The death was confirmed by a grandson, Aziz Isham.
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. Farmanfarmaian also made intricate drawings whose interlocking circles and hexagons translated the tropes of Islamic decorative arts into a realm of pure form.
Where some theorists of abstraction in Europe and the United States sought to purge painting of all ornament and historical lineage, Farmanfarmaian produced an abstract art proud of its debts to local architecture, interior design and contemporary fashion. Some were gaudy, and none were afraid of kitsch: Her mirrored spheres of the 1970s could function as disco balls.
New Yorkers discovered her accomplishment in a 50-year retrospective, organized by the Museu de Serralves in Porto, Portugal, that toured to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 2015 — seven decades after she first arrived in the city.
In a life marked by migration and revolution, spent between Iran and the United States, Farmanfarmaian befriended countless artists, notably Milton Avery, Andy Warhol and Frank Stella. She hosted salons at her Tehran home — inviting poets and artists to debate the state of Persian culture over abgoosht, a simple lamb stew — and later at her New York penthouse. She collected her friends’ art as well, though most of her collection was lost after the Iranian Revolution of 1979.
Yet for all her cosmopolitanism, Farmanfarmaian never sought to dissociate her abstractions from the history, geography and society of Iran. As she told the Art Newspaper in 2014, at the inauguration of a museum in Tehran devoted to her work, “My love for my culture is in everything I create.”
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, 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.
“I was not drinking; I was a good Muslim at that time,” she recalled in an interview in 2015. “Now,” she added with a laugh, “I’ve become very bad.”
In 1950 she married Manoucher Yektai, a fellow Iranian artist, and had a daughter, Nima, with him. The couple divorced in 1953, and Farmanfarmaian took a day job at the department store Bonwit Teller (where her drawing of a bouquet of Persian violets, done before she went to work for the store, wound up adorning its shopping bags).
Among her colleagues there was a young Warhol, with whom she collaborated on the store’s newspaper advertisements and gossiped over picnic lunch breaks. They remained friendly for decades. When Warhol died in 1986, a sculpture of hers — a mirror-flecked ball she had given to him when he went to Iran to paint Empress Farah Pahlavi — was sitting on a table in his living room.
In 1957 she married Abol Bashar Farmanfarmaian, a lawyer and scion of one of Iran’s most powerful families and a descendant of the Qajar princes who ruled in the late-18th and 19th centuries. Later that year the couple returned from New York to Tehran, which was then one of the most vibrant art capitals of the Middle East; the first Tehran biennial would take place in 1958, and Persian artists of the 1960s were drawing on local and international influences in the service of a secular modern art.
She traveled extensively, visiting the ruins of Iran’s previous empires and collecting vernacular illustrative artworks known as coffeehouse paintings. She also kept in contact with American artists. In 1966, during a visit to Shiraz with minimalists Robert Morris and Marcia Hafif, she entered the Shah Cheragh mosque and watched pilgrims wail and chant in front of the mirrors festooning its walls and central dome.
“I cried, too,” she later remembered, “because of all the beautiful reflections. I said to myself, ‘I must do something like that.’”
Her mirrored works drew also on the architecture of Safavid palaces, whose walls were decorated with mosaics made of thousands of shards of mirrors cut into tessellated triangles and hexagons. Though informed by religious or mystical designs — she noted that the hexagon was “a polygon associated with heaven in the Islamic pantheon” — her art was above all a study of forms, perceptions and light.
“Sol LeWitt had his square, and it was wonderful how far he went with the square,” she said of the American artist in an interview with the curator Hans Ulrich Obrist for a 2011 catalog. “For me everything connects with the hexagon. And the hexagon has the most potential for three-dimensional sculpture and architectural forms.”
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 Obrist. While in exile she also created her lesser-known “Heartache” boxes, incorporating family fabrics and heirlooms into downcast assemblages.
In 2004, widowed, 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 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.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.