Abby Weed Grey and Parviz Tanavoli
By Shiva Balaghi, December 2008

“People moving along Tehran’s Pahlavi Avenue (now renamed Vali-‘Asr Avenue) in 1960,” recalled Parviz Tanavoli, “would have seen a gigantic sculpture on the balcony of one of the apartments that overlooked the street. Constructed from scrap metal, this assemblage depicted a man embracing a deer. The deer’s antlers were made of a bicycle’s form, the man and animal bodies of fenders and other parts of junkyard vehicles. A little below this sculpture, above the entrance, hung a small sign that bore the name ‘Atelier Kaboud’ in both Persian and Latin Letters. This was my first studio.”

The neighborhood surrounding the studio fed Tanavoli’s artistic imagination. He scoured South Tehran’s pottery workshops, blacksmith and welder’s shops, foundries, and street vendors, integrating images, forms, themes, and found objects into his sculptures, ceramics, and paintings. “In our culture,” Tanavoli explained to me, “art is in every aspect of life.” When not making art, he collected talismans, locks, posters with religious inscriptions, and carpets. He also studied the architecture of Shiite devotional spaces—the saqqakhaneh and emamzadeh—fountains and shrines. It was then that Tanavoli began to help formulate the Saqqakhaneh school. Named for the public structures where water is available to passers-by, this school looked inward to local cultural practices. Kamran Diba, former director of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, saw an affinity between Saqqakhaneh art and Pop art: “…if we simplify Pop Art as an art movement which looks at the symbols and tools of a mass consumer society as a relevant and influencing cultural force. Saqqak-khaneh artists looked at the inner beliefs and popular symbols that were part of the religion and culture of Iran, and perhaps, consumed in the same ways as industrial products in the West.”(1)

At the Atelier Kaboud, a gathering place for poets, painters, architects and filmmakers, Tanavoli organized small exhibitions of his new works and those by other young artists such as Hossein Zenderoudi. These gatherings provided the genesis for an artists’ group known as Contemporary Artists—Marcos Grigorian, Sirak Melkanian, Bijan Saffari, Sohrab Sepehri, Manuchehr Shaybani, and Tanavoli. In June 1961, the collective organized an exhibition of their work in Bank Saderat. “Viewers came in droves,” Tanavoli remembers.(2)

Amongst the crowd was Abby Weed Grey, who was in Tehran for an exhibition of Minnesotan artists she had organized at the Iran-America Society. She remarked on the exhibition at Bank Saderat in her diary: “The architectural setting with its polished marble floor and marble walls, its vaulted ceilings and elegant lighting, was the perfect background for the work: bold abstract paintings, collages in wild and exciting colors, modernist metal sculptures and ceramics.” It was here that she was first introduced to Parviz Tanavoli. The next day, Grey made her way to Atelier Kaboud, a space she felt “glowed with the brilliant colors and vitality of his work.” That day, she purchased her first piece by Tanavoli. “I kept returning to a large painting in ink gouache, and gilt whose subject was intriguing,” she wrote in her diary. “The work, which was called Myth, depicted three figures, one, the apprentice, holding a mallet, the other a legendary sculptor, Farhad. Protecting both was a gold and blue angel, wings open. For me it went right back to Arabian Nights. But of course it was a Persian tale. I felt I had to have it and purchased it on the spot.”(3)

Parviz Tanavoli, Myth, 1961
gouache, ink and gilt on paper,
39 x 27 1/4 inches (99.1 x 69.2 cm)
Grey Art Gallery
New York University Art Collection
Gift of Abby Weed Grey, G1975.70

Abby Grey would become an avid collector and devoted mentor to Tanavoli, who, in turn, helped Grey become familiar with some of the most notable contemporary artists in Iran in the 1960s and ’70s.  Her collection, which forms the basis of the Grey Art Gallery’s collection of modern Iranian art, bears the mark of their close relationship. Indeed, it contains one of the most significant extant collections of Tanavoli’s oeuvre—nearly 80 works ranging from paintings, drawings, and prints, to jewelry, ceramics, and sculptures.

Returning to Minnesota after her initial meeting with Tanavoli, Grey helped arrange a residency for him at the Minneapolis School of Art. In February 1962, Tanavoli arrived in Minneapolis. “To alleviate my loneliness and ease my transition during a severe, snowy winter,” Tanavoli explained, “Mrs. Grey had arranged for a room for me in [Siah] Armajani’s house.” A close friendship developed between the two artists—with Tanavoli helping  Armajani keep apace of artistic developments in Iran. The artist Marcos Grigorian, who had been living in New York, also moved to Minneapolis around this time. He opened the Universal Galleries. Grey’s home and Grigorian’s gallery became centers for Iranian art in Minneapolis. In 1963, the Universal Galleries mounted an exhibition that included works by Armajani, Grigorian, Tanavoli, and Zenderoudi.

The bond between Grey and Tanavoli grew. “When I went to Minneapolis,” Tanavoli told me, “I saw Abby nearly every day. She had just begun collecting art and was very eager to learn about Iranian art and culture. During those regular teas, I filled her in as much as I could. She liked me like her son.” After two and a half years of teaching and making art in Minneapolis, Tanavoli returned to Tehran. “After I returned to Iran, she came to see me every year. I took her to artists’ studios and art galleries. She not only bought art, she loved to converse with artists.” In 1964, Grey helped Tanavoli establish a bronze foundry at the University of Tehran. Tanavoli taught at the University of Tehran, set up a workshop, and helped organize a seminar on contemporary Iranian art at the Iran-America society.

During these years, Tanavoli’s art  reflected a synthesis: “I made use of traditional material such as copper vessels, rugs and calligraphy, along with such Western imports as plastics, fluorescent lights and basic electric equipment,” he explains. The works, which were exhibited at the Borghese Gallery in 1965, caused “considerable hostile clamor” as Grey recalled. The show was closed within a few days, and Tanavoli writes, “Over the years most of those paintings and sculptures have been destroyed, and all that is left to me is a series of vague recollections.” The piece that Grey purchased from the exhibition remains in the Grey Art Gallery’s collection: “I had chosen Hands of a Poet, a box construction in which from the inside two plaster hands clasped a crisscrossed lattice grille. This is such deeply involved symbolism that it must not be read as representing repression (hands extending through the bars of a prison cell). Rather it represents the hands of a suppliant at a prayer grille.”

Parviz Tanavoli, Hands of a Poet, 1966
painted wood and plaster construction
47 3/4 x 32 1/2 x 3 1/2 inches
(121.3 x 82.6 x 8.9 cm)
Grey Art Gallery
New York University Art Collection
Gift of Abby Weed Grey, G1975.47

Tanavoli is a collector, scholar, and artist. These roles, he explained to me, “are so interwoven, I can hardly separate them from each other.” His intimate knowledge of locks, kohl containers, and rugs has resulted in a series of publications and exhibitions based on his collections. In 1974, the Ben and Abby Grey Foundation helped sponsor a traveling exhibition of Tanavoli’s Lion Rugs from Fars.(4) Tanavoli also created rugs himself, and the Grey’s collection includes a print, Oh! Nightingale (1974), that is a design for a carpet. The composition centers on Farhad—the poetic sculptor who is Tanavoli’s mythic muse—here rendered in a robotic style.  His face resembles grillwork from which two locks are hanging. In his hand, Farhad holds a nightingale, the bird whose song Persian poets often wrote of. Reworking tropes from classical Persian literature, tribal rug weaving, calligraphy, and Islamic rituals, Tanavoli produced a work that weds Pop art to traditional Iranian motifs.

Parviz Tanavoli, Oh! Nightingale
(design for rug), 1974
silkscreen on paper,
sheet: 27 3/4 x 20 1/8 inches
Grey Art Gallery,
New York University Art Collection
Gift of Abby Weed Grey, G1975.616

Ironically, Grey acquired her most substantial work by Tanavoli, Heech Tablet (1973), during her last trip to Iran in 1973 on the occasion of a special exhibition of his sculptures on the heech theme. Heech is the Persian word for “nothing,” and through the years, Tanavoli has made numerous variations ranging from intricate jewelry, to bronze statues, to large sculptures made of fiberglass. “The sculpture appeared monumental,” Grey wrote of Heech Tablet. The work draws on Tanavoli’s interest in ancient Persian civilization and in the quotidian culture of folk Islam.  Standing nearly seven feet high on its travertine stone base, the bronze is covered with stylus markings mimicking cuneiform script that form an outline of the word heech.  The markings also recall the lattice grillwork of shrines from which devotees have hung locks. “Mine was the nothingness of hope and friendship, a nothingness that did not seek to negate. In my mind, it was not life that amounted to nothing, but rather nothing which brimmed with life itself.”

Parviz Tanavoli, Heech Tablet, 1973
bronze on travertine stone base
71 1/2 x 18 1/2 x 11 7/8 inches
(181.6 x 47.0 x 30.2 cm)
(including integral base)
Grey Art Gallery
New York University Art Collection
Gift of Abby Weed Grey, G1975.570

NOTES

1 Kameran Diba, “Iran,” in Contemoprary Art from the Islamic World, ed. Widjan Ali
(London: Scorpion Press, 1989), p. 153.

2 Tanavoli has written eloquently about his early career as an artist in his essay, “Atelier Kaboud,” in Parviz Tanavoli: Sculptor, Writer, and Collector, ed. David Galloway (Tehran: Iranian Art Publishing, 2000), pp. 53-113. Quotes by Tanavoli in this essay are from this article and from correspondence with the author.

3 Citations from Abby Grey’s diary are taken from her memoir. Abby Weed Grey, The Picture is the Window, the Window is the Picture (NY: New York University Press, 1983).

4 Between 1974 and 1975, the exhibition traveled as part of the Smithsonian Institution’s Traveling Exhibition Service to the Paine Art Center in Wisconsin, the Textile Museum in Washington, D.C., and the Grey Art Gallery at NYU.