Monir Farmanfarmaian, 96, Dies; Artist Melded Islam and the Abstract

Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, an Iranian artist whose mirror-encrusted geometric compositions drew on both Islamic architecture and the abstractions of the postwar New York avant-garde, died on April 20 in Tehran. She was 96.

The death was confirmed by a grandson, Aziz Isham.

Ms. Farmanfarmaian (pronounced far-mahn-far-MY-ahn) emerged as a key actor in the worldwide development of abstract art in recent years, as curators of American and European museums began to map a global history of postwar painting and sculpture.

Her art ranged from decorous early floral painting to stern, memory-haunted collages. But her most compelling works were polygonal wooden forms, sometimes free-standing and sometimes mounted on the wall, that were covered in thousands of precisely cut small mirrors. She made her first such work in 1969, and soon was producing hexagon-shaped reliefs festooned with mirrors that fractured viewers’ reflections into uncanny multiples.

By her 80s, she was working at architectural scale, producing multipart compositions of polygons covered in mirrors and painted glass, which married the exuberant splendor of Iranian decorative arts with the repeated forms of minimalism and geometric abstraction. Ms. Farmanfarmaian also made intricate drawings whose interlocking circles and hexagons translated the tropes of Islamic decorative arts into a realm of pure form.

Monir Shahroudy was born on Jan. 13, 1923, in Qazvin, a city in northwest Iran. Her mother, Fatemeh, was an Ottoman aristocrat. Her father, Bagher, who founded Qazvin’s first school for girls, was elected to Parliament in 1932 and moved the family to Tehran.

In her teens Monir enrolled at the University of Tehran, where she studied fine arts, but she found the faculty stultified. She dreamed of Paris, but World War II put that city out of reach. So in 1944 she sailed first to India and then, on an American warship, to Los Angeles. From there she traveled cross-country to New York, which, after a three-month journey, struck her as unimpressive.

“For the sheer scale of big-city bustle and the impact of the strange and exotic,” she wrote in her autobiography, “A Mirror Garden,” in 2008, “New York could hardly compete with Bombay.”

In New York, Ms. Farmanfarmaian studied fashion illustration at the Parsons School of Design, worked on her English, danced with Martha Graham’s company and soon fell in with the artists at the Eighth Street Club, where Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and others debated the course of abstraction, and at the Cedar Tavern, where they continued the debate over liquor.

Ms. Farmanfarmaian and her husband were in the United States when the Iranian revolution began. The couple lost most of their belongings, and they spent several years bouncing among apartments until finding a Fifth Avenue penthouse that was going cheap, thanks to the previous tenant’s connection to a grisly murder.

“There was nothing I could do except listen to the bad news from Iran — ‘Khomeini is coming, Khomeini is coming’ — and I just sat in front of the television doing calligraphy with a marker,” she told Mr. Obrist. While in exile she also created her lesser-known “Heartache” boxes, incorporating family fabrics and heirlooms into downcast assemblages.

In 2004, widowed, Ms. Farmanfarmaian returned to a transformed, traffic-choked Tehran and threw herself back into the mirror sculptures, working now with a large workshop of artisans who could scale up her maquettes into ravishing architectural projects.

The capital today is home to a museum of her art, associated with the University of Tehran, which opened in 2017. It is known simply as the Monir Museum, a testament to her stature even in the Islamic Republic, but also a quiet derogation of the name Farmanfarmaian, with its evocations of the old regime.

She is survived by her daughters Nima Isham and Zahra Farmanfarmaian; five grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

The mirrored surfaces of her art, and the multiple perspectives and reflections they afford, stand to some degree as a symbol of Ms. Farmanfarmaian’s rich life. In 2015, on the occasion of her Guggenheim show, she told a reporter for The New Yorker:

“Each of these forms has thousands and thousands of ways to see it. Mirrors are a reflection of anything and everything. You become part of that mirror. It is communication — the mirror and yourself, the piece of art and yourself.”

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