COLLECTING
Thomaï Serdari on Fine Arts & Luxury
In the company of art
Parviz Tanavoli. Heech in a Cage. ca. 1970. Courtesy of the Grey Art Gallery.

Parviz Tanavoli. Heech in a Cage. ca. 1970. Courtesy of the Grey Art Gallery.

A heavy bronze sculpture rested on my windowsill, perched over Washington Square Park for about ten years. “Heech in a Cage” by Iranian artist Parviz Tanavoli (b. 1937) was on loan to NYU’ s Department of Art History from the Grey Art Gallery, two academic departments that benefited from Abby Weed Grey’s generosity and artistic insight.

A collector and exhibition curator from Minnesota, Abby Weed Grey traveled extensively all over the world and showed a great interest in contemporary art of her own time (mainly the 1960s) from emerging countries such as Iran, India, or Turkey to name a few. She bought what she liked and she collected across media. But she always looked for a connection between the piece she was about to acquire and that country’s history and visual culture.

“Heech in a Cage” is a variation of several other heeches around the world, one of which on permanent display at the British Museum. “Heech” in Persian means nil, nothing. The bronze sculpture represents nothingness trapped in a cage whose shape most probably derives from the Saqqakhaneh movement. The word Saqqakhaneh refers to public fountains offering drinking water and the cage alludes to their shape. The fountains were constructed in honor of Shi’a martyrs, who were denied water at Kerbela in 680 CE. It is a powerful allusion to the beginnings of Shi’a Islam.

A small exhibit currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (through September 3, 2012) has compacted Modern Iranian art of three generations in exactly seven works. Tanavoli, along with Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian (b. 1924), represents the first generation of the three. The presence of Tanavoli’s work at the museum made me revisit both Abby Weed Grey’s memoir (aptly titled The Picture is the Window, The Window is the Picture) and my own memories of working/living in the company of a “Heech in a Cage.”

“A carpet of majestic dimensions,” Grey noted in her journal of her visit to the National Archaeological Museum during her trip to Teheran in 1967,” [a large room where] I tried to devour what I saw: glazed earthenware in heavenly colors—lapis blue and glistening white […] a treasure-trove of historical residue from a king’s banquet table reserved for the most privileged eyes.”  She then discovered that Tanavoli himself had been a serious student and collector of various Persian items of beauty and luxury, mainly carpets, earthen- and metal-ware and that it was his deep knowledge of his own culture that allowed him to translate his Western training (at the Brera Academy in Milan) into a local idiom of modernity. Tanavoli produced remarkable bronze pieces at his foundry in Teheran.

“Heech in a Cage” sat on my windowsill thanks to Grey’s spontaneous acquisition habits and her ability to collect art of great cultural merit. The Grey Gallery retrieved the loan in 2007 but my delight in having made it part of my life continues today, even in the piece’s absence. “Heech in a Cage” has given me a glimpse into the arts, crafts, and culture of a magnificent civilization that seems to have turned into heech itself.

© Thomaï Serdari