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Honar-e Jadid: A New Art in Iran

From its inception, modern Iranian art sought to gain appropriate recognition through continuous dialogue with global modernism. Depending on historical circumstances and available resources, this effort led to different results. Keeping up with global trends was undoubtedly difficult, yet Iranian artists eagerly tried to do so. Beginning in the 1940s, these attempts were sporadic at first, but they gradually intensified and became more frequent in the 1960s and 1970s.

In general, the history of modern art in Iran can be divided into three chapters. The first chapter focuses mostly on a small group of artists trying to acquaint themselves with modernism and achieve a particular status in the country. The establishment of the School of Fine Arts at the University of Tehran in 1940, the Fighting Cock Society (خروس جنگی) in 1948, and Apadana Gallery in 1949, as well as the participation of some of the practicing modernists in a number of group exhibitions are among the most significant events of this period. In addition to the evolution of the education system, these events represent the willingness of Iranian modernists to participate in public exhibitions and other collective activities.

The second chapter, between 1958 and 1966, is marked by five biennial exhibitions, which came to be known as the Tehran Biennials. In this period, Iranian modernists gradually gained public recognition and grassroots support, and the visual arts received serious attention. Indeed, various factors such as a growing number of art galleries and an increase in reviews published in the press helped impart a measure of stability to the modern art movement.

The third chapter in this account, between 1966 and 1978, witnessed numerous events. During this period, the Iranian government’s encouraging cultural policy and various incentive programs played an important role in the further development of modern art in Iran. The most notable of these programs supported the organization of art exhibitions abroad, the opening of art markets, and the inauguration of art museums. In light of such events, many consider this period to be the golden age of Iranian contemporary art. Influenced by the social conditions of the day, the modern art movement in Iran took different directions, creating an art scene of spectacular diversity. Some artists focused solely on social issues, others began to pursue and promote international art trends, and some sought to do both. The latter approach is best exemplified by the Independent Artists Group1 formed in 1974, which addressed social issues while staying abreast of contemporary art trends, conceptual art in particular.

Artists in Iran didn’t just jump on the bandwagon of the latest art trends. Rather, following the sporadic efforts of a number of leading artists in the mid-1960s, they slowly began to experiment with a variety of contemporary styles. While the Independent Artists Group showed a collective approach to conceptual art, a wide range of tendencies could be discerned among other contemporary artists, whose practices continued after the Independent Artists Group disbanded in 1977.

However, shortly after the 1978 Iranian Revolution and the social and political transformations it generated, the general direction of art in Iran shifted, and contemporary art was unable to develop further into a flourishing, nationwide movement. Examining the activities of the Independent Artists Group not only sheds light on their values, it also provides a much-needed opportunity to better understand the visual art scene in Iran before the revolution. In response to this need, I began researching the Independent Artists Group a few years ago. The results were published in a comprehensive book entitled In Search of Freedom: About the Independent Artists Group, put out by Nazar Publishing in 2021.

The objective of this essay is to review some of the group’s activities, focusing on conceptual works, as well as the influence of conceptual art on other Iranian modernists. The Independent Artists Group, established in November 1974, represents a prominent movement that helped introduce a new trend in Iranian art. The members of this group were Massoud Arabshahi (1935–2019), Abdolreza Daryabeigi (1930–2021), Marcos Grigorian (1925–2007), Sirak Melkonian (b. 1931), Morteza Momayez (1936–2005), Gholamhossein Nami (b. 1936), and Faramarz Pilaram (1936–83). They challenged the status quo, criticized the prevalence of superficial modern expressions in society and the increasingly profit-driven art world, and were closely aligned with the conceptual art movement. This essay will primarily center on the works of three members, Grigorian, Momayez, and Nami, who were the most conceptually focused of the group.

The Independent Artists Group had their inaugural show at the First International Art Exhibition of Tehran in 1974, where members presented some of their recent works. Parviz Tanavoli (b. 1937) was invited as a guest artist. Later that year, the group held their second exhibition, Contemporary Iranian Artists, at Mess Gallery in Tehran.

Morteza Momayez, catalogue cover for the First International Art Exhibition of Tehran, 1974 — © catalogue cover for the First International Art Exhibition of Tehran, 1974
Morteza Momayez, catalogue cover for the First International Art Exhibition of Tehran, 1974.
Morteza Momayez, exhibition poster for Contemporary Iranian Artists, Mess Gallery, Tehran, 1974 — © exhibition poster for Contemporary Iranian Artists, Mess Gallery, Tehran, 1974
Morteza Momayez, exhibition poster for Contemporary Iranian Artists, Mess Gallery, Tehran, 1974.

Blue (آبی), the third exhibition of the Independent Artists Group, should be regarded as the moment their activities began in earnest. It was held from April 19 to May 10, 1975, at the Takht-e Jamshid Gallery in Tehran and was organized by the Ministry of Culture and Arts in cooperation with the National Committee for Visual Arts of UNESCO. Together with four guest artists, Bahman Borojeni (b. 1942), Mohammad Ehsai (b. 1939), Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian (1922–2019), and Changiz Shahvagh (1933–96), they chose the color blue as the theme of the show. The group’s objectives were listed at the beginning of the exhibition catalogue:

1.To create a center for visual artists.
2.To create cooperative and publishing facilities for cultural and artistic activities and exchanges and to introduce the works of the center’s members.
3.To cooperate closely with domestic and foreign art organizations, committees, and galleries to create useful opportunities for Iranian artists.
4.To open up new perspectives in Tehran’s art scene.

As one can see, these almost union demands and efforts to meet the general needs of artists were among the group’s goals from the very beginning. Other artists had already expressed these needs through collective actions. However, it was the last objective on their list that would receive the most attention and support: a new perspective was developed in line with a general tendency at the time toward conceptual art. The first signs of this new outlook can be seen in the Blue exhibition, in pieces by Grigorian and Momayez and, to some extent, in the work by Nami.

Morteza Momayez, exhibition poster for Blue, Takht-e Jamshid Gallery, Tehran, 1975 — © exhibition poster for Blue, Takht-e Jamshid Gallery, Tehran, 1975
Morteza Momayez, exhibition poster for Blue, Takht-e Jamshid Gallery, Tehran, 1975.

In a continuation of his previous assemblages, Grigorian made reference to a vulgar Iranian proverb by placing an object resembling human feces on a sieve. This theme was repeated in many of his other works in the exhibition. In some cases, real netting was attached to an (almost) nude drawing.

Morteza Momayez, War Notes, in the exhibition Blue, Takht-e Jamshid Gallery, Tehran, 1975 — © in the exhibition Blue, Takht-e Jamshid Gallery, Tehran, 1975
Marcos Grigorian, untitled works, in the exhibition Blue, Takht-e Jamshid Gallery, Tehran, 1975 — © in the exhibition Blue, Takht-e Jamshid Gallery, Tehran, 1975
Marcos Grigorian, untitled works, in the exhibition Blue, Takht-e Jamshid Gallery, Tehran, 1975.

Momayez’s first work in the exhibition consisted of three frames mounted to the wall with curtains drawn across them. The audience could pull back the curtains to reveal what was behind them: a cluster of knives, some dried blue flowers, and a mirror, respectively. His second piece involved several unwound rolls of toilet paper which hung from the ceiling of the gallery and touched the ground. To some viewers, this work appeared to be a response to Grigorian’s works.

Morteza Momayez, War Notes, in the exhibition Blue, Takht-e Jamshid Gallery, Tehran, 1975 — © In the exhibition Blue, Takht-e Jamshid Gallery, Tehran, 1975.
Morteza Momayez, War Notes, in the exhibition Blue, Takht-e Jamshid Gallery, Tehran, 1975.

The use of readymade objects by Iranian artists has a long history. In addition to Grigorian’s works and some occasional experiments by artists such as Kamran Katouzian (b. 1941), it is worth noting the use of copper and plastic utensils, such as Parviz Tanavoli’s colored ewer in a work from 1964.

Parviz Tanavoli, Revolution in Art, 1964, mixed media, 154 × 115 × 20 cm. Collection, Guggenheim Museum, Abu Dhabi. — © In: www.tanavoli.com
Parviz Tanavoli, Revolution in Art, 1964, mixed media, 154 × 115 × 20 cm. Collection, Guggenheim Museum, Abu Dhabi. In: tanavoli.com.

Nami included three works in Blue. The first, کویر (Desert), was an abstract, three-dimensional painting of the desert from the artist’s Projecting Canvases series. The second was a figurative sculpture, and the third was a three-dimensional form with a blue plastic tube. Considering Nami’s use of materials, this last piece can be seen as somewhat aligned with Grigorian and Momayez’s style—a style that would become more evident in the group’s subsequent exhibitions.

Gholamhossein Nami, کویر (Desert), 1975, acrylic on protruded canvas, 100 x 400 cm. Collection, Boom Gallery, Tehran. — © Collection, Boom Gallery, Tehran.
Gholamhossein Nami, کویر (Desert), 1975, acrylic on protruded canvas, 100 × 400 cm. Collection, Boom Gallery, Tehran.
Gholamhossein Nami, untitled work, in the exhibition Blue, Takht-e Jamshid Gallery, Tehran, 1975. The mirror image of this work was mistakenly printed in the exhibition catalogue — © in the exhibition Blue, Takht-e Jamshid Gallery, Tehran, 1975.
Gholamhossein Nami, untitled work, in the exhibition Blue, Takht-e Jamshid Gallery, Tehran, 1975. The mirror image of this work was mistakenly printed in the exhibition catalogue — © in the exhibition Blue, Takht-e Jamshid Gallery, Tehran, 1975
Gholamhossein Nami, untitled work, in the exhibition Blue, Takht-e Jamshid Gallery, Tehran, 1975. The mirror image of this work was mistakenly printed in the exhibition catalogue.

Iranian artists had long been acquainted with new trends related to conceptual art. In 1965, Katouzian presented a piece in a street exhibition in Pahlavi Park (now Daneshjoo Park) in which he attached an actual chair to a canvas. In what can be considered an amazing coincidence, Joseph Kosuth made his famous work One and Three Chairs (1965) that same year. Given Katouzian’s education in the United States, the possibility that he was aware of and influenced by Kosuth’s work is not far-fetched, but evidently, the only connection between the two pieces is the artists’ shared choice of object. In another work from 1965, partly influenced by Marcel Duchamp’s readymades, Katouzian made an assemblage with a bicycle wheel and other manufactured items. Here, too, he used found objects, not to imitate Duchamp’s style but to create a work of art.

Gholamhossein Nami (left) at a street exhibition in Pahlavi Park (now Daneshjoo Park), Tehran, 1965. Kamran Katouzian’s chair assemblage can be seen in the background.
Gholamhossein Nami (left) at a street exhibition in Pahlavi Park (now Daneshjoo Park), Tehran, 1965. Kamran Katouzian’s chair assemblage can be seen in the background.
Kamran Katouzian, untitled sculpture, 1965
Kamran Katouzian, untitled sculpture, 1965.

Other works by Iranian artists interested in new trends were rather more profound. Kamran Diba’s (b. 1937) multimedia installation for a solo exhibition at Seyhoun Gallery in Tehran in June 1967 is a good example. Diba’s installation included canvas paintings and a large number of valves and fittings arranged on boxes and platforms on the gallery floor. The paintings depicted silhouettes of human figures with sentences written across them. In one corner of the gallery, a tape recorder constantly played poetic verses written by Diba himself. Supposedly, the artist was sarcastically critiquing the reduction of art to banal mechanical productions.2

Diba’s track record clearly shows his familiarity with the artistic trends of the time. In 1966, for a group exhibition at Borghese Gallery in Tehran, Diba presented a work entitled The Dishonoured Nightingale , which can be likened to Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953).3 According to art critic Karim Emami, this work was originally a painting of a bird by Tanavoli, over which Diba added white paint to create the silhouettes of a man and a woman.4

Kamran Diba, Diver 29, 1966, from the Skilled Diver series (a.k.a. Clever Waterman), oil on canvas, 150 × 100 cm — © from the Skilled Diver series (a.k.a. Clever Waterman)
Kamran Diba, Diver 29, 1966, from the Skilled Diver series (a.k.a. Clever Waterman), oil on canvas, 150 × 100 cm.
Kamran Diba at his exhibition at Seyhoun Gallery, Tehran, 1967. In: Bamshad 28, 1967 — © In: Bamshad 28, 1967
Kamran Diba at his exhibition at Seyhoun Gallery, Tehran, 1967. In: Bamshad 28, 1967.

Diba’s other works also reflect his knowledge of international trends and his efforts to remain in step with them. In 1978, in an architectural project for the Carpet Museum of Iran, Diba built a concrete structure in the museum’s forecourt. This non-utilitarian work consisted of two nested, roofless cubes that conveyed a sense of the spiritual by referencing a prayer hall. When encountering the work, viewers would subconsciously turn their gaze upward, toward the sky. A narrow gap in one of the walls provided a scenic view of the museum grounds for those inside the structure. Two ponds reminiscent of an ablution room were situated in front of the museum entrance, engaging visitors with the installation from the moment they entered the complex. A bronze pair of shoes by Tanavoli, placed at the entry to Diba’s concrete structure, and the sculpture of a hand by Farmanfarmaian in the garden area complemented the work.

Kamran Diba, Praying Room, 1978, Carpet Museum of Iran, Tehran
Kamran Diba, Praying Room, 1978, Carpet Museum of Iran, Tehran.

Filmmaker Homayoun Payvar (b. 1944) was another artist influenced by contemporary art trends before the establishment of the Independent Artists Group. At the Third Festival of 8 mm Film in 1971, he showed a work titled Crystallization (تبلور). This piece, which could be regarded as video art, essentially showed, in real time, the visual effects created by film negative burning under the heat of the projector bulb. Each time the work was shown, the entire process had to be repeated.

New readings of traditional Iranian art that went beyond merely addressing its visual potential also began to occur at this time. This shift in perspective was most evident in fields like theater, where the traditional performance genre of Siyah-Bazi (سیاهبازی, “playing black”) was reexamined in light of modernist theater, for example. These new readings led to more attention and greater sensitivity being shown toward events outside the art world and to the discovery of their hidden potential. The Garden of Stones (باغ سنگی ) (1976), a film by Parviz Kimiavi (b. 1939), was analyzed by some art critics because of its resemblance to installation or land art, and is a clear example of how an engagement with contemporary trends led to Iranian art being read in new ways.

Parviz Kimiavi, The Garden of Stones (باغ سنگی), 1976, Iran, film still
Parviz Kimiavi, The Garden of Stones باغ سنگی), 1976), Iran, film still.

While Iranian artists were experimenting with conceptual art prior to the formation of the Independent Artists Group, due to their coherence and consistency, the group’s activities can be regarded as the first collective movement toward this trend. Despite being highly influential, their productions, especially the more experimental ones, faced backlash and were severely criticized. Mohsen Vaziri-Moghaddam, a prominent artist and one of the group’s fiercest critics, cited imitativeness and lack of originality as the main reasons for his criticism.5

The fourth exhibition of the Independent Artists Group, entitled Volume and Environment
(گنج و گستره), was held from November 18 to December 9, 1975, at the Pope and Ala Galleries of the Iran–America Cultural Society, in collaboration with Djavanan-e Rastakhiz magazine. Painter Melkonian withdrew from the exhibition because he refused to produce a three-dimensional work to fit the show’s theme of “volume.” Invited artists were Ghobad Shiva (b. 1940), Sirous Malek (b. 1935), and Asghar Mohammadi (1938–85). The exhibition catalogue states:

… What is of primary importance to the group is the essence of experimentation outside of what the artists are known for. This way of experimenting is the essential reason for the Independent Artists Group exhibitions. However, the participants do follow their usual style and philosophy in their one-man shows.6

Despite its logical and liberal appearance, this statement was criticized almost from the start. A number of critics argued that the experimental activities of some members were incongruous when viewed in relation to their other works and deemed the simultaneous pursuit of two different approaches as dishonest. For a long time, the members of the group described this difference as a sign of freedom and an opportunity to attempt various things without restriction. However, this approach eventually led to differences within the group, and in the case of some members, an inconsistency in their oeuvre.

Morteza Momayez, exhibition poster for Volume and Environment, Iran–America Cultural Society, Tehran, 1975 — © exhibition poster for Volume and Environment, Iran–America Cultural Society, Tehran, 1975
Morteza Momayez, exhibition poster for Volume and Environment, Iran–America Cultural Society, Tehran, 1975.

Grigorian shone brilliantly in Volume and Environment. His piece included a chair tied using ropes to a wooden platform with railings on either side. Images showing a similar construction and photographs of the artist sitting on a rope-bound chair with a missing leg were projected onto the opposite wall. This work was untitled in the exhibition catalogue, but in subsequent shows, it was sometimes introduced as Execution Chair. Evoking a sense of captivity in some viewers, this assemblage became a critical metaphor for the state of affairs in Iran at the time.

Marcos Grigorian, untitled work, in the exhibition Volume and Environment, Iran–America Cultural Society, Tehran, 1975. In: Djavanan-e Rastakhiz 25, 1976 — © In: Djavanan-e Rastakhiz 25, 1976
Marcos Grigorian, untitled work, in the exhibition Volume and Environment, Iran–America Cultural Society, Tehran, 1975. In: Djavanan-e Rastakhiz 25, 1976.
Marcos Grigorian, Execution Chair, 1973. In: Earthworks exhibition catalogue, Gorky Gallery, New York, 1989 — © In: Earthworks exhibition catalogue, Gorky Gallery, New York, 1989
Marcos Grigorian, Execution Chair, 1973. This image was displayed next to Grigorian’s assemblage in Volume and Environment and also projected as a slide onto the opposite wall. In: Earthworks exhibition catalogue, Gorky Gallery, New York, 1989.
Marcos Grigorian, Execution Chair, 1973. In: Earthworks exhibition catalogue, Gorky Gallery, New York, 1989 — © In: Earthworks exhibition catalogue, Gorky Gallery, New York, 1989
Marcos Grigorian, Execution Chair, 1973. This image was displayed next to Grigorian’s assemblage in Volume and Environment and also projected as a slide onto the opposite wall. In: Earthworks exhibition catalogue, Gorky Gallery, New York, 1989.

Momayez’s installation in the exhibition, which consisted of knives hanging from the ceiling, also played a significant role in shaping a political reading of the works in Volume and Environment. Because of the climate at the time, Momayez’s works gained political and social significance. In most of his formal conversations, the artist has refused such a reading. Despite his denial, a political interpretation of Momayez’s work can be justified to some extent. After returning from France, where he had been studying at the École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, the artist ran into trouble with SAVAK, Iran’s infamous secret service organization, for attending a general assembly of the Confederation of Iranian Students and publishing a portrait he had drawn of Iranian politician Mohammad Mossadegh in one of their journals. Years later, in conversation with graphic designer and photographer Ebrahim Haghighi, Momayez referred to these difficulties as the Sword of Damocles.7 In a 1994 interview for a student project on the Independent Artists Group, he acknowledged that his works may have alluded to the political issues of the time.8

Morteza Momayez, untitled work in the exhibition Volume and Environment, Iran–America Cultural Society, Tehran, 1975. In: Roudaki 50, 1976. — © In: Roudaki 50, 1976.
Morteza Momayez, untitled work in the exhibition Volume and Environment, Iran–America Cultural Society, Tehran, 1975. In: Roudaki 50, 1976.

Nami presented two works in Volume and Environment. قدمگاه (Foothold), inspired by historical Iranian footholds and the artist’s childhood memories of the city of Qom, referred to popular folk beliefs and concepts of supplication and helplessness.9 The inclusion of a barbed-wire form resembling a human head on one side of the sculpture caused problems for Nami, and it became the subject of a reprimand on the opening night. The second work, an abstract sculpture titled The Woman Sitting on a Chair, was, according to the artist, a critical response to the sexual objectification of women.

Gholamhossein Nami, قدمگاه (Foothold), 1975, 175 × 75 × 75 cm. Collection, Boom Gallery. In: White Passion (شورسفید) exhibition catalogue, Boom Gallery, Tehran, 2013 — © In: White Passion (شورسفید) exhibition catalogue, Boom Gallery, Tehran, 2013
Gholamhossein Nami, قدمگاه (Foothold), 1975, 175 × 75 × 75 cm. Collection, Boom Gallery. In: White Passion (شورسفید) exhibition catalogue, Boom Gallery, Tehran, 2013.
Gholamhossein Nami, قدمگاه (Foothold), 1975, 175 × 75 × 75 cm. Collection, Boom Gallery. In: White Passion (شورسفید) exhibition catalogue, Boom Gallery, Tehran, 2013 — © In: White Passion (شورسفید) exhibition catalogue, Boom Gallery, Tehran, 2013
Gholamhossein Nami, قدمگاه (Foothold), 1975, 175 × 75 × 75 cm. Collection, Boom Gallery. In: White Passion (شورسفید) exhibition catalogue, Boom Gallery, Tehran, 2013.
Gholamhossein Nami, The Woman Sitting on a Chair, in the exhibition Volume and Environment, Iran–America Cultural Society, Tehran, 1975. In: Manijeh Miremadi, Gholamhossein Nami: Selected Works, 1963 to 1994, 1996 — © In: Manijeh Miremadi, Gholamhossein Nami: Selected Works, 1963 to 1994, 1996
Gholamhossein Nami, The Woman Sitting on a Chair, in the exhibition Volume and Environment, Iran–America Cultural Society, Tehran, 1975. In: Manijeh Miremadi, Gholamhossein Nami: Selected Works, 1963 to 1994, 1996.

The deep affinity between Grigorian, Momayez, and Nami during their time in the Independent Artists Group is indicated by the fact that the works of all three contain references to Iran’s political and social climate and display a clear interest in conceptual art. However, the group was far from a harmonious unit. As is apparent in Volume and Environment, the members failed to agree on a shared interpretation of experimentalism. For example, the works by Pilaram and Arabshahi paid no attention to a conceptual approach in their understanding of experimentalism, while for Grigorian, Momayez, and Nami, experimentalism had a strong affinity with conceptual art. At the same time, Melkonian’s tendency to avoid collective activities was another problem for the group, while Daryabeigi’s works appear less influenced by conceptual art and more interested in surrealism.

Of the guest artists in Volume and Environment, the works by Malek and Mohammadi drew much criticism for a perceived inconsistency with their usual styles. Shiva’s piece, on the other hand, shared a closer affinity with the experimentalism of the Independent Artists Group, leading to a spectacular result. His contribution was a string of lights hung from the ceiling and ending in a mirror on the gallery wall. The reflection of visitors and lights, reminiscent of those used as decorations during Iranian ritual festivals and holidays, created a nostalgic mood. Shiva’s attention to cultural symbols in people’s day-to-day lives connected this piece to other works in his oeuvre.

Ghobad Shiva with his installation in the exhibition Volume and Environment, Iran–America Cultural Society, Tehran, 1975
Ghobad Shiva with his installation in the exhibition Volume and Environment, Iran–America Cultural Society, Tehran, 1975.
Ghobad Shiva, poster for the 12th Festival of Arts, Shiraz, 1978
Ghobad Shiva, poster for the 12th Festival of Arts, Shiraz, 1978.

The controversial works and innovative ideas of the Independent Artists Group, as well as their reputation and prominence, led to the group being invited to represent Iran at two international art events. One of these was the Iranian pavilion at the Basel International Art Fair in Switzerland in June 1976, in which four members participated: Pilaram, Daryabeigi, Arabshahi, and Nami.

Continuing their activities, the group arranged an exhibition entitled Volume and Environment 2 (گنج و گستره 2), once again with the theme of “volume.” It was held from October 17 to October 28, 1976, at Saman Gallery in Tehran, in collaboration with Art and Architecture magazine. The group’s guests were Hannibal Alkhas (1930–2010), Behzad Hatam (b. 1949), and Mohammad Saleh Ala (b. 1952). The Independent Artists Group logo designed by Momayez, shaped like a key with a saw-like serration, was presented for the first time at this exhibition.

Morteza Momayez, exhibition poster for Volume and Environment 2, Saman Gallery, Tehran, 1976
Morteza Momayez, exhibition poster for Volume and Environment 2, Saman Gallery, Tehran, 1976.
Morteza Momayez, logo design for the Independent Artists Group, 1976
Morteza Momayez, logo design for the Independent Artists Group, 1976.

In response to criticism, the group included a statement at the beginning of the Volume and Environment 2 exhibition catalogue:

In fear of imitators, we should not reject the new and ridicule the simple. To be “influenced” is not a voluntary act that can be avoided. He who is sensitive is affected by his living environment, which, in turn, is affected by communication and economic systems.
… A need has necessitated the coming together of the members of the Independent Artists Group despite all the differences in their artistic methods. The effect of the environment has generated this need in us.
The need for a mind game, the need for a different quest and experience, apart from the general direction. To open a window into a new world, to smell, to taste, to digest, and yet to be reborn in the general direction.
The need for self-destruction to reassess our standards.
The need to put an end to repetition.
The need for simplicity and the need to take a closer look at our environment, which we habitually ignore in our intellectual isolation.
The need to summon other perspectives.10

For the exhibition, Pilaram stretched a vertical composition across scaffolding installed outside the gallery building. The drawing on fabric combined Persian letters with arrows and symbols, similar to traffic signs. Daryabeigi made a brass sculpture of the American flag with raised stars. Inside were two spheres similar to planets, one of which resembled Saturn. The artist described this work as a response to Apollo 11 taking the Iranian flag to the moon and the dream of achieving world peace and cosmic order.11

Faramarz Pilaram, untitled work, in the exhibition Volume and Environment 2, Saman Gallery, Tehran, 1976. In: Ali Pilaram’s personal album — © In: Ali Pilaram’s personal album
Faramarz Pilaram, untitled work, in the exhibition Volume and Environment 2, Saman Gallery, Tehran, 1976. In: Ali Pilaram’s personal album. — © In: Ali Pilaram’s personal album
Faramarz Pilaram, untitled work, in the exhibition Volume and Environment 2, Saman Gallery, Tehran, 1976. In: Ali Pilaram’s personal album.

Using an approach different to that of his previous works for the group, Arabshahi created an arrangement of two facing wooden frames with abstract paintings between them. The different components of the work were joined together by pieces of string that wound around the frames and stretched across the central objects, like the warp on a carpet loom.

Massoud Arabshahi, design for untitled work, Volume and Environment 2 exhibition catalogue, 1976
Massoud Arabshahi, design for untitled work, Volume and Environment 2 exhibition catalogue, 1976.
Massoud Arabshahi, untitled work, in the exhibition Volume and Environment 2, Saman Gallery, Tehran, 1976. In: Tamasha 285, 1977 — © In: Tamasha 285, 1977
Massoud Arabshahi, untitled work, in the exhibition Volume and Environment 2, Saman Gallery, Tehran, 1976. In: Tamasha 285, 1977.

Grigorian’s work consisted of a rectangular arrangement of mudbricks on the floor of the gallery entrance in order to highlight the contrast between traditional building materials and today’s concrete.12 This work and its sketch in the exhibition catalogue are comparable to the minimalist works of Sol LeWitt and Carl Andre. The purchase and display of Andre’s arrangement of firebricks, Equivalent VIII (1966), at the Tate Gallery in London in 1976 drew much criticism in England, which was even reflected at the time in the Iranian press. Grigorian’s important role in contemporary Iranian art was partly due to his ability to creatively engage with new art tendencies and incorporate them into his work.

Marcos Grigorian, design for untitled work, Volume and Environment 2 exhibition catalogue, 1976
Marcos Grigorian, design for untitled work, Volume and Environment 2 exhibition catalogue, 1976.
Marcos Grigorian, untitled work, in the exhibition Volume and Environment 2, Saman Gallery, Tehran 1976. In: Tamasha 285, 1977 — © In: Tamasha 285, 1977
Marcos Grigorian, untitled work, in the exhibition Volume and Environment 2, Saman Gallery, Tehran 1976. In: Tamasha 285, 1977.
Carl Andre, Equivalent VIII, 1966, firebricks. Collection, Tate Modern, London — © in: https://theartsdesk.com/tv/bricks-bbc-four
Carl Andre, Equivalent VIII, 1966, firebricks. Collection, Tate Modern, London. Photo: “Tate Gallery employee Mr Arthur Payne watches over American sculptor Carl Andre’s work at their first public showing,” in: theartsdesk.com.
Daily Mirror reaction to Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII, 1966, exhibited at Tate Gallery, London, 1976
Daily Mirror reaction to Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII, 1966, exhibited at Tate Gallery, London, 1976.

Melkonian’s contribution to Volume and Environment 2 was a chrome cube with a pile of rusty wires inside, like a three-dimensional version of his paintings. The artist described it as symbolizing the degeneration of human life due to our alienation from nature.13

Sirak Melkonian, design for untitled work, Volume and Environment 2 exhibition catalogue, 1976
Sirak Melkonian, design for untitled work, Volume and Environment 2 exhibition catalogue, 1976.
Sirak Melkonian, untitled sculpture, in the exhibition Volume and Environment 2, Saman Gallery, Tehran, 1976 — © 1976. In: Tamasha 285, 1977
Sirak Melkonian, untitled sculpture, in the exhibition Volume and Environment 2, Saman Gallery, Tehran, 1976. In: Tamasha 285, 1977.
Sirak Melkonian, untitled sculpture, in the exhibition Volume and Environment 2, Saman Gallery, Tehran, 1976 — © In: Tamasha 285, 1977
Sirak Melkonian, untitled sculpture, in the exhibition Volume and Environment 2, Saman Gallery, Tehran, 1976. In: Tamasha 285, 1977.

Momayez, in line with his previous work for the Volume and Environment exhibition of 1975, presented an installation of twenty-five knives planted in flowerpots arranged in a five-by-five grid. One of the knives was colored gold. A political interpretation of this work was common among visitors, possibly because of the association of the number twenty-five with the 2,500-year celebration of the Persian Empire, which took place in 1971.

Morteza Momayez, design for untitled work, Volume and Environment 2 exhibition catalogue, 1976
Morteza Momayez, design for untitled work, Volume and Environment 2 exhibition catalogue, 1976.
Morteza Momayez in his studio, standing next to his work for Volume and Environment 2
Morteza Momayez in his studio, standing next to his work for Volume and Environment 2.
Morteza Momayez, untitled work, in the exhibition Volume and Environment 2, Saman Gallery, Tehran, 1976 — © In: Djavanan-e Rastakhiz 69, 1977
Morteza Momayez, untitled work, in the exhibition Volume and Environment 2, Saman Gallery, Tehran, 1976. In: Djavanan-e Rastakhiz 69, 1977.

Nami’s work for the exhibition, The Knot (1976), was a logical continuation of his practice. The three-dimensional sculpture in the form of a knot was perhaps a reference to the problems and difficulties of the time.

Gholamhossein Nami, The Knot, 1976, 100 × 100 × 250 cm
Gholamhossein Nami, The Knot, 1976, 100 × 100 × 250 cm.
Gholamhossein Nami with The Knot, in the exhibition Volume and Environment 2, Saman Gallery, Tehran, 1976. — © in the exhibition Volume and Environment 2, Saman Gallery, Tehran, 1976
Gholamhossein Nami with The Knot, in the exhibition Volume and Environment 2, Saman Gallery, Tehran, 1976.

The Independent Artists Group invited guest artists whom they believed would harmonize well with the group’s interests. Nevertheless, the presence of Hannibal Alkhas (1930–2010) caused a stir. Alkhas was a well-known figure in the Iranian art scene because of his track record of controversial work and his social commitment to art. Grigorian’s suggestion to include him in the exhibition was met with hesitation by some of the group’s members. The issue was eventually resolved with Grigorian’s mediation. Alkhas refrained from giving a detailed explanation of what he intended to present on the pretext that he would make his work in the gallery during the exhibition. The artist’s account of his work is as follows:

I said I would make a sculpture in front of the audience on the opening day, which is an interesting thing from a conceptualist point of view. I went there with some friends and wore a garish kipper tie and a beret like a French painter. I had also brought some plaster, bricks, paint, a brush, and an oval palette. Like an employer, I instructed my students to make the sculpture to my liking, and they followed my instructions as though they were my workers.14 With a cigar in one hand, I constantly ordered them around, shouting and even swearing at them. We laid the bricks on cardboard and poured grout over them. The bricks stuck together. Then I put a shovel into one of them and painted it white. I took my overcoat and, striking the pose of a nineteenth-century painter, started correcting the colors on the shovel. I wrote on the cardboard, “this sculpture is dedicated to the exhibitors, not the spectators.” Then I wrote in black on the white shovel blade, “Akh!” [آخ!, Oh!], and asked the audience to read aloud these two words, “bill” [بیل, shovel] and “akh” [آخ, oh]: “bill akh” [بیل آخ, cocking a snook]. It created quite a stir. The next day, Marcos came to the University of Tehran and wanted to beat me up. Many articles were written. The bricks and mortar were like Grigorian’s work, the whiteness was like Nami’s, the writing was like Pilaram’s, and the shovel was like Momayez’s knives in pots. Not only did I imitate the works of all four of them, but I also made a joke that is meaningful only in Persian. That was my response to the way they had insulted people with their intellectualism, and that’s conceptual.15

Hannibal Alkhas, design for untitled work, Volume and Environment 2 exhibition catalogue, 1976
Hannibal Alkhas, design for untitled work, Volume and Environment 2 exhibition catalogue, 1976.
Hannibal Alkhas
Hannibal Alkhas

Alkhas’s work was destroyed by Grigorian on the opening day of the exhibition because of its mockery of the activities of the Independent Artists Group, causing a bitter quarrel between the two artists. Alkhas, like Vaziri-Moghaddam, was not sympathetic to the group’s activities, because he believed they conflicted with Iranian culture and society.16 Yet, with his performance, Alkhas demonstrated a mastery of contemporary art trends. About the conceptual aspect of his work in the exhibition, he says:

Of course, my protest against Volume and Environment 2 had more important points that many did not get, so I have to state them here. In that exhibition, I turned a tool into a work of art by painting it white. Then, I turned an artwork into a sentence by writing “Oh!” on it.
… In short, I actually left the execution to someone else. I just had the idea, like all those artists who do not perform themselves, conceptualists. But it was just a protest and art … as they say. It was very “conceptual.”17

A small group of artists led by the likes of Alkhas wanted to enhance the dialogue between art and society in order to help people better understand the work of artists. In the days leading up to and after the revolution, these artists had ample opportunity to have their voices heard. Prior to the revolution, most of their efforts were focused on social issues rather than on direct engagement and dialogue with people. Of course, this view wasn’t shaped solely under the influence of social realism, such as that practiced by artists in Mexico or the Soviet Union.

In an effort to directly engage with the Iranian public, Koorosh Shishegaran (b. 1944) designed a poster titled Shahreza Avenue Itself in 1976. By sticking up his posters on Shahreza Street (now Enghelab Street) in Tehran, he was, in fact, introducing the street itself as a work of art. However, this particular case might be interpreted more as a conceptual approach aimed at undermining the dominance of art centers than as an opportunity to communicate with the general public. Examples like this show that, in addition to the Independent Artists Group, there were other Iranian artists at the time whose works indicate a tendency toward conceptualism.
Koorosh Shishegaran, Shahreza Avenue Itself, 1976, silk screen print on paper, 60 × 80 cm
Koorosh Shishegaran, Shahreza Avenue Itself, 1976, silk screen print on paper, 60 × 80 cm.

The other two artists invited to show in Volume and Environment 2 also presented interesting works that were sympathetic to the general concerns of the Independent Artists Group. Behzad Hatam, the graphic designer for Roudaki Hall and an active art critic, did not participate in the group’s previous shows, although he had written about the Blue and Volume and Environment exhibitions. For this exhibition, Hatam made an installation resembling a living room with a live actor inside. The contradiction of the presence of a living being in an artificial environment was one of the points emphasized by the artist. The inclusion of a live actor made the installation more like a performance.

Behzad Hatam, untitled work, in the exhibition Volume and Environment 2, Saman Gallery, Tehran, 1976 — © In: Tamasha 285, 1977
Behzad Hatam, untitled work, in the exhibition Volume and Environment 2, Saman Gallery, Tehran, 1976. In: Tamasha 285, 1977.

The other guest artist, Mohammad Saleh Ala, was a well-known figure in the Iranian art scene for directing plays, such as Under the Oxygen Tent (زیر چادر اکسیژن) in 1975 for the Theatre Workshop (کارگاه نمایش) and Skiing on Fire (اسکی روی آتش) in 1976 for the 10th Festival of Arts, Shiraz. One of his works in Volume and Environment 2 consisted of twelve pairs of military boots planted with geraniums and arranged on a set of stairs. This work metaphorically conveyed an anti-war message. His other work in the exhibition was a kind of stand placed next to the wall. Writing on the back of it invited the audience to stand between two red lines drawn on the ground.

Mohammad Saleh Ala, untitled work, in the exhibition Volume and Environment 2, Saman Gallery, Tehran, 1976 — © In: Tamasha 285, 1977
Mohammad Saleh Ala, untitled work, in the exhibition Volume and Environment 2, Saman Gallery, Tehran, 1976. In: Tamasha 285, 1977.

The works of the Independent Artists Group in Volume and Environment 2 show more consistency and harmony among members than in previous exhibitions. There are also signs of a desire to continue their joint activities. However, disagreements gradually paved the way for the disbanding of the group. Their inclusion in the Iranian pavilion at the 1977 Washington International Art Fair, Wash Art, in the United States, marks the last chapter in the group’s history.

From the mid-1950s, following the Iranian government’s cultural policy of encouraging interaction with other countries, a government-backed scheme was launched to support the participation of artists in overseas art fairs and exhibitions. As part of this scheme, selected works by Iranian artists were sent to the International Art Fair in Basel, Switzerland, in 1976, and the following year to Wash Art, the Washington International Art Fair in Washington DC, United States. Artists from the Independent Artists Group participated at both events, taking over the Iranian sections, along with a number of other selected artists.

Iranian artists at Wash Art, the Washington International Art Fair, 1977 — © In: Marzha-ye Now 8, 1978
Iranian artists at Wash Art, the Washington International Art Fair, 1977. From right, standing: Gholamhossein Nami, Nazi Atri, Morteza Momayez, Sirak Melkonian, Marcos Grigorian, Parviz Kalantari, and Faramarz Pilaram. From right, sitting: Massoud Arabshahi and Mohammad Ebrahim Jafari. Lying down: Abdolreza Daryabeigi. In: Marzha-ye Now 8, 1978.

Most of the works submitted by members of the Independent Artists Group were chosen from their previous exhibitions. The selection of works by Iranian artists at Wash Art was presented in an appropriate and logical arrangement. For example, works by artists of the Independent Artists Group were presented alongside Shishegaran’s conceptual posters, Nazi Atri’s Neons, an installation by Ahmad Aali, and even Katouzian’s pop art paintings, which revealed Iranian artists’ inclination toward prevailing trends. But despite all this, there were a few shortcomings that turned the show into an event with no economic gain for Iran. The works were not accompanied by informed guides who could introduce the exhibited pieces to visitors, and a means of facilitating communication between the artists and other art professionals was lacking.

Ahmad Ali, Self-Portrait, 1964. The version featured at Wash Art differed slightly from the one pictured
Ahmad Ali, Self-Portrait, 1964. The version featured at Wash Art differed slightly from the one pictured.
Koorosh Shishegaran, False Art, poster presented at Wash Art, Washington DC, 1977 — © poster presented at Wash Art, Washington DC, 1977
Koorosh Shishegaran, False Art, poster presented at Wash Art, Washington DC, 1977.

The state of the international art scene at the time and the massive gap between the local and global art worlds did not go unnoticed by some of the participants at Wash Art, such as Momayez. After returning from the United States, he published a three-part travelogue documenting his experiences and impressions of the trip in the Rastakhiz newspaper.18 Part of this travelogue describes Momayez’s time at Wash Art, which according to some of the other artists who were there, is slightly exaggerated. But most importantly, he emphasized that, as a precondition for the development of Iranian art, it was necessary to create professional structures within the various facets of Iran’s art scene and leave behind an emotional and romantic point of view.

The activities of the Independent Artists Group ceased in 1977 when the group disbanded. The reasons for the split can largely be traced to differing perspectives within the group: disagreements over internal issues, such as whether or not the group’s activities were experimental; and diverging positions on critical issues, such as the conditions of production in Iran’s art scene and the political aspects of some of the works. Like many of the artist groups preceding it, the Independent Artists Group began its activities in response to a general need and in an emotional manner. From its third exhibition, Blue, the primary goals of the group gradually shifted toward conceptual activities, which led to a growing division among its members. Grigorian, Momayez, and Nami focused more on conceptual art than the others. Despite Daryabeigi’s desire to align his work with the style of the group, especially in the Volume and Environment exhibitions, his efforts remained superficial. In the meantime, Pilaram and Arabshahi, being more sympathetic to the group’s views, produced and presented a number of interesting experimental works that, despite their high artistic merit, didn’t represent a conceptual approach. Melkonian mostly carried on with his own practice, which was hardly in stylistic accord with the group.

However, regardless of its internal difficulties or the quality of its productions, which in some cases were fairly high, the activities of the group show that Iranian visual artists were interested in international art trends and wanted to address some of the issues surrounding Iran’s art scene at the time. In the mid-1970s, despite the lack of a deeper understanding of what was happening in the art world globally and in spite of some opposition, interest in international contemporary art wasn’t limited to the Independent Artists Group. This is proved by artists like Shishegaran, who were outside this circle, yet making similar works.

Iranian artists continued to experiment after the Independent Artists Group disbanded. Among the more famous of these activities were the performances at the opening of Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art (TMoCA) in 1977, of which no accurate record exists of the artists and performers involved, and an installation of gilded bricks by Armenian artist Zadik Zadikian at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery in Tehran in 1978.

Performance at the opening of TMoCA, 1977 — © In: www.news.artnet.com. Photo: Jila Dejam
Performance at the opening of TMoCA, 1977. In: news.artnet.com Photo: Jila Dejam.
Zadik Zadikian, Gold Bricks, 1978, Tony Shafrazi Gallery, Tehran
Zadik Zadikian, Gold Bricks, 1978, Tony Shafrazi Gallery, Tehran.

Despite a promising start, new currents in contemporary art in Iran, which inclined toward the experimental and the conceptual, did not have the opportunity to flourish and grow. The victory of the revolution in February 1979, and the subsequent outbreak of the eight-year war with Iraq, dramatically changed the direction of the visual arts and its priorities. Even so, the interest of Iranian artists in experimental art tendencies did not halt in this period and continued to be followed for a long time, if only as a secondary genre. Sonia Balassanian’s installation Black Black Days, exhibited at the Franklin Furnace Gallery in New York in 1982, is an example of such efforts outside Iran.

Sonia Balassanian, Black Black Days, 1982. Installation view, Franklin Furnace Gallery, New York
Sonia Balassanian, Black Black Days, 1982. Installation view, Franklin Furnace Gallery, New York.

With the emergence of a new generation of artists in the early 1990s, contemporary themes and techniques became popular in Iranian art once more. Among some of the first experiments with conceptual art carried out in this decade, one could mention the collective exhibition held by Ali Dashti, Mostafa Dashti, Shahrokh Ghiasi, Farid Jahangir, and Sassan Nassiri in an abandoned building on Pasdaran Street in 1992, and two other collective exhibitions, تجربه‌ی ۷۷ (Experiment 77), organized by Bita Fayyazi, Ata Hasheminejad, Khosrow Hassanzadeh, Jahangir, and Nassiri in 1998, and کودکان آبی، آسمان سیاه (Blue Children, Black Sky), organized by Maziar Bahari, Fayyazi, Hassanzadeh, and Sadegh Tirafkan in 1999.

In the early 2000s, Iranian contemporary art was once again recognized by cultural policymakers. The First Conceptual Art Exhibition held at TMoCA in 2001 was one of the most momentous events of this period. Today, this exhibition is considered a symbolic turning point in the history of post-revolution Iranian contemporary art. Morteza Momayez was one of the well-known participants in this exhibition. The inclusion of his knife works, first shown in the Independent Artists Group exhibitions Volume and Environment in 1975 and Volume and Environment 2 in 1976, reminded a younger audience of the efforts made by an older generation of artists to foster contemporary Iranian art. A past that, through critical consideration, can undoubtedly generate a better understanding of the history of modernism in Iran.

Morteza Momayez, Life is an Experiment, Not Comfort, in First Conceptual Art Exhibition, TMoCA, 2001 — © in First Conceptual Art Exhibition, TMoCA, 2001
Morteza Momayez, Life is an Experiment, Not Comfort, in First Conceptual Art Exhibition, TMoCA, 2001.

1 گروه آزاد [Azad Group] is the original name of the artists group. The members themselves, however, have specified the group’s English name as the Independent Artists Group.

2 Houshang Hesami, “نمایشگاه «صدادار» کامران دیبا در گالری سیحون” [Kamran Diba’s ‘Voiced’ Exhibition in Seyhoun Gallery], بامشاد [Bamshad] (May 30, 1967), 27; Shahriar Khanizad and Farzaneh Ehsani-Moayyed, کامران دیبا و معماری بشردوستانه [Kamran Diba and Humanitarian Architecture] (Tehran: Honar-e Memari, 2014), 54.

3 In 1953, Robert Rauschenberg asked Willem de Kooning for a drawing “to erase.” He rubbed out de Kooning’s laborious drawing using an eraser, then framed it and presented it as his own work.

4 Karim Emami and Goli Emami, گال … گال … گالری، مروری بر رویدادهای هنرهای تجسمی ایران دهه‌ی ۱۳۴۰ [Gal … Gal … Gallery! A Review of Iranian Visual Arts Events in the 1960s] (Tehran: Niloufar, 2016), 156.

5 Mohsen Vaziri-Moghaddam, “هنر میتواند فریادی باشد، اگر …” [Art Could Be a Cry, If …], آیندگان [Ayandegan] (April 17, 1976).

6 Volume and Environment [گنج و گستره], exh. cat. (Tehran: Iran–America Cultural Society, 1975).

7 Ebrahim Haghighi, روبه‌رو: گفتوگوی ابراهیم حقیقی با مرتضی ممیز [Face to Face: Ebrahim Haghighi’s Interview with Morteza Momayez] (Tehran: Khojasteh, 2011), 160.

8 This was mentioned in the winter of 1994 by Morteza Momayez in an interview for a student project by Nazafarin Ansari and Nasim Motamedi about the Independent Artists Group.

9 قدمگاه [footholds] are places of pilgrimage in the Islamic world, where a footprint attributed to one of the infallibles or other religious leaders, or a place where a saint is thought to have walked by, is visited.

10 ۲گنج و گستره [Volume and Environment 2], exh. cat. (Tehran: Saman Gallery, 1976).

11 “هنرمندان ایرانی در نمایشگاه هنری واشنگتن مورد توجه قرار گرفتند” [Iranian Artists Received Attention at the Washington Art Exhibition], مرزهای نو [Marzha-ye Now] 8 (1978), 8.

12 هنر و معماری [Art and Architecture] 38–37 (1977), 38.

13 مرزهای نو [Marzha-ye Now] 8 (1978), 3.

14 In an interview with the author, Bahram Dabiri mentioned that he was with Alkhas for the performance, but he denied the presence of other people.

15 Hannibal Alkhas, بی‌پرده با آفتاب جلد [An Unguarded Moment in the Sun] vol. 1 (Tehran: Majal, 2006), 71.

16 For a discussion of Alkhas’s writings see Arman Khalatbari, در جست‌وجوی آزادی: درباره‌ی گروه آزاد نقاشان و مجسمه‌سازان [In Search of Freedom: About the Independent Artists Group] (Tehran: Nazar Publishing, 2021).

17 “من یک شمایل‌کشم: گفت‌وگو با هانیبال الخاص، به خاطر طراحی‌هایش” [I Am a Portrait-Painter: Interview with Hannibal Alkhas about His Drawings], رستاخیز [Rastakhiz] 503 (December 27, 1977).

18 The travelogue’s three parts were published sequentially on May 28, 29, and 30, 1977.