Behjat Sadr: cosmogonic modernism
by Morad MontazamiExtract from the publication Behjadt Sadr. Traces, Paris, Zamân Books, 2014.
At the end of the Second World War, East–West relations underwent massive upheaval, especially along the thorny road leading to the Cold War. As a result, international relations during this period were constructed on singular landslides. Not the least was the shift that occurred between the geopolitical terrain and the history of art. Later, it became customary to speak of the triumph of American modern art – starting with the high point of Abstract Expressionism (Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, etc.) – over the masters of the European continent (Monet, Matisse, Mondrian, etc.), who were digested, deconstructed and to some extent surpassed by their illegitimate offspring across the ocean. Since then, the history of modern art has been told on a chessboard with multiple entryways that is balanced on several axes and meridians. Depending on whether you connect Jackson Pollock’s hook-shaped atoms with European Surrealism or Mexican Muralism i.e., with the official centre that is the source for the modern narrative, or with the so-called “periphery”, the story will in fact be told differently. That periphery, where the relationships of forms, symbols and figures had already, as early as the colonial period, been tied to Europe’s cultural “centre”, is the one that saw the West succumb to its own contradictions, seeking to simultaneously include and exclude the zones of visual “traffic”, often a product of initiatives by artists before anyone else. But it is equally customary, in this already somewhat advanced 21st century, to consider the post-colonial divide reduced across the open and unbounded web of phantom frontiers. Erstwhile political tensions embodied by the Cold War and decolonisation eras were now leading to an egalitarian divide between the aesthetic traditions of the “here” and the “there”, and “victorious” or “deviated” artistic trajectories.
The evolution of the dominant discourse in major institutions with regard to their own collections and the creation of the narrative of the “modern” have fostered a belief in a globalisation devoid of complexes and open to every contradictory wind, sublimated in a universalist celebration of all five continents finally (we are told) brought into dialogue. This is a beautiful dream and the awakening will doubtless be quite rude. If there were to be a celebration in the form of an artistic “globalisation”, then there would still be a need, beyond the narrative of cultural partnerships and diplomatic victories, to recount not the legend of modernism, but the story of its reinterpretation, at the very margins of the geopolitical and artistic frontiers that definitively exist, today more than ever. We can easily become aware of this breach through the ever-growing number of “modern” artists emanating from Third World countries and from the other “hemisphere”, who have yet to be rediscovered, and whom we rediscover laboriously by consulting the intermixed archives of trans-cultural modernity. These frequently obscure archives, having crossed oceans and epochs inside family suitcases, stamped with a certain intimacy, marked by a “private” seal, have been transmitted from generation to generation, and rarely hoist themselves to the level of emblematic collections and “world museums”; they glimmer softly in libraries and in the still breathing memories of a sadly bygone age that nonetheless still obsesses us, the 1960s and 1970s, which witnessed the terrifying and at times paralysing awakenings of nations rebuilt after the Second World War. The most authentic wishes for emancipation were entertained by the most nomadic of spirits, the most intimate psychological interrogations were undertaken by the most itinerant of souls. Thus, there is no doubt that the clash between the European and American heritages on the international art scene in the post-war years and in the 1960s and 1970s is a tree hiding the forest of a thousand other journeys (and trees) throughout, not only inhabited space, but also the most imaginary and unconscious spaces of the modernist universe, going as far as to overthrow modernism in its calling to embody the future, shifting it outside the modern period, to a more equivocal time (or counter-time) in relation to the past and the future.
Behjat Sadr undoubtedly represents one of the most fascinating personalities and trajectories from this rebel modernism which, above and beyond painting – an activity she considered the sun of her life – succeeded in connecting fields such as architecture, the decorative arts and graphic design, until recently disciplines deemed hermetic by the central protagonists of modern art. By connecting them through painting, or even solely through that gesture which marks its direction or impulsion, Behjat Sadr was the creator of a body of work that resembles a trek across highly varied continents and climates linked by their neo-romantic chant of nature “incarnate”. The nature that speaks, moves, struggles, unravels and fragments, and through every possible and imaginable means transforms itself. Despite the ever-present risk, given the artist’s crazy temperament, that nature will vanish, weaving itself back into its own fibres, barks and other skins. Unless the artist herself dissolves into space, throwing the particles of her body at the canvas where one can no longer see anything other than contradictory surfaces superimposed into infinity: aluminium, wood and earth rub shoulders with plastic, ceramic and even leather, but which of these surfaces is true and which false? Are they each set on the canvas, derived from the canvas or simulated on the canvas?
This transformational concept of nature, together with a certain metaphysics of material,1 unguided by a spiritual horizon but by sensitive obsession alone, made Behjat Sadr an unexpected alter ego to the post-Surrealist European generation of materialists, or abstract artists – artists such as Alberto Burri (1915–1995), who began painting on his jute bag during his internment in Texas in 1944 as a prisoner of war, or Jean Dubuffet (1901–1985), who would be one of the great archaeologists of the present among artists, exploring depths and surfaces, physical and metaphysical phenomena linked to materials (digging ground instead of and in place of painting, paving canvas, cementing etchings). Both emerged from a context of European reconstruction in which the desire for rebirth was a synonym for hope. Like Behjat Sadr, they carried out one of the most serious investigations undertaken by an artist in the post-war era: how to conceive of the world of representation when representation has just crumbled beneath the weight of mass extermination and collective guilt. These artists shared a love of this nature that in order to become art, manifest and surpass itself, taking it upon themselves, in different ways: to flee men in order to reconstitute a possible assemblage of the world on the ruins of humanism – whence in Behjat Sadr’s work, also, this lyricism of materials, a collateral effect of a scepticism towards the filters that separate us from natural reality.
One could speak of a “cosmogonic” modernism that extends the classical definition of the relationship between the artist, the material and the work to a system of representation that neither the grand Museum of modern art, nor for that matter Malraux’s imaginary Museum, can entirely assimilate. This is what Behjat Sadr’s universe gives us to ponder. Her system is composed of traditional techniques or motifs, more precisely “recollections”of Persian tapestry or calligraphy, Islamic architecture, sculpture on wood, Italian marquetry, and even Chinese painting on silk. The classical system of representation, which also encompassed all the reactionary currents inherent in high modernity, was further disrupted when Behjat Sadr combined these reminiscences of tradition and work done by hand with the neo-romantic avant-gardism of Action Painting, the alchemical hallucinations of Kinetic Art, and Pop insouciance, for truth and for falsehood. Beyond stylistic matters, the repetition and variations that lie at the heart of the series dominate. Which she would employ throughout her life, since the great stylistic movements and the scansions of her work reveal themselves clearly to whosoever begins to study them. But within cosmogonic modernism, the lines of geopolitical tension do not stray from the artist’s vision. On the contrary, they are fully integrated into the politics of the transformation of nature that the artist developed in the face of the material extracted from the real. This extraction – at times playful, at times violent – of reality at its rawest operates in Behjat Sadr’s work in the same way as the tree branch cut off from our great collective body; this body perishing together with the end of beings on earth, allowing one last limb to be dismembered, a natural relic of their passage here on earth. Nature, then, revives them or brings them a new vestment, inviting us to the magical spectacle of trees taking on a body or bodies as they become trees. As singular and even exuberant as she was in her relationship to the world (sounds, forms and colours were for her like the vibrations by antennae that captured her in their web), Behjat Sadr nevertheless remains an emblematic and misunderstood figure in the modernist pictorial abstraction. She also represents a symptomatic reflection of deviated modernism as reappropriated in the countries at the time defined as “Third World”, amongst which Iran occupied the place of majestic kingdom for those that examine history through the top hats of crowned heads.
The second half of the 1950s, in Rome, thus opened a new chapter narrating a twofold discovery: that of Art Informel, and that of Abstract Expressionism, for in 1958 the works of Jackson Pollock were travelling in Europe for the first time, in that very city, Rome, at the National Gallery of Modern Art. It is interesting to note that while abstract art was becoming prominent in Iran during the 1960s and 1970s, for post-war modern Italian artists it represented a possible way out from the authoritarian figurative modes promoted during the Nazi and Fascist regimes. It was a way of avoiding a public political stance, at a time when the context was pushing you towards politics; this was also a familiar contradiction for Iranian artists before and after the 1979 Revolution. But no doubt, deep down, Behjat Sadr did not restrict her interpretation of European modernism to artistic considerations or political ones. However, in Abstract Expressionism’s most visible demonstration – fusing time and space in order to reveal the creative process upon the result – she certainly understood the almost tragic ramifications, the consequences of which she would bear in her own work. Indeed, as Giulio Carlo Argan (who would become one of Behjat Sadr’s supporters in Rome) noted in relation to Action Painting, “It is a sudden and terrifying halt in the flux of existence, plunging us in a state that is neither completely linked to life, nor completely to death.”2
On the other hand, the Iranian context – the one experienced by Behjat Sadr during her early training – linked as it was to studio painting and the Impressionist legacy, to still life and the use of live models, was not lacking in crucial geopolitical intricacies. In Iran, the years of the debacle of the nationalist project and the years of Dr Mohammad Mossadegh were a black period full of disillusion; black like the oil that Mossadegh had so valiantly wanted to return to Iranians, black like the poetry of Nimâ Youshidj during those tumultuous years. Disillusion affected above all the young, who had initially felt drawn in to the protests against the influence of oil companies and foreign governments, in particular the British. The coup by the American state in 1953 against the government of Prime Minister Mossadegh marked the violent snuffing out of the democratic renewal that he embodied. At the time, Behjat Sadr was completing her studies at the fine arts school at Tehran University, while continuing to teach at the college.
In the face of Iranians’ shattered hopes of sovereignty and the latent para-colonialism of British and American forces, the second half of the 1950s represented a period of intense artistic migration between Tehran and Rome. Numerous young Iranian artists (as well as artists from Arab countries) came to settle in the Eternal City, studying painting and sculpture at the academy of fine arts in Rome. Like Bahman Mohassess and Mohsen Vaziri Moghaddam, Behjat Sadr studied with professor Roberto Melli in 1955, eventually obtaining her diploma at the school of fine arts in Naples in 1958. This entire generation – they cannot strictly be called “pioneers” of modernism in Iran since it had started earlier – were the driving force behind Iranian cosmopolitanism. The latter had already begun to emerge, developing rapidly during the 1960s thanks to the country’s natural riches and thanks to the increasingly open desire of its leader to support the arts and culture. Empress Farah Diba undoubtedly played a fundamental role in the development of modern art, but one that more or less placed artists in a position of vassaldom, or at the very least led to the formation of clans and artistic groups, which were generally relatively short-lived and fuelled by personal affinities as well as stylistic ones. Behjat Sadr exhibited alongside other “modern” Iranian artists, notably at the first Shiraz-Persepolis Festival in 1968 (the international cultural platform organised by Farah Diba) although she subsequently disavowed every aspect of the festival in her private writings.
Behjat Sadr’s maverick, solitary character always led her to carefully avoid affiliations with any kind of group or union, but she developed an acute awareness of the power relationships shaping the Iranian art world and, more generally, the aesthetic and political fault lines along which the reactions of the “Third World” to the codes and commonplaces of modernism were based. The latter were reinterpreted by artists working for themselves, while feeding a system of cultural hegemony that was vigorously embedding itself in Iran and to which artists responded in various ways. In fact, it was always American cultural institutions, foundations, and private collectors that, even though locally putting themselves “at the disposal” of Iranian artists, gave impetus to the blossoming of the avant-garde in the face of the traditional arts. In this schizophrenic situation, it was indeed oil that stood out as the most revelatory symptom, at once “black gold and calamity” for a people who, in exporting its principal resources, imported a double risk: that of political curse and natural catastrophe. Behjat Sadr was among those who, early on, displayed an anxious vigilance with regard to this economic globalisation, its influence on the integrity of artistic work and its capacity to conceal a profound cultural crisis under the guise of humanistic progress. Whether in an attack in her personal writings on the standardisation of culture or in certain works from the 1960s in which she created landscapes of multi-coloured oil spilling in every direction, Behjat Sadr left little doubt that she was in step with the spirit of the times. The frustrations and resentments were far more complex than the simple desire for utopia of the 1960s and 1970s that grew out of the nationalist struggle of oil-producing countries for their autonomy, a struggle that had started in 1950. Her closeness to Jalal al-e Ahmad and Simin Daneshvar (with whom she maintained a long correspondence), two cultural critics of their time most committed to fighting economic submission, was evidence of this vigilance.Even though Behjat Sadr, once again, deliberately steered clear of public debate on these matters, avoiding any statements or stances that could be seen as militant.
Her artistic integrity, and above all her intense relationship with nature – her fetish subject – were at once protected and threatened by the oil subtext in Iranian art during the 1960s and 1970s. Ultimately, her work was like a logbook in which she inscribed ephemeral forms, or rather, instead of reacting to a request, or a commission, or to the fashion of the day, she tried, in painting after painting, to note the position of the stars and planets, the progress of comets and eclipses, always with a tree in place acting as a lighthouse to guide orphan boats home. Her concept of nature was neither strictly physical nor psychological, nor specifically mineral or vegetal, but was all of these at once. Tested by the movements and the compositions that nature generates or that it holds within itself during times of conflict or industrial vibration, her work subscribes, without concessions, to the famous definition of modernity given by Baudelaire: “The transitory, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art whose other half is eternity and the immutable”.3 Therein lies all the inner richness of an artist who handled plant motifs like an astronomer and architectural motifs like a botanist.
The press cuttings and international catalogues of the 1960s reveal that Behjat Sadr, ever independent, came into contact with various currents of “Iranian style” modernism, accompanying them, including to the Venice Biennale (in 1956, and particularly in 1962). Photos of her often appear next to those of Parviz Tanavoli, Charles Hossein Zenderoudi and Monir Farmanfarmaian, emblematic artists of the Saqqâkhâneh style, the most in vogue at the time, which recycled Islamic and pre-Islamic iconography in a modernist language. The Persepolis reliefs, Zoroastrian symbols, traditional ceramics and mosaics, sculpture on mirrors (ayeneh kâri), on metals (felez kâri), and popular imagery known as “coffee house” paintings (qahveh khâne) that recounts the lives of Shi’ite saints… These were all iconographic techniques and traditions capable of linking modern expression to clearly identifiable “Iranian” subjectivity, but impervious to the prevailing international culture and used by artists who did more than cross Behjat Sadr’s path. Far from the situation being a missed opportunity, the latter actively distanced herself, including artistically: she never used these techniques or this quasi timeless knowledge in any way that was demonstrative or open to exotic delectation. On the contrary, the persistence of miniature art and tapestry in her work, rather than being a referential sign, remains mere reminiscences, traces and “false notes” of a tradition that she in no way sought to enhance or fetishise. At the most, and as was her habit, she tested them, used them quasi-atmospherically, as material and gesture, rather than representation. She had a similar relationship to calligraphy, the closeness of which to abstract modern art was vaunted by all her contemporary modernists. She never overplayed calligraphy’s signification and semantic potential, nor the aesthetic or design of the letters. All she retained of it was the gestural impulse and the vital breath, identifiable during the 1970s (especially in her works on aluminium). It was as if the imperative not to signify, or not to deliver meaning, remained a strong principle, even though she had proven herself an unrivalled creator of original signs and motifs, creating a repertory of gestural forms, all of them straining towards the same desire for movement, but self-censoring – when necessary – their desire to communicate. It is no doubt this capacity for the most mysterious hermeticism (resting upon the incompleteness, the castration even, of the desire to signify) that makes her works a secret garden that one delights in returning to see one’s favourite specimens. The infinite cycle in which, with the help of the imagination, her paintings evolve, taking on new colours, is transformed with the passage of time, fully partaking of the cosmogonic modernism incarnated by Behjat Sadr. The superimposed interplay of surfaces (the disturbance and scoring of lines of every kind) superimposed on the search for depth (the exploration of black not as a colour but as an absorbing environment) is just as socio-political events superimposed on natural catastrophes, on the moods of meteorology and the peregrinations of the stars across the map of the sky.
For sure, she never allowed herself to fall prey to the webs of “anachronistic” modernity, which consisted in demonstrating, almost through the absurd, that Islamic art invented abstract art: in the role that it accorded to geometry and the sense of horror vacui that inspired it, allaying a fear of empty space by “filling” such spaces with ornamental motifs. And yet a number of objective factors connect Behjat Sadr to the art of ornamentation. In a notebook dating from the end of the 1950s, while still right in the midst of her Italian “avventura”, she wrote the following regarding the miniature: “Yesterday I was looking at . . . miniature paintings and noticed that the human figures are absolutely immobile. On the other hand, the environment in which these men and these horses stand is nothing but movement . . . the rocks, mountains and trees are all in motion, whereas the faces, for their part, remain silent, impassive.” One can see clearly how her interest and research, far from focusing on “the art” of miniature and its traditional or purely ornamental value, were focused instead on the dynamics of the image, such as the animated surface and the dialectic space between the various energies and traces of existence. The human and the non-human (the animal, the vegetal, the geological, etc.) interact to the benefit of a general movement that crystallises not in an image as such, but as the gaze lingers over it and penetrates it. One might say that the optical parameters that Behjat Sadr valued most highly in the strictly kinetic phase of her trajectory (in around 1967) were already evident in her way of contemplating miniature painting ten years earlier: that which is open and that which is closed, what is moving and what is immobile, empirical observation and supernatural fantasy rubbed shoulders ingeniously in two perfectly distinct moments of her life. These dynamic reflexes of nature, which claims as its own that motion normally attributed to humans, were expressed, in reality, in the early 1960s, notably in the works structured around bouquets of painted sections of wood, sparkling like the sun against an elated yellow background. Here it is entirely possible to hear the echo of her comment about anthropomorphic nature in miniature painting, and also, more generally, the strategies of superimposition that she appropriated during these years. These works, in an unconscious way no doubt, remind us of the effect of the innovations generated by the 17th-century Safavid miniature and by the painters trained at the court in Isfahan. In order to animate spaces in which the general arithmetic of ornament was supreme, these painters nonetheless started to distort the shapes of clouds and mountains, going as far as to blend them chromatically into purple ether, superimposing micro-surfaces (cloud upon cloud, rock upon rock), so that a suspended, latent space is eventually superimposed upon the geometric and ornamental space. Every aspect of this process recalls the works of Behjat Sadr, particularly those dating from the 1960s. During this period, the artist’s passion for trees developed. Once again, this was not a figurative or iconic passion, but rather a passion for fragmented, star-shaped and reassembled trees. This provides an opportunity to reconsider the neo-romantic quality of her work. It is not a question of seeing her from a 19th-century perspective, presenting her as a lost soul in search of the sublime, the storms and earthquakes that overwhelm and transcend human nature. What should be highlighted is the originality shown by this stargazing painter, for whom nature was neither an object of pure meditation, nor a mere formalist playground; more subversively, nature is the vector for an active interface with the creative process (and within the phenomenological perimeter of the work) at the end of which the artist aims for her own becoming-tree or becoming-river. It is not the tree alone that transforms itself through the cutting out, arranging and superimposing, but the artist expressing her inadequacy as a human being in the face of nature’s expressivity, and even “noise”, therefore transforming herself in contact with it.
This finally provides an opportunity to dwell on her close friendship with Sohrab Sepehri, an Iranian painter and poet from the same generation, a modern nomad and mystic. In the Iranian collective consciousness, Sepehri is the consummate tree painter, whose fame, for reasons belonging to history, extends well beyond that of Behjat Sadr. Incidentally, he is mostly remembered for his oblique groups of tree trunks from the 1970s. Impossible to apprehend from the top or the bottom, they offer a disorientated tree, which takes root everywhere and nowhere at once, escaping the space of the canvas, as if reflected by distorting mirror. Yet in his dream journal called The Blue Room (Otâqe âbi, 1976), Sepehri probably hints at the model (quoted among a myriad of syncretic references) he used for his paintings. The model is the Açvattha, or “upside-down tree” (whose botanical equivalent would be the Ficus religiosa), derived from the Brahmanic tradition in which the universe takes the shape of a tree whose roots start out from the sky while its branches and leaves cover the earth, sucking up its strength. Yet while Sepehri’s tree was first a source of regeneration and even of pantheistic hallucination, capable of sounding the roots of the human soul, Behjat Sadr approached the tree in a more constructivist, cosmogonic manner. Less ornamental and mystic than Sepehri’s, Behjat Sadr’s tree is not only linked to all the other elements and strata of nature, but also tells the story between man and the vertigo of the industrial civilisation, against which the tree resists.4 Even when cut to pieces, Behjat Sadr seems to be reminding us, it will rise from its ashes and happily come back to haunt us. Behjat Sadr turned superimposition into an entire form of art, a way of seeing as well as a structuring process for her paintings. In some works, probably among the most accomplished, Behjat Sadr’s variations of segments and of barks blend with the (wooden) figuration of the brushstroke itself; in the manner of Roy Lichtenstein, who literally drew the brushstroke on the surface of the canvas, as if wanting to remove its essence as a trace in order to elevate it to a figure, Behjat Sadr’s “woods” are designed to blur the distinctions between background and figure, between the animate and the inanimate, and eventually between the desire of the perceiving subject and the perceived object of this desire. In other words, the cosmogonic neo-romanticism is the one that dissuades us, vain human beings, from gaining mastery of our surroundings through the subjective and sovereign vision; conversely, it encourages us to let in the multidirectional, fragmented forces of nature, which includes us in her various environments. Nothing is ever completely still in Behjat Sadr’s work; moreover, if motion is to be found everywhere, it is both as a moving force and as a way to inhabit space. 5
The progression that occurred between the late 1960s and the 1970s is embodied by an invisible, constantly expanding grid unfolding its web of metallic seams on increasingly neat and sharp surfaces. In this respect, Sadr’s incursion into Kinetic Art in 1967 is astounding, and provided a number of sketches that could be mistaken for years of research, where the issue of motion is entirely thrown off balance. It was now entirely up to the viewer to undertake the experience of motion in space with painting, as an activator of its movements. As design and the decorative arts gradually found their way into everyday life, and somehow aestheticized consumption, we adapted to these new spaces or houses we were offered. Upon closer scrutiny, Behjat Sadr’s decision to throw herself headlong into optical experimentation and electrified chromatic games cannot solely be explained by the reference to pioneers in this field, such as Victor Vasarely and Julio le Parc. This moment of genuine technical ecstasy was in fact far more due to an extended period of reflection on architecture, and, in a more focused fashion, on the notion of window in the definition of modern art. As she assembled her paintings like optical machines, equally designed to be seen and to encourage seeing, she temporarily set aside the layers, strata and depths of the earth’s crust for the flickerings, sequences and sensorial-motor assemblages pervading “modern life” or signalling a double utopia: the utopia of the work of art as a way of life and that of a work of art disembodied in a sprawling setting of sound and light.
Behjat Sadr visibly shifted from her activity as a painter in favour of installation and environment. Multiplying strategies of interaction between the space of the work and the space of the viewer, Behjat Sadr notably set up frames with wooden slats or mobile supports forming a grid, which she applied in space on a panel or on a painted canvas. The very structure of the work is split into several fragments recomposed in space. While Behjat Sadr admitted there was a near-uncontrollable madness in her attraction for raw materials and textural layouts, her work nevertheless included actions typically performed by engineers or mathematicians. More radically, she caused a sensation at several international exhibitions with her paintings of venetian blinds. These blinds, on which she painted directly, were operated through an electrical system that made them spin on themselves, or open and close, continuously and on demand. When the blinds themselves were not painted and set in motion with a motor – producing a “broken” picture, successively appearing and disappearing – they were made out of a reflective surface (covered with aluminium). In other words, they were mirror-blinds, diffracting the colours painted on the surface of the canvas where these blinds were set and activated, like a kaleidoscope. Broken, diffracted or draped images – all were sensory simulations throwing the viewer into the new dimension of a mechanised, hallucinatory life where even the notion of museum had lost its foundations. Indeed, these paintings – could they still be so described? – were not intended to be hung on walls, but played with space in a mobile, almost theatrical way, as in a hall of mirrors or a cinema showing a 3D film. One understands that the artist, craving emancipation and travel as ever, considered the possibility of creating actual environments, as if the superimposed surfaces and materials of the early 1960s had been propelled outside the canvas to invade the room. Besides, the kinetic period, in modernism as a whole, represented a most subtle paradox that Behjat Sadr was doubtlessly entitled to appropriate: as a response to the new “minimalist” trend proclaiming “less is more” that consigned ornament – in the decorative and classical sense of the term – to an impure sin or a “kitsch” element, Kinetic Art, with its propensity for throwing colours and lights around in every direction possible, still produced disembodied or floating ornaments, perceptive ornaments offered to the subjugation of the viewer and the hazards of the resulting artificial paradises. The “theatre” of perception that was looming at the time was encouraged by curtain-filled interiors in which Behjat Sadr set up her kaleidoscope-paintings; whatever their actual utility was, the curtains seemed to double the folds and the ribs not only of chromatic grids, but also of vision itself. It is in film that lies the key to understanding the astounding year of 1967 can be found – film not as a scene of representation or figurative and narrative force, but as a vision machine, a projective force, producing sensorial-motor environments. And finally as a psychological ornament. While the movement of chromatic units and the sequencing of window-grids metaphorically suggest comparison with film, the mirror-blinds were applied on the paintings like rolls of film in an absolutely conscious and deliberate way, as if to underline painting’s becoming-screen in the late 1960s.
While the 1960s period culminated with the “liberation” of ornament in space and the subversion of the pictorial gesture through optical mechanisms, the return to pictorial matter and gestures in the 1970s was far from being a “step backward”. On the contrary, one gets the sense that the kinetic experience found a manifold extension in her fruitful, hyperactive 1970s period, although without the conventions of 1960s Kinetic Art. In other words, the 1970s – notably through the paint spread directly on aluminium supports – saw her developing “out-of-canvas” experiences. Indeed, the jubilatory explosion of increasingly ample brushstrokes and the refining of increasingly subtle grids and meshes are both an expression of an “off-frame” painting and of the transitory state the artist seemed to seek in an existential manner. In other words, the more she tried to shape the non-human movements that obsessed her and swarmed around her – cars, urban activity or the stratosphere – the more she eventually achieved a vast synthesis between kineticism and gesture (the two hemispheres of her artistic career). In order to grasp its complexity, one simply needs to conceive the ornament not as an accessory or a decorative addition, or as something that adds itself to the surface or fills it, but rather as a factor of expansion of the given space; or of the creation of intermediate zones sitting between conflicting surfaces from the point of view of nature and physical laws. It is in this marked inclination towards painting in space that the veritable symphony of traces and prints orchestrated by Behjat Sadr in the 1970s should be relocated. The paintings, to the point of exhausting the surface, seem to turn into musical scores whose stave and notes fuse to create a futuristic piece of music. The notion of trace, a structuring element in her aesthetic stance, is bound to this captivating idea of a “negative” work. The aesthetics of the trace – which entailed, as she herself put it, “removing” paint rather than adding it, by scraping, weaving or toning down – summed up her turbulent incursion through European modernism – from Art Informel to Kinetic Art – while revealing her anti-naturalistic take on nature. By fusing the gestural survival of calligraphy (rendered meaningless) and a physical observation of air, earth and water in motion (fire is rarely referenced, as it was probably too close to Zoroastrian symbology to her taste), Behjat Sadr evaded all of her contemporaries’ clumsy oscillations between abstraction and figuration, between local subjectivity and geopolitical objectivity, between “here” and “there”. Behjat Sadr, an “unclassifiable” member of the generation of artists of the 1960s and 1970s, demonstrated her superior inventiveness through her indifference to representation, favouring the fusion of elements and of physical-atmospheric polarities, between forms and forces, energies and motion. The occasional lack of understanding towards this stargazer of painting may partially be explained by the even more definitive abandoning of all signs belonging to a strictly “Iranian” 6 identity.
The artist settled in Paris in the 1980s, staying there until the end of her life, and the astounding repertoire of patterns and visual pulsations that she had devoted herself to for twenty years seemed to be replayed in “miniature” in her collages (she would name “photo-paintings”). These are not miniatures because of their size – smaller than that of a painting – but because of their treatment of space and their composition, and also the return to landscape figuration, which however conserves a number of geometrical principles. In fact, the collage permitted a more tactile and tangible application of the superimposition techniques that she had adopted at the start of her career. The concept of the window as a simultaneously open and closed space, a purveyor of images obliterating the given space, re-emerged. The resulting impression is one that blends joy and melancholy, relief and apprehension, for whereas some landscapes illuminate us with their flexibility and seem to draw the gaze, others seem to close in on their centre of gravity, to the extent of reducing the out-of-frame to its smallest portion, consigning the landscape to a keyhole (or a venetian blind), like a distant memory.
The strong introspective and retrospective dimension of these works conjures up a world made out of intimate memories instead of the ambient physical phenomena of her previous work. However, she continued to cultivate a certain cosmogonic rhetoric: fluids, reflections, the abyss, wreathes. All the elements that contributed to reincarnating “abstract” art were re-injected in a realm of fragments: fragments of photographs taken by the artist during her walks, combined with fragments of reproductions of her own paintings, juxtaposed with fragments of diffuse memories that ask to be reassembled, evoking a life that was full yet marked by various individual and collective ruptures. Despite the ambivalence of this final period, the imaginative potency of these photo-paintings, some of which verge on science fiction, should not be minimised. As they take us on a journey through often intriguing, sometimes lunar, sometimes arctic landscapes, one foot in real nature, the other in a time-travel machine, these works demonstrate above all a flawless conviction: maintaining contact with natural phenomena and the work of art is the only path of salvation for art in general, and above all for the artist. If the latter did not wish, in closing in on herself, to reproduce the disembodied echoes of an dated music, then she had to explore the superimpositions and traces in which the future landscapes were already being invented.