The most significant art exhibit on view in New York at the moment is “Iran Modern,” a beautifully curated show that opened recently at the Asia Society. The exhibit symbolizes something of a breakthrough for the United States, marking the first major museum show in the country dedicated to modern Iranian art. There’s a lot to like. In contrast to the uninspired “American Modern” retrospective down the road at MoMA, which fails to register a pulse despite its abundance of top-shelf art, “Iran Modern” is focused, exciting and, by turns, revelatory.
The exhibition showcases roughly one hundred works of painting, sculpture, and photography produced in Iran between 1945 and 1979. Taking root in the years immediately following the Allied withdrawal from the country at the close of World War II, Iranian modernism flowered for thirty years until Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini swept into power on the crest of revolution. These were, themselves, years of revolution. Iranian artists struggled with and celebrated the intensity of the socioeconomic and cultural modernization experienced by the country in the postwar era, establishing radical new modes of expression in response to these changes and managing to carve out an aesthetic space for themselves that was at once fully modernist and entirely Persian. And yet, the three decades of Iranian modernism following the Second World War have received curiously short shrift from critics and scholars alike.