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    Members’ Reports

    Sarah-Neel Smith
    Center 42

    Sarah-Neel Smith

    Envisioning the Middle East: The Lost History of America’s Artistic Exchanges, 1952–1979

    Andy Warhol, Farah Diba Pahlavi (Empress of Iran), March 1976, dye diffusion transfer print (Polacolor), National Gallery of Art, Washington, Corcoran Collection (Gift of the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.), 2016.22.202

    My eight-week residency at the Center supported an intensive period of research and writing for “Envisioning the Middle East: The Lost History of America’s Artistic Exchanges, 1952–1979,” a revisionist account of the work of seven American artists who visited North Africa and the Middle East in the early decades of the Cold War. The United States first entered the North African theater during World War II. After the war, it forged strategic alliances with Middle Eastern oil states like Saudi Arabia and Iran. At the same time, American museums, films, and fashion marketed Islamic objects for middle-class consumption, while tourism and the jet plane opened these areas up for travel. Within such conditions, Cy Twombly (1928–2011), Robert Rauschenberg (1925–2008), and Helen Frankenthaler (1928–2011) each had an “enormous awakening” in Morocco (as Twombly wrote in a letter home); others had their own “very big experience[s]” in Iran, Turkey, and Afghanistan (as Frank Stella, b. 1936, recalled in an interview). Andy Warhol’s 1976 trip to Iran, in which he took the Polaroid Farah Diba Pahlavi (Empress of Iran), marked the end of these three decades of artistic encounter, which dissipated quickly following the 1973 Arab oil embargo, the Iranian Revolution, and the 1979 hostage crisis.

    “Envisioning the Middle East” challenges hermetic, nationalist understandings of “American art” by recentering the transcultural dynamics of political expansionism and cultural encounter. Drawing on an extensive archive of unpublished documents, it uncovers a series of lost histories—histories of soft power and neo-imperialism, as well as discovery and appropriation—that continues to shape the contemporary art world today.

    My time at the Center coincided with the reopening of the National Gallery’s library and a number of Washington, DC, archives, following lengthy closures during the pandemic. This enabled me to review key sources, both primary and secondary, that had been inaccessible for more than a year. Using the library’s extensive collections of international art magazines, I gathered dozens of exhibition reviews in order to trace relevant histories of reception. Resources at the National Gallery of Art Archives, Archives of American Art, and National Museum of Women in the Arts helped me to pin down additional details regarding artists’ works and travels.

    Frank Stella at an unidentified site in Iran, 1963, photographic print, Henry Geldzahler papers, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University. Courtesy family of Henry Geldzahler © Frank Stella / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

    Finally, the Center provided a productive venue in which to workshop and revise the book’s first chapter, “Frank Stella in Iran: Geopolitics and Late Modernist Painting.” Until now, scholars have generally treated Stella as a quintessentially American artist, whose late modernist canvases catalyzed a new chapter in the history of postwar American art. Yet such accounts gloss over Stella’s significant experiences of international travel, including, in 1963, a formative trip to Iran. Analyzing for the first time several hundred unpublished photographs, letters, and drawings from his trip, I argue that some of Stella’s most significant formal innovations of the 1960s were a direct result of his firsthand encounter with Iranian Islamic architecture. More specifically, I trace a series of connections between Stella’s Irregular Polygons, a series of 44 paintings produced in 1966–1967, and the Qur’anic epigraphy he documented at Sultaniyya, a 14th-century Ilkhanid mausoleum in northwest Iran. (A version of this text is forthcoming in American Art in summer 2022.) Like the larger project of which it is a part, “Frank Stella in Iran” aims to open up new geographic terrain in the history of art while insisting on the constitutive significance of US global expansionism to the canon of American art as a whole.

    Maryland Institute College of Art
    Paul Mellon Visiting Senior Fellow, summer 2021 

    Sarah-Neel Smith will return to the Maryland Institute College of Art, where she is a faculty member in the Department of Art History, Theory, and Criticism. In 2022 she will hold an Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant. Smith’s first book, Metrics of Modernity: Art and Development in Postwar Turkey, will be published in March of the same year.