Parviz Tanavoli is celebrated as the father of modern Iranian sculpture. After receiving his general education in Tehran and then, in the 1950s, his art training in Italy (under teachers including sculptor Marino Marini), Tanavoli helped form, in the 1960s and ’70s, the lively Iranian avant-garde art scene that would find institutional, critical and royal support as well as an international audience. After the Iranian Revolution in 1979, Tanavoli spent a decade without teaching or exhibition opportunities, a passport or even steady electricity in his studio, but he did have resources to travel throughout the country, enriching his knowledge of Persian art, craft and culture. By the late 1980s, he had integrated various components of his earlier work, such as narrative, symbolism, abstraction and text, into an aesthetic through which he pondered questions of identity, both national and artistic—a task that consumed his generation of Iranian artists. The Davis Museum retrospective was the first outside of Iran for Tanavoli, who is based in Tehran and Vancouver.
The exhibition of some 180 works opened with a central aisle of curvaceous sculptures of the calligraphic figure heech, Tanavoli’s signature motif. The Persian word heech means nothingness and serves as the title as well as the formal and hermeneutic inspiration for an ongoing series begun in 1965. Several “Heeches” rise up from their pedestals to expand and contract with anthropomorphic or floral qualities. Others entwine themselves with Tanavoli’s motifs of abstracted tables and chairs. Sometimes, two embrace like lovers. The monumental stainless-steel Big Heech (2012) presided over more than a dozen smaller works, variously in bronze, fiberglass and neon.
The spiritual and philosophical lyricism of the “Heeches” anchored this exhibition, which fanned out into a single large room featuring sculpture and a narrow hallway for jewelry, paintings and works on paper. The earliest pieces date from the 1960s, when Tanavoli founded the Saqqakhaneh school, a movement rooted in investigations of Iranian mass and folk culture, and opened his Atelier Kaboud, the first of several spaces that served as a studio as well as an exhibition venue and gathering place. Relating to folk traditions in its theme and style, Griffin (1961), a roughly handcrafted, glazed ceramic figurine, has a bulky architectonic head, haunches supporting a bowl and four rather awkward copper legs. The small bronze Poet and Beloved of the King II (1963), which incorporates forms such as water faucets, grates, locks and hinges into two totemic figures, reveals the artist’s interest in using household motifs and archetypal actors. By the 1970s, the narrative allusions to specific myths had largely given way to abstraction based not only on features common in Iranian homes but also on the walls, grillwork, doors, locks and vessels that adorn Shia shrines. The torsos of Tanavoli’s figures often consist of grillwork, which encases sculptures of hands and other forms to evoke a poetry within. In Heech Tablet (1973), a more than 6-foot-high door with three locked handles, and the square bronze relief Here No One Opens Any Gates (1986), a tile wall punctured by a diamond-shaped opening full of locks, the figural references disappear, leaving architectural iconography alone to wield significatory power.
Though Tanavoli references Shia traditions in his work, a strategy that provides emotionally powerful and politically potent content, his iconography is rooted in folkloric explorations, pursued with his peers in bazaars, shops and homes across the country. The Davis exhibition emphasized Tanavoli as a formal inventor and highlighted his forays into ceramics, collage, printmaking, drawing, painting and jewelry design—this last in response to the Empress Farah Pahlavi’s request for adornments to celebrate the aesthetic innovation of Iranian artists and to display recognizably Iranian forms to accent her Western fashions. The politics that have ensnared much of Tanavoli’s life were indicated primarily through absences—the most important being his slowed output in the 1980s. The rugs he has designed were also missing, since the trade embargo against Iran prohibits any domestically produced goods, including carpets, to leave the country. This significant component of Tanavoli’s oeuvre was represented by several silkscreened versions of his designs. Despite the absences, however, the exhibition offered an abundance of mediums and motifs, providing a view into Tanavoli’s multifaceted practice and into a modernist tradition not often available to U.S. audiences.