CONVERSATIONS Mousse 50
There Is No Art without Geometry: Frank Stella and Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian
A Conversation between Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, Frank Stella, Suzanne Cotter, and Hans Ulrich Obrist
The American Frank Stella and the Iranian Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian have long been friends, sharing a deep interest in geometry seen as an inescapable foundation for artistic output. Hans Ulrich Obrist and Suzanne Cotter met with the two artists to trace back through progressions and turning points in their respective careers, and to talk about the techniques applied in Stella’s latest works, shown in the major retrospective co-organized by the Whitney and the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.
HANS ULRICH OBRIST: Monir and Frank, tell us about your first meeting.
MONIR SHAHROUDY FARMANFARMAIAN: I kept ringing the bell, and nobody answered. Finally a man came to the door and said, “Who are you looking for?” and I said, “I have an appointment with Mr. Frank Stella. Does he live here?” and the man said, “Yeah.” He opened the door, and I followed him to the second or third floor, and then he said, “Sit down.” I sat at a red, round, wooden table. He went out and didn’t come back—after a long time, he came back to the table. I said, “When is Frank Stella coming?” and he said, “I’m Frank.” [laughter] He was wearing blue jeans with paint on them, his shoes had paint on them. He was missing two fingers, and teeth. I said, “A horse kicked you, huh?” or something like that.
SUZANNE COTTER: Were you already familiar with Frank’s work?
MSF: No, I didn’t know it. When I was in Tehran, all I knew about was that John F. Kennedy was president of the United States, and that man had gone to the moon. Those were the only things I had heard, on the radio or television. But artworks? No.
SC: You have parallel interests in a particular type of visual composition, looking at pattern, at principles of decoration, and geometries, but this developed in very different ways. Over the course of the friendship that you developed, did the two of you ever have conversations about your work, what you were both doing?
FRANK STELLA: We never talked about any of that sort of thing. We became friends entirely via our families and the social life of New York City, and her children, and my children. We may both be in the art world, but there was very little art in the art world. People didn’t talk about ideas. They just gossiped about who was doing what with whom. (Monir never gossiped that much.)
HUO: So your children were a connection?
FS: Yes, Monir’s children’s were the same age as my children, when I married the second time.
MSF: Honestly I didn’t realize that Frank knew I was an artist. We never talked about art. To tell the truth, I didn’t feel good enough to talk about art with him because he was so high level. The first time I saw his architecture and design, he was working on his roof project for the Groninger Museum in Holland.
HUO: Yes, there is a connection you both have to architecture. Frank, a lot of your work is architectural; you were exposed to architecture very early in your childhood, and Frank Lloyd Wright was important for you as a student. Likewise, Monir, I’ve always seen you as having a connection to architecture.
FS: Well, the fine arts are painting, sculpture, and architecture. Or if you’re an architect, it’s architecture, sculpture, and painting. Or if you’re a sculptor, it’s sculpture, painting, and architecture. The fine arts are the fine arts, and most people who do it have the ability to cross over, and they do at various times in various circumstances.
Once I had the notion and began making the shaped paintings, that idea led quite straightforwardly to the notion of relief. Then I started building those models. I wasn’t worried about architecture; I was worried about building my paintings. This was in relation to Constructivist art in general, and early Russian Constructivism. The paintings were shaped, but also built, and built up. The notion of building a painting—I don’t know how different that is from building a building.
HUO: You call one series Polish Village, which is connected to the synagogues that disappeared. That’s another link to buildings.
FS: That was the link, the notion of building. Those works were built in a straightforward but intricate way. They are wooden buildings.
MSF: You used to see Richard Meier very often, remember?
FS: I’ve been friends with Richard for a long time, since we were students.
HUO: I always love to ask about unrealized projects. Do you have unrealized projects with Richard Meier?
FS: I don’t see anything very interesting in talking about unrealized projects. However, we did have one that was insanely simple, which involved window shades. You could have a clear Mylar panel with a printed image on it. You’d roll it down and see a drawing, and when you got tired of that and wanted to see the real world, you could roll it up. The drawings were open and quite simple. It worked well, because the drawings tied in with the space on either side of the walls.
SC: I think Frank made an interesting point: here are two artists, working in entirely different contexts, who came to know one another, who actually have some shared preoccupations in their work. But their connection remains really a life connection.
FS: I think the thing is geometry. Monir grew up with it, and it was part of her world. I was a visitor to that world, and saw more or less the same things she grew up with and that she continued to see all of her life. For Monir, starting out, she was accustomed to it, but it didn’t come until later that she immersed herself in it. It became a way of working that gave her confidence. In other words, coming to the West, and being familiarized with what was going on in the Western art world, she was able to go back, assimilate geometry, and come out on the other side, able to be completely free with her native geometry.
HUO: That’s beautiful.
SC: I think it’s interesting, Monir, that you understand geometry in Islamic thought, its traditional uses. But you always refer to your work in very objective terms. You say, “there is no meaning”, which for me is an echo of the now-legendary statement by Frank: “What you see is what you see.”
FS: It could become un-legendary, and it wouldn’t hurt anybody! [laughs]
SC: I think it speaks to what you’re saying, Frank, about two very different traditions, and how one uses them, and Monir’s artistic empowerment through an understanding of that tradition that is also filtered through her encounters with a different perspective on art that is much more object based.
FS: Monir took geometry off the surface of architecture, and made it into essentially its own surface. She hasn’t put it back on the wall; it’s come back as art. She’s taking a geometry that is so tied to architecture, actually tied to a wall, and making it an independent surface.
HUO: That’s such an important point. I read this wonderful interview with Monir by Lauren O’Neill-Butler in Artforum in which Monir said that her work is at all times about geometry.
FS: Ultimately, everyone says, there is no art without geometry.
HUO: Who said that?
FS: I just did. [laughs] No, I didn’t, I got it from somebody else. I don’t know where I got it.
HUO: It’s a great quote.
FS: The point is that space is defined by measurement. Geometry is a measurement.
MSF: I think Frank explains it so much better than I do. Thank you.
FS: But there’s something Monir has to explain. It’s one thing to work with patterns and geometry, but the way that your new pieces have evolved—there would be a shape, say, a triangle. The triangle is made up of striations. Why?
MSF: Because if you make a circle, and divide it, you’re left with a triangle.
FS: Right, but what I’m talking about is not the outline of the shape, but when you fill in the shape, you’re using the bands or stripes or strips of mirror. “Striated” is the only word I can think of. The mirror is cut in strips, and then fitted into the triangle form. It has an effect that is unusual—not unusual, but very good. Even though all of these pieces are made of mirrors, and mirrored surfaces, there’s very little reflection off the mirrors because the striation breaks up the light. You have the forms, but you don’t get this infinite mirroring. They have a quality that is unlike just being a mirror.
SC: They seem to me to be more about light.
FS: One thing it might be nice to hear you talk about, Monir, is progression. In your earliest work, you say you start with the line, you go to the point, you go to the circle, and from the circle you create the hexagon. I understand the evolution. It’s very striking to me that you begin with a diffuse pattern that contains these diverse geometries, and then you single them out, and suddenly the geometry becomes like a mobile form, its own form.
MSF: That’s only in my imagination; it’s not planned intellectually. I don’t have that brain. I made this sculpture that Frank saw, with stainless steel. I thought the square in it could be a different measurement, and set in the circle. It gives it a different perspective, the movement.
FS: Right, that we can all understand. It starts with a base, and then you turn it, and it builds up. But we can’t understand why you start, say, with just the triangle, and you cut out one part of it and then you lift it slightly, and then it fits together. What made you cut off the triangular band? You start with the perimeter?
MSF: I suppose I don’t want it to be flat; I want it to be different. So I put cardboard under each, and then I make a small maquette, and give it to an engineer, and he makes a bigger pattern with the measurements. Then I do the metalwork, and I decide what form it takes.
FS: You’re saying that it has a general plan, and then the detail comes when you have a sense of how you want the large plan to go. So you have two plans.
MSF: Maybe three plans, with the dreaming up. That’s simple.
FS: It’s not that simple. And then how do you explain the color in the simplest ones, where it’s mirror, and then there’s green line? Where does the green line come from? What is it made out of?
MSF: I have a big sheet of glass, and I put a color of stained glass, and it’s transparent. When it’s wet, I put glitter over it. You remember how much glitter you used to have, and you gave me some when I was going to Iran?
MSF: At my first exhibition, Frank asked me, “What is this shining in the back of the color that you have used?” and I said, “It’s glitter.” It sticks to wet paint, and shines from the other side. About two years later, I went to New York and visited Frank’s studio, and I saw eight containers of glitter. He used to paint on metal, three-dimensional pieces, and would throw glitter on like dust.
FS: Most of it has fallen off those pieces by now.
HUO: It’s a great story, with the glitter. What year was that?
FS: I used glitter from 1978 on. I used it starting with the “Indian birds” [Shoubeegi (Indian Birds), 1978].
MSF: He used to paint the large metal works with a big broom.
SC: I think it could be interesting for Monir to talk about her studio. She said to me this week, “Everyone talks about the Factory. It’s perfectly normal for an artist to have a studio with people working there.”
HUO: You should both talk about your factories.
MSF: With Persian miniatures, three or four hundred years ago, there would be five or six people working on each piece. One would only draw the black lines, one would only paint the green leaves, et cetera. But people criticized me in one newspaper, saying, “Monir doesn’t produce art. There are other people working on it for her.”
FS: The ultimate issue is a modern issue, the signature issue. People are interested in the so-called individual hand and the individual signature. Certainly, art historians do cartwheels trying to prove to everyone that they can recognize the individual hand. I wouldn’t bet my last dollar on most of the attributions. Here’s the thing, Monir: you’re ninety years old, and the pieces themselves, especially the new works, have what I would call this physical reality.
MSF: They’re heavy, I can’t pick them up myself. So I make small maquettes.
FS: Exactly. The geometry and the physicality of the pieces is all in the maquettes. You don’t worry about making them big. That’s someone’s else’s job, specifically that of the craftsman working for you.
SC: In an exhibition, you wouldn’t necessarily show the maquettes.
FS: Although that’s all I hear from curators, that you have to show your process. They say, “Oh, no one wants to see one really good painting after another. Where are all of the mistakes you made? How did you get there?” [laughs]
HUO: So, how did it all start? How did art come to you, or how did you come to art?
FS: My mother went to design school, and later she painted all the time. When we were young, she’d paint a turkey on my bedroom window for Thanksgiving, Santa Claus for Christmas, a bunny for Easter. My father was a physician, and when he went to medical school it was during the Depression, and so they gave everyone employment when they weren’t in school, and he worked as a house painter, and painting department stores in Boston. We worked with my mother making seashell ashtrays and painted on those. We’d paint our house, and sand and varnish the floors. So I was always in paint, either commercial paint or oil paint. When I went away to school at Phillips Academy they had an art appreciation course that was half art history, half studio. That’s when I started painting seriously.
HUO: When I interview scientists, they often remember a rainy Wednesday when they had an invention. Like Albert Hoffman and LSD. Did you have a similar moment with the Black Paintings from 1958–60? Or was it a gradual process?
FS: I’d say it was gradual. Delta (1958) wasn’t exactly an epiphany, but it was certainly a turning point. Yugatan (1958) contains a painted-out painting, it’s all black enamel. Then, working on the next painting, which had these boxes or borders or striped or banded designs, the same things happened except I painted it out, following the direction that was already there. When I left the painting and came back and looked at it again, it didn’t look so painted-out. It looked like the beginning of something. Then I had the idea, which seemed quite workable, that the painting could be just black, that it didn’t need anything else. Working with various geometric designs, I could make black paintings.
HUO: Was there an epiphany from the Black Paintings to the shaped canvases? How did that transition happen? Color entered into the work…
FS: The Black Paintings themselves are quite painterly—there’s a space in between, and the painting bleeds, and so it becomes a kind of all-over painting. And as I began to think about the diagrammatic aspects of it, I had different notions of diagramming the bands or stripes. And it happened with the aluminum paintings: once I had this idea of a stripe that didn’t go in a straight line but jogged, essentially, and created a notch or a space, then I had a version of a shaped canvas. It’s pretty simple. Once you have an idea, variations on that idea become obvious. Shaped painting has been with us a long time, going back to altarpieces, and probably beyond that.
HUO: Who were your heroes at that time, in the 1950s?
FS: They are still my heroes: the American Abstract Expressionist painters during and after the Second World War. Pollock, Hans Hofmann, Kline, de Kooning, Newman, Gottlieb. I loved those painters while I was going to school, while I was a “student painter”. And that never changed.
HUO: There’s a big difference between the way they work and the way you work. Would you say you’re more classical, more controlled?
FS: I don’t think that’s true at all. Geometric painting started to become a kind of norm at the beginning of the twentieth century. You simply have to look at Malevich, Kandinsky, and Mondrian. By 1920, that was an established practice, and a complex one at that.
HUO: What about this commonly accepted idea that your work wasn’t improvised, wasn’t romantic, that it was very different from Abstract Expressionism?
FS: But what’s so improvised about Barnett Newman? For that matter, I don’t see Pollock as any more improvised than Picasso or Matisse. Certainly my early paintings are plenty improvisational. Other works are more conventionally geometric, owing to their interest in and debt to Constructivism. But then other work is right back where Abstract Expressionism was.
HUO: So, a lot of the literature that describes a rupture should instead talk about a continuum of Abstract Expressionism.
FS: You have to remember, there was a continuing tradition of geometric abstract painting, of which a perfect example is Ellsworth Kelly’s paintings. They were far more radical in their difference from the messier versions of Abstract Expressionism. And then there was Ilya Bolotowsky, George L. K. Morris, Leon Polk. Mondrian was living in New York City and a practicing artist in the 1940s, the heyday of Abstract Expressionism. I would call Broadway Boogie Woogie (1942–43) a geometric Abstract Expressionist painting.
HUO: In the 1980s, your work became more baroque. Was there an epiphany for that? Or was that again a gradual process?
FS: It was a gradual process. The Cones and Pillars pieces, for instance, were from a series I did about Italian folks tales by Italo Calvino. Calvino is telling a story, and I’m making abstract paintings, but I like to think it’s possible with the shapes, and how I put the shapes together and how they move, that the gesture of the paintings can create a narrative impulse, expressed visually. The idea is that abstraction is not limited to abstract-abstraction, as it were.
HUO: You said once that in the 1980s, you attempted to rejuvenate abstract paintings by introducing an element of baroque painting.
FS: You could equate that with the narrative impulse—the urge to bring something else to it. The implication was that abstraction, seen from the perspective you’re suggesting—the architectonic or geometric perspective—is limiting. But by taking a slightly more oblique tack, it seems to me it’s possible for abstract art to become if anything more painterly and more baroque. Or move out toward you, move into the viewer’s space so the reliefs can be more free-flowing, less rigid. Which ultimately leads to working today with the more complicated curvilinear and compound forms.
The traditional relationship between narrative and painting is that the visual art illustrates the narrative. And that’s fine. But with abstraction, it’s difficult to be that literal. And there’s another word, if you think back to manuscripts, it was called manuscript illumination, not manuscript illustration. The point is that with abstraction, you can get closer to that idea. To have an illuminating reference to literature, rather than an illustrational one.
HUO: Monir, tell us about what you are working on lately. What are your new drawings about?
MSF: I am doing beautiful geometries on paper: circles, hexagons, squares, triangles, using a lot of colors. I’m not doing any metalwork, just drawing, drawing, drawing. Felt marker on paper, using glitter on the drawing, or black ink with a brush. There are so many possibilities, so many different techniques. Mostly they are based on the hexagon. There are infinite possibilities in every geometry of triangle, square, pentagon, hexagon. Every day I have a new idea.
HUO: Why glitter?
MSF: It glows very beautifully.
HUO: What do you do with it?
MSF: I put glue on the paper, white glue, like carpenter’s glue, brush it into the form and the shape, and then I spread the glitter over that spot. It sticks and dries and is permanent, and the rest gets thrown out.
HUO: There are also the drawings where you add handwriting.
MSF: During the revolution, I was in New York, I sat and watched the news, and I did a lot of calligraphy, freehand. I am using calligraphy in some form in the new drawings. The day before yesterday, snow was coming down and down, and I did one with calligraphy.
HUO: Tell me more about the portraits.
MSF: I always have pen and ink, and also a drawing pad. I make portraits of my daughters, my husband. I have done a lot of flowers, a lot of grass. I’ve done many drawings in Long Island when it was full of flowers. And then I have birds, they used to come sit on my terrace in New York. When I go to the beach I draw seagulls, other birds. I keep myself busy.
HUO: What prompts the flowers?
MSF: I always have flowers in my living room. I use a very wide Chinese brush, put it in the ink and start from the top, come down, finish the flowers. The leaves, the center, I know it by heart, I barely have to look. By now I can do flowers even without having them on the table.
HUO: Frank, your upcoming survey show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York will be the first major retrospective in the new building designed by Renzo Piano. What are the oldest and newest works you will be showing?
FS: As you can imagine, there’s a lot of dates to cover. If you want to have work from the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, all of a sudden it’s a lot of work, even if you only have three or four examples from each time period. The earliest work is from 1958, a painting called Astoria. The newest work is from this year.
HUO: Tell me a bit about the new work.
FS: I’m using rapid prototyping techniques to create sculptural reliefs. Some are based on star shapes that were embedded in the earlier sculptures. We are isolating those star shapes and making them larger. You can’t make things that are too large using rapid prototyping; if you want to go bigger, you have to isolate the geometry and fabricate with wood or metal or carbon fiber.
HUO: So they get translated, you could say. How has the advent of the digital impacted your work?
FS: You don’t have much choice now: if you want to have anything built by fabricators, digitally or otherwise, you have to work with digital information. If you can’t supply that, they can’t build anything.
HUO: And what do you think of the new Whitney building?
FS: I think it’s quite wonderful. It’s large, generous, but it works in New York. The building is in one way straightforward but it has plenty of drama, plenty of room.
HUO: What is your favorite museum, in the world?
FS: It’s hard not to like the Louvre. But there are so many museums. If you want a modern museum, there’s nothing that competes—in terms of pictorial, sculptural, and architectural drama—with the Guggenheim on Fifth Avenue.
HUO: Last question: what would be your advice to a young artist?
FS: Don’t get old.
Born in Iran in 1924, after formative years in New York (1945 – 1957) during which she was absorbed into the art scene of the time (coming into contact with, among others, Willem de Kooning, Louise Nevelson, Barnett Newman, and, later, Andy Warhol) Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian returned to Iran. The Islamic Revolution in 1979 forced her to come back to the American city, however, where she stayed for 26 years, until finally getting the chance to return to her country of origin in 2004. Her artistic practice is clearly marked by the multiplicity of cultural influences she has experienced. In her paintings, drawing, collages and carpet and textile design, she combines the geometric patterns and traditional craftsmanship techniques of her Iranian heritage with aspects of modern Western geometric abstraction. Farmanfarmaian’s work has been exhibited in venues such as the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Leighton House Museum, London; Haus der Kunst, Munich. A new solo show dedicated to the artist will be open from November 16 to December 24, 2015 at The Third Line in Dubai.
Internationally praised for his contributions to the development of minimalism, post-painterly abstraction and color field painting, Frank Stella—born in 1936 in Malden, Massachusetts to parents of Italian descent—enjoyed early success. He debuted at 23 in the important Sixteen Americans exhibition at MoMA, which only ten years later gave him a retrospective. Stella’s originality lies in how he moved past the language in which he got his start, abstract expressionism. Following the motto “what you see is what you see”, Stella was an early practitioner of nonrepresentational painting, which refused to allude to hidden meanings, emotions, or narratives. Instead, the artist focuses on the basic elements of an artwork—color, shape, and composition. He currently lives and works in New York. Stella’s work was included in several important exhibitions that defined 1960s art, including the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum’s The Shaped Canvas (1965) and Systemic Painting (1966). Since the 1970s his art has been the subject of retrospectives in the United States, Europe, and Japan, and can be found in major international collections.
Originally published on Mousse 50 (October–November 2015)