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August 01 2012

Tehran exhibition reveals city's hidden Warhol and Hockney treasures

Paintings collected with help of Iran's last queen, Farah Pahlavi, and safeguarded in museum basement, on show for first time

It is the finest collection of modern art anywhere outside Europe and the US, boasting works by Jackson Pollock, Francis Bacon, Andy Warhol, Edvard Munch, René Magritte and Mark Rothko.

But the pieces have been stacked in the basement of Tehran's Museum of Contemporary Art for more than 30 years, gathering dust in storage. Censors in Iran classed some as un-Islamic, pornographic or too gay, and they have never been shown in public. Others have been displayed only once or twice.

But now a number of the collection's paintings are on show for the first time in Tehran as part of the museum's Pop Art & Op Art exhibition, featuring works by Warhol, David Hockney, Roy Lichtenstein, Victor Vasarely, Richard Hamilton and Jasper Johns.

"Many of the works in the exhibition are shown for the first time," Hasan Noferesti, the museum's director for art programmes, told the Mehr news agency. "The exhibition aims to show the evolution of these artistic movements."

More than 100 pieces from the museum's remarkable collection are on display, according to Mehr, along with a series of works from Mexico that have been dedicated to the museum in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Mexican revolution and the 200th anniversary of the country's independence.

James Rosenquist, Jim Dine, Larry Rivers and RB Kitaj are among other artists whose works are in the exhibition, which runs until mid-August.

Iran's unique hidden treasure was bought before the Islamic revolution, under the supervision of Farah Pahlavi, the former queen of Iran, who fled the country with the late shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in 1979.

The 38-year reign of the shah, self-proclaimed kings of kings, came to an end after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned from exile to Tehran receiving a hero's welcome and founded the Islamic republic.

The collection includes Pollock's Mural on Indian Red Ground, considered to be one of his most important works and estimated to be worth more than $250m, as well as important pieces by Picasso, Van Gogh, Monet, Pissarro, Renoir, Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas, Whistler and Marcel Duchamp.

There are even pieces by artists whom the former empress met in person, including the Russian-French painter Marc Chagall and the English sculptor Henry Moore. The collection is thought to be worth more than $2.5bn.

Speaking to the Guardian, Pahlavi explained that the collection was bought during Iran's 1970s oil boom. "Our oil revenue had significantly increased and I spoke to [the shah] and Amir-Abbas Hoveyda [then prime minister], and told them that it was the best time to buy some of our ancient works both internally and from outside.

"I thought how good it would be to have a museum where we could put the works of our contemporary artists. Later I thought, why shouldn't we include foreign works. This is how it all started … at that time our curators and collectors were mostly interested in traditional art and not so much in the modern art."

Pahlavi's interest in western art is believed to derive from her education in France.

Kamran Diba, an Iranian architect and a cousin of the queen, was commissioned to design the museum in the heart of the capital and later selected the works with help from various people, including the presidents of Christie's and Sotheby's.

Pahlavi said: "I was very worried for the fate of those paintings during those events [at the time of the revolution], I was worried that the revolutionaries would destroy them. But fortunately the museum staff protected them in the basement.

"Some years ago the director of the museum showed some of the pieces and made a catalogue listing the works. I'm happy that people have realised what was hidden there for years."

Between 1997 and 2005, during the mandate of the former reformist president Mohammad Khatami, when restrictions on art were temporarily relaxed, Alireza Samiazar, then head of the museum, struggled to secure permission for the first display of some of the works.

In 2005, to the dismay of the regime's hardliners, a large number of the paintings were brought out for an exhibition. That show sparked controversy. Francis Bacon's Two Figures Lying on a Bed with Attendants, with seeming homosexual content, was deemed inappropriate and removed from the exhibition. However, many contentious works survived the censors. Andy Warhol's portraits of Mick Jagger and Marilyn Monroe are in Tehran and his paintings of Mao Zedong have been put on display in full for the first time in the pop art exhibition.

Despite the contempt of Tehran's rulers for western art, the collection has been safely guarded – bar a Warhol portrait of Pahlavi herself, which, she said, had been cut with a knife.

In 1994 the museum exchanged one of its many remarkable paintings – Woman III, by the Dutch-American expressionist Willem de Kooning – for a rare illuminated volume of Shahnameh, an ancient Persian poetry book, which belonged to the American art collector Arthur Houghton, because the painting had shown too much nudity in the eyes of the authorities.

The swap infuriated many, including Pahlavi. "If they were really interested in Shahnameh, couldn't they pay $6m and keep De Kooning's painting? The US businessman David Geffen, who bought the painting for some $20m, sold it for $110m few years ago. The De Kooning exchange is the sole exchange they've done so far and I hope it remains the last one."

Of the many ironies surrounding the artwork is the fact that Iran's powerful Guardian Council, a group of clerics, intervened a decade ago to forbid the selling or exchange of the works because, they said, trade in un-Islamic and pornographic works was prohibited.

Ali Amini Najafi, an Iranian art critic based in Germany, said: "The works in the collection are not randomly or arbitrarily chosen, it is clear that people involved in selecting them had a consistent plan to pick relevant and significant samples to depict the evolution of modern art and also to make sure that all movements from impressionists to pop art are represented.

"This collection was gathered at a defining moment of our history when Iranians were taking distance from their traditional past and were showing curiosity with modern art."


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May 09 2012

Whaam! Prepare to be hit by Roy Lichtenstein's finest comic book hour

The retrospective of Lichtenstein's work at London's Tate Modern will display the wit and glorious contradictions of his works

Roy Lichtenstein's Whaam! is an eerie modern version of the battle paintings that once decorated European palaces and council chambers. It is on a grand scale, split across two panels that together measure more than four metres in width. An American fighter unleashes a spurt of fire that blows up an enemy plane, giving the pilot no chance of escape. It is a picture of violence, but the violence is experienced third hand. The painting is meticulously translated from a DC War comic, the dots and bold colours of the original recreated by hand on an inflated scale. Our response to it is ambivalent. Is this a celebration of boys' comics, a comment on their glorification of war, a metaphor for the chilled and mechanised nature of modern killing – or nothing so serious?

It is, whatever it is, one of the most powerful monuments of 1960s pop art. Painted in 1963, Whaam! has been in the Tate collection since 1966 and has long been one of the most famous modern masterpieces in Britain. It is probably Lichtenstein's finest hour. We will have a chance to see it in the context of this artist's lifetime achievement when a retrospective of his work from the Art Institute of Chicago arrives at London's Tate Modern in 2013.

Lichtenstein made realistic paintings of an unreal world. His art is gloriously paradoxical – and the cleverest paradox is that, as in Whaam!, the unreal world turns out to have echoes in the actual one. Very early on, he hit on his comic book subject matter, and this gave his art a look it never lost – an enlarged, precise graphic style that incongruously translates efficient designs created for the page on to the generous scale of American abstract art. Like all the pop generation in America, he was working in the shadow of the abstract expressionists who in the 1940s and 50s widened the reach of painting, destroying the difference between the easel picture and the mural. Lichtenstein plays wittily on that epic scale, by filling it with comic book images that are the very opposite of the contemplative numinous clouds of Mark Rothko's visions.

In Whaam! this becomes a joke about freedom. The abstract expressionists have sometimes been accused of serving as propagandists for American culture in the cold war. The truth is more interesting. Jackson Pollock, the artist who defined abstract expressionism in the public eye, was indeed enacting freedom in the way he painted – the freedom of jazz music. With jazz 78s playing, he moved around a canvas laid on the ground, flicking and dripping paint. It was an improvisation, like Charlie Parker playing sax. In Whaam!, this free art is mockingly parodied. Lichtenstein carefully, accurately recreates an image – and that image shows a man finding freedom in machines. As he fires, the pilot obtains a sense of release. Like Jack the Dripper, he expresses himself – but does it by pressing a button.

Whaam! is still, as it was then, a comic image of American male freedom.


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March 30 2011

Inner space

Rothko's apocalyptic, wine-red paintings of illusory windows or doors take viewers to disorientating depths of the imagination

The set of Mark Rothko paintings originally commissioned for the Four Seasons restaurant in New York are the treasure of Tate Modern. They occupy a room of their own, low-lit and filled with brooding intensity. The hazy outlines of what might be doors, windows, or the gates of heaven and hell hover on the wine red and imperial purple surfaces of Rothko's mural-scale abstractions. In all of them darkness beckons, mordantly inviting the beholder to imagine vast apocalyptic landscapes, undefinable events on a cosmic scale.

Almost everyone who enters the room feels an urge to sit down on the benches in the middle of the space. It's as if the emotional weight of these sombre works instinctively makes you sit, instantly drained by them. Before you even have time to try to compose a rational understanding of them, they have a psychological impact.

Rothko was a fan of the book The Birth of Tragedy by German philosopher Frederick Nietzsche. In this provocative 19th-century work, Nietzsche argues that ancient Greek tragedy grew out of the rites of the god of wine and ecstasy, Dionysus. When he was planning his paintings for the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram Building in Manhattan, Rothko toured Italy. He went to Pompeii and studied the ancient Roman murals there. Deep reds, abstract and empty, and illusory depictions of doors leading to spaces beyond, are characteristic of ancient Roman fresco painting. But perhaps the most tantalising potential source of Rothko's cycle of paintings is the Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii, where people are depicted celebrating a Dionysian mystery cult against rich red backgrounds. It seems to me that Rothko, a reader of Nietzsche, must have seen connections here between deep red and black walls and the idea of art as a tragic Dionysian experience that opens up the imagination like a raw wound.

Another inspiration he spoke of on his trip to Italy was the vestibule of the Laurentian Library, an architectural masterpiece by Michelangelo built off the cloister of San Lorenzo in Florence. Rothko was impressed by the blind windows that grimly decorate this room – classical window frames that, instead of letting in light, are blocked off by Michelangelo to close down the spectator's curiosity. As well as these blind window frames, it has gargantuan stone scrolls, a staircase that sprawls like an octopus on a fish stall, and overwhelming colours of grey and bone white.

The Rothko room at Tate Modern strives to recapture the claustrophobic, disorientating feel of Michelangelo's room. The Laurentian Library vestibule also has a deliberately oppressive effect on you – and here, too, it starts as soon as you step into the room, as if you had crossed a threshold from normal life into some waiting room in hell.

Rothko was fascinated by the idea of shaping a room with art, using abstract painting as a type of architecture. After the restaurant commission – and his decision not to let his great paintings go in a restaurant after all, but to give them to the Tate – he "made a place", as he put it, in the Rothko Chapel in Houston, where echoes of Michelangelo abound once again. The chapel's interior actually has false doors that lead nowhere, or rather into dead spaces behind the paintings. But the paintings here are more deathly and absolute than the rich visionary works at the Tate – the Houston chapel is funereal, the consummation of a tragic view of life.

In London, the Rothko room is disturbing, but liberating too. It frees the imagination. It creates the effects of great architecture and fresco painting using abstract daubings hung in a gloomy chamber. It always makes me think of Caravaggio's Bacchus, proffering a glass of stilled red wine. Home in on the wine, enlarge it, until the screen of your mind's eye is red, red, red. That is Rothko's vision you are drinking in.


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February 11 2010

When art became larger than life

With their giant canvases and towering ambition, Gorky and Rothko transcended everything we thought possible of art today

The abstract expressionists, those Amercian artists who made their country's art famous 60 years ago, cannot be ignored. They are so real and so massive; so absolute.

They've rolled back over me recently. Walking into Tate Liverpool a couple of weeks ago, I found that Mark Rothko had got to the Albert Dock before me. His Seagram Murals currently hang in a warehouse space on the ground floor of the museum, and I found them devastatingly beautiful. Their wine-dark ecstasy pays such Bacchic homage to the House of Mysteries in Pompeii, whose paintings he saw while planning them. Just recently, I saw Roman wall paintings in the archaeological museum in Naples that bleed with Rothko reds.

Rothko is a great artist, and so is Arshile Gorky, whose retrospective has just opened at Tate Modern. I'll be reviewing that shortly, so I will just comment more generally on how Gorky and Rothko transcended almost everything we now expect art to be. They aspired to greatness – a quality almost no art nowadays believes it can attain. Some people call them pompous for that; I call them courageous.

It's worth looking, in the first few rooms of the Gorky show, at how he tried on different habits of excellence: painting like Picasso, then like Cézanne. The desperation to achieve on their level is both moving and disconcerting. But finally he, like Rothko, found a personal, original road to the highest mountains.

When I encountered the abstract expressionists en masse for the first time in New York's Museum of Modern Art in the 1990s, they taught me that art in our time can be not merely interesting or shocking – let alone "fun" – but can attain the most profound qualities of the noblest masters. And here in the UK, they've taught me that all over again.


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December 12 2009

The mean reds

Mark Rothko was a mediocre figurative painter, who found a magic formula in abstraction. But it didn't make him happy

On 29 February 1972 the English artist Keith Vaughan went to see an exhibition of Mark Rothko paintings. Vaughan recorded the occasion in his diary: "To Hayward Gallery in the afternoon to see Rothkos. Feeble stuff. Large décor. Boring to paint and look at. Not surprising he killed himself if that was all there was to do." This is both ironic and shrewd. Ironic in that Vaughan was also to kill himself five years later (though for reasons unconnected with his art) but shrewd in that, even in this throwaway remark, he gets to the crux of our responses to Rothko and his huge, darkly luminous paintings.

Mark Rothko was born Marcus Rothkowitz in 1903, in Dvinsk, Latvia. His family emigrated to America when he was 10 years old. Like many celebrated artists of his generation – the postwar American abstract expressionists, the so-called New York School – Rothko was at best a mediocre painter, and would have been judged as one, until he found his magic formula. Among his number one can cite similar examples of famous artists who couldn't really draw: Barnett Newman, Clyfford Still, Franz Kline and, the most graphically inept of all, Jackson Pollock. It seems to me no accident that all these artists sought refuge in abstraction where their signal inadequacies in the world of figuration would be no impediment. The move was canny and acclaimed – these abstract artists achieved great renown and concomitant wealth. But did it bring aesthetic satisfaction – or, to put it more prosaically: did it make them happy?

This question is at the centre of a fascinating new play, Red, just opened at the Donmar Warehouse. It's a bravura two-hander – all the action revolves around increasingly adversarial conversations between Rothko (Alfred Molina) and his assistant (Eddie Redmayne) during a two-year period at the end of the 1950s, when Rothko was working on a highly paid commission to provide a series of murals for the new Four Seasons restaurant in Manhattan's Seagram Building. This last decade of Rothko's life saw his palette reduce dramatically – the refulgent primaries, the glowing oranges and yellows, of his first colour-field paintings giving way to a predominance of increasingly sombre shades of red and black: bruised plum, tarnished magenta, deep scarlet. At the end of his life he effectively reduced his paintings to a few stygian shades – bluey-purple on sooty greys or simply black and dirty white. As with all of Rothko's work post-1949 (when he hit upon his abstract blueprint) the canvases were large – well over six feet high – and, typically, consisted of blurred, frayed rectangles of two or more contrasting multilayered colours stacked one on top of the other.

Rothko's paintings display, in the jargon of the art world, "frontality". There is no attempt to violate the two-dimensional plane – no depth, no perspective; any semi-figurative explanation is robustly prohibited (no empty beach and sky, no cloudscape, here). All evaluation of this type of pure abstract art is reduced to one's reaction and appreciation – or not – of the colour tones and relationships and the compositional balance or imbalance of the respective blocks of colour. There is nothing wrong with this: pure abstraction, if it is to be appreciated correctly, has to be judged on the strict terms it offers the viewer. To say "that was the colour of the wall in my bedroom when I was a sick child", or "to me blue equals misery", or "that reminds me of a sunset in Crete" is redundant. But in Rothko's case that was never enough. A bombastic, opinionated intellectual, Rothko wanted his simple, extremely beautiful paintings to be freighted with mythic, portentous significance – to be about the despair at the heart of the human condition, doom, entropy, the void and oblivion. Undertaking the Four Seasons commission, he famously declared that he wanted to put all the rich bastards dining there off their food. The discord between his pretentious high-mindedness and the banal destination of his haunting canvases is at the centre of the play. Increasingly troubled by this conflict, Rothko decided to give back the $35,000 he was paid and refused to have his paintings hung in the restaurant.

As time has gone by, the example of Rothko's generation of American artists is both fascinating and salutary. Pollock, with his hectic, belligerent, drink-fuelled self-loathing, his sudden rise and fall (a suicidal car-crash), is exemplary, but to a significant degree many of the artists associated with the abstract expressionist movement were tormented in one way or another and met early deaths either by their own hands or out-of-control self-indulgence. This is where Vaughan's observation seems to me particularly germane: "Not surprising he killed himself if that was all there was to do." Pollock's enduring fame, for instance, rests on his few years of action painting in the late 40s and early 50s – the huge dribbled and drip paintings that are now the legendary touchstones of gestural, impetuous art-making, the triumphant symbol of New York's usurpation of Paris as the world capital of modern art. But the inescapable fact is that the work Pollock did before and after the drip-paintings is embarrassingly bad. Pollock had found his "formula" and it made him the most celebrated painter in the world – and a celebrity. But he couldn't sustain it. When he stopped the drip paintings and tried to work in a different way it drove him crazier and to eventual and inevitable self-destruction.

Around the late 1940s Rothko abandoned his uninspired, biomorphic, quasi-surrealist style and started to produce his soon-to-be signature canvases. The format was established early and only the colour varied (the same could be said of Kline, Newman and Still). Nothing really changed in the way the canvases were painted – the modus operandi in the studio was soon fixed and unalterable (something the play makes visually and vivaciously real). There is a problem for any artist if a particular style becomes instantly recognisable and overwhelmingly in-demand – you branch out, redefine yourself at your peril – but for the purely abstract painter this dilemma seems to me particularly acute. Rothko is the perfect case in point: he effectively painted "Rothkos" for the rest of his life.

One might argue that Lucian Freud has been painting "Lucian Freuds" for decades also. But Freud is a figurative painter, his subject is the infinitely mutable human form and therein lies his salvation and his timeless motivation as an artist. It doesn't take a huge thought-experiment to try to imagine the growing hell of being a colour-field abstract painter condemned to lay on those huge swaths of colour on canvas – however beautiful, however lambent – month after month, year after year, decade after decade. I suspect this was why Rothko surrounded his work with a penumbra of intellectual pontification, as if the sheer density of arid academic commentary made the simple act of painting these colour-fields a more worthy endeavour. The art critic Clement Greenberg – the great elucidator of abstract expressionism and the New York School, the man who "made" Jackson Pollock – described Rothko as "a clinical paranoid . . . pompous and dumb". Greenberg's ego was as big as the artists' he championed and he did seem to exhibit a parasitical relish in the fame he made for his chosen few. There was something of a Faustian pact in being given the Greenberg seal of approval: you became famous, patrons sought you out, you hung in the best galleries, you made lots of money but you weren't allowed to change unless Clement OK-ed it.

And yet, for all the one-trick-pony aspect of Rothko's style, to be confronted by a Rothko painting, or several, in a museum or a gallery, is a palpable delight on a visceral, unconscious level. We respond to these shimmering, blurry, layered hues in a very direct manner, I would suggest, and at a simple but deep emotional level that is hard to classify or elucidate in any truly meaningful way. I can remember, in the early 70s, going into the Rothko "room" at the Tate and being profoundly affected by abstract art for the first time – both rapt and obscurely moved. However, we recognise the inarticulate delight, acknowledge the frisson and move on. The artist has to keep painting.

And there's the rub, especially if you're a not-very-talented artist. Once again the ancient adage that Archilochus evolved (later popularised by Isaiah Berlin) seems particularly apposite in Rothko's case: "The fox knows many things – the hedgehog knows one big thing." It's an interesting binary exercise to divide artists into hedgehogs or foxes, and the New York School of abstract expressionists (with the exception of Willem de Kooning) can only be described as a pack, a flock of hedgehogs. It's a matter of temperament, sheer gift and inclination if you find yourself a hedgehog or a fox. Da Vinci is a fox genius, Vermeer a hedgehog. Freud is a hedgehog, David Hockney is a fox. Graham Sutherland is a fox, Francis Bacon is a hedgehog – and so on. Certain artists know "one big thing" – they can do "one big thing" – and it shapes the art they make. The trouble with the artists of the New York School, it seems to me, is that they had "hedgehog" status thrust upon them – by the critics, by the dealers, by Life magazine. It didn't evolve naturally. There is a story that Greenberg came across some pages from a Manhattan phonebook that Kline had used to wipe his brushes on. Greenberg held them up and told him that was how he should paint and so "Franz Kline" as we know him today was born. But once a style made the artists of the New York School famous they were stuck with it.

One can observe a similar procedure happening today with the Young British Artists group. The sudden huge public renown of the YBAs in the 90s and their subsequent financial rewards echo something of the experience that the abstract expressionists of the 1950s went through. By this token, Damien Hirst's new "blue" paintings, for example – constituting a dramatic swerve in artistic direction from the school of manufacturism that he is associated with – could arguably be described as a very courageous effort to escape the monstrously successful hedgehog status that his patrons and his public fame and wealth have imposed on him. Sliced animals in formaldehyde, vitrines, coffee-bar existentialism – it works, why change? But Hirst, to his credit, clearly doesn't want to remain a hedgehog artist, he wants to be a fox.

So too, I think, did Rothko, but he knew it was beyond him – his modest artistic talent would not allow him to move away from the one big thing he was manifestly good at. I suspect that this played a significant role in his mounting depression and bitterness. Time and again one witnesses artists trapped into making art that the art market wants and the more modest the inherent talent the more terrifying that prospect can be. Part of the thesis behind the play Red is that by accepting the Four Seasons restaurant commission Rothko found himself tacitly admitting to and confronting the limits of his abilities. To provide paintings for the walls of the most expensive restaurant in New York was a form of unignorable self-abnegation, of selling out – big time – but his intellectual vanity couldn't remain at ease with that fact, even when he banked the cheque. He realised that his great, mythic art was actually going to make terrific interior decoration.

Rothko had the integrity, at the last moment, to prevent this fate arriving but the paintings became, over the next few years, progressively darker and darker. His last series of canvases, painted for a non-denominational church in Houston, Texas, are virtually monochrome: deep purples, smirched maroons and lots of black. They hang there today: impressive, brooding, minatory achievements – and an awful premonition. Mark Rothko had found, after the shame of the Four Seasons restaurant fiasco, the ideal space in which his art could be appreciated and in which its mordant, eschatological message could sing, but he never lived to see his Rothko Chapel. He committed suicide on 25 February 1970, a year before his paintings were installed.


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