Persian motifs.
Relief Octagon (1977), also a low-relief wall-hung work, about 25 by 26 inches, consists of long, narrow mirrored strips, which bounce like the lines of a constellation from one point to the next. The work, along with variations in her oeuvre like it, feeds into itself like a Möbius strip or an Ouroboros—a sign of infinity or the eternal return—with no starting point and no end.
In the years following the 1978-79 Iranian Revolution, Monir relocated to New York. There, she worked mainly on paper, in her apartment. The elaborate and colorful compositions using pen, ink and felt markers feature repeated geometric patterns or clusters of calligraphic markings. The show highlighted a number of these works, as well as a double-panel frosted-glass door from 1982 that is etched with a pattern of interlocking geometric shapes.
In 2004 Monir returned to Tehran, where she established a studio and with the help of local craftsmen and assistants produced some of her largest and most resplendent works to date. Among them is “Fourth Family” (2013), a series of sculptures, about two feet high, placed at the Guggenheim on a low pedestal. Each of the eight spiraling mounds—made of blocky, interlocking mirrored forms—has a subtitle indicating its overall shape, ranging from a triangle to a decagon. The works engage the viewer as he or she simultaneously reflects on and is reflected by the innumerable mirror facets. As evidenced by this compelling series and other recent pieces on view, Monir seems—at this point in a seven-decade-long career—to be at the peak of her creative powers.