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The fabulousness of Monir

A show of dazzling geometry in New York

George Pendle | March 25th 2015

There is a terrific photograph of the artist Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, at work in her studio in Tehran in 1975. She is standing beside one of her sculptures—“Heptagon Star” (slide 1, above)—delicately adjusting the convoluted object. She is wearing a floral shirt, unbuttoned to expose a sliver of collarbone, and tucked into her unbelted hip huggers. Her lips are impeccably coloured, her eyebrows precisely plucked, and her hair bobbed to perfection. Devoid of an artist’s trademark spatter there is only one word that can describe how she looks: fabulous.

Monir’s entrancing geometric mirror sculptures, created over the past 40 years and now on show at the Guggenheim in New York, reveal how the artist carries this attitude into her work. She seamlessly combines the pared-down repetitions of American minimalism with the tessellations of Islamic art. Her use of mirrors is rooted in the traditional mosaic technique of “ayeneh kari”, in which thin mirrored slivers are arranged in decorative shapes to cover the inside of Persian palaces and mosques. But the confluence of ancient religious art practices with a famously austere modern-art movement does not create something dour, or even sombre; instead, the show is suffused with the same surprising grooviness found in that photo.

Take Monir’s drawings, for example. These reference the abstract, optical illusions of Op Art but she eschews that movement’s stern insistence on monochrome by using colourful felt-tip pens and glitter to hypnotise the gaze. Or how about the exquisitely calculated polyhedron sculptures that discard all mathematical propriety by bursting out of the floor dressed up like glam-rock versions of Tetris blocks. Indeed, if you tear your eyes away from the crystalline-like structures on the walls and the schist-like growths erupting from the ground, and instead look straight upwards, you will see the ceiling speckled with a reflected light that is strangely familiar. You’re not in an art museum, you suddenly realise; you’re at a disco.

Huddled together on a low plinth is a cluster of mirror balls that Monir created in the mid-Seventies. They look like exotic versions of that decade’s disco balls, although these ones do not deign to be hung from the ceiling. (Andy Warhol, a friend of Monir’s, kept one with him at all times.) The mirror ball holds a curious position in our collective unconscious. Nobody is entirely sure who invented it and, although mirror balls could be found in ballrooms and nightclubs as far back as the late-19th century, they were only thrust into the public consciousness in the Seventies when sound-chasing lights and four-on-the-floor dance beats turned a ceiling ornament into a symbol of glitz, glamour and kitsch. It is characteristic of Monir’s work that, as well as finding levity in artistic traditions not normally deemed playful, she can also plumb aesthetic depths using objects as monumentally shallow as this.

Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian: Infinite Possibility. Mirror Works and Drawings 1974–2014 Guggenheim, New York, until June 3rd

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