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Kamran Katuzian: A personal journey in the synthesis of graphic and abstract arts

On the occasion of the artist's 70th Birthday of Kamran Katouzian

Born in 1941, Tehran

1965, BFA in Fine Arts, Windham College, Putney, VT, USA
1965-1967, School of Architecture, University of Tehran

Awards / Recognition:
1965, 4th Biennale, Tehran
Grand Prize winner for works in both painting and sculptor
Paris Biennale
1965, Represented Iranian Contemporary Art, Paris
Venice Biennale
1966, Represented Iranian Contemporary Art, Venice, Italy
1977, Washington International Art Festival, Washington DC, USA
Rome National Museum of Traditional Art
2000, Represented Iranian Contemporary Art, Rome, Italy

Works in Collections:
Contemporary Art Museum, Tehran
Contemporary Art Museum, Kashan
Museum Of Modern Art, New York

Kamran Katouzian, An Influential Pioneer of Iranian Modern Painting

Translated By Roya Monajem, Tehran (Source: Tavoos Art Magazine)

Kamran Katouzian, the graphic designer, art director and painter is a highly revered influential figure of Iranian modern arts who successfully managed to combine Iranian traditions and major elements of Iranian visual arts, and incorporated them in the well-known frame-works of the contemporary global art. Although as a prominent influential painter, his appearance on the scene of arts happened with long intervals and with great contemplation, nevertheless his artistic activities on the scene of graphic arts and advertisement on one hand, and Iranian abstract arts on the other, did not remain hidden from the eyes of art virtuoso, colleagues, art critics and art historians of Iran.

Born in 1941 in Tehran, he showed his deep interest in painting from childhood: “When still young, I sometimes was quite naughty, drawing a bank note on a piece of white paper, buying things from the grocery nearby with it. Of course, the grocer always would later find out about it and would come to fetch his money, but on the first glance, the folded paper looked like real money.

After finishing his ninth grade, his father decided to send him to America: “I was to enroll in a private boarding school with a German headmaster. They sent us their prospectus to familiarize us with the place. There was also a photo of the headmaster which I copied with calligraphic pen and ink on a small china plate, fixed it and took plate with myself to America. The headmaster loved it and put it on the wall of his room.”

The journey to America had a taste of dream and fantasy for him: “The school’s atmosphere and national variety gradually shaped me and built my personality.”

After finishing high school (1959), he decided to study arts without the slightest doubt: “No other field of studies felt that close to me.”

So he goes from Massachusetts to Boston to study fine arts at a small college affiliated to Harvard in Cambridge. “The dean of the college was famous Giacometti, but I never met him, as he didn’t live in America... I studied there for two years... The teaching staffs there were so well-known that we seldom could see them... One of them advised me to go to the art college in Vermont... The was a great move and there I learnt a lot of things which were impossible to learn in Cambridge.”

“My turn to Modern painting happened in 1962; that is when I met William Hunt -whom to me is one of the best American contemporary painters. As a teacher, he taught me the real philosophy of art and developed my approach to art.”

After graduation, Katouzian returned to Iran for two years (1962-64). He applied for a job in the Office of Art and Culture and was immediately employed. It was in that office where he befriended Changiz Shahvaq and Naser Mofakham with whom they founded Saba Gallery in Saba Street (1964).

The gallery while holding exhibitions for Modernist painters, gradually turned into a haunt for those interested in Modern art.” We held poetry reading nights at Saba Gallery. Poets and painters would read their poems, like Sheybani and Sepehri for example. Our other youthful venture then was to hold an exhibition of art pioneers and students in the pavement running along Daneshju Park. Each painter stood next to his painting with the pavement packed with old and young people. This was the first time that such a scene happened in Tehran. Strange happening making a lot of hubbub. Such adventurous sweet time it was.”

With his painting titled When my Father’s Father was Young and an abstract metal sculpture, Katouzian participated at Tehran 4th painting Biennial and won the first award jointly with Zhazeh Tabatabee.

His presence in the Office of Art and Culture did not last long and after a few month he preferred to earn his daily bread by working in the field of graphic art. “In the mornings I worked in Saba Gallery making logo and mottos, but there was not much work.”

In 1964 Katouzian went back to America again and on returning held his first solo exhibition at Saba Gallery. In the catalogue of the exhibition he said about his works: “There are various styles in the art of our time with abstract art being the most obscure and revolutionary, adopted by painters and artists of the world to break through the past obsessions and thought-barriers, exaggerating sometimes to the highest limits...”

He then studied architecture for two years (1965-66), but left it unfinished to join Behshar industrial group to direct their advertisement department. During the two years Katouzian worked in that progressive company, he transformed the air of advertisement in the country.

After serving the compulsory military service for two years, he appealed to painting for a time, yet little by little his activity on the scene of graphic arts becomes more prominent, finally turning into his main activity, treating painting as a hobby: “Although painting, but I was in love with advertisement.

The frames they drew, the mottos they wrote, not only graphic, but also Copy Writing, it absolutely fascinated me... “ He then joins Vega advertisement company, finally founding his own advertisement company Avant-garde in the closing years of 60s. His work for AEG, Pars Electric, Whirl Pool, Seiko and... was so innovative and successful that not only thoroughly transformed the art of advertisement in Iran, but left a deep impression both on Iranian graphic arts and commercial advertisement.

Despite that, he nevertheless continued participating in group exhibitions, as for example, at the international art festival in Washington in 1956. His preoccupation with painting before the revolution was concentrated on abstract painting and pop art. In a joint exhibition with Changiz Shahvaq in Farid Gallery, he writes in the catalogue: “Those who defame these silent livings have insulted me as well. My paintings are a part of my soul. So if we look more carefully at these paintings and contemplate on the world we live in, we will see that painting is the essence of time and social transformations, reflecting our world seen unconsciously through the window of my eyes rendered in these images. The goal is not to amuse you in a hypocritical way, because they are expressions of my real world, but let’s see what you think about them...”

In a short report published in the Journal of Art and Architecture (No. 39, 40, 1977, p.9), on his exhibition at Goethe Gallery, some of his paintings in the style of pop art were also published. Analyzing and configuring Katuzian’s visual creations, Javad Mojabi believes: “We find a few distinct themes in his works created prior to1980s. In one context there are these fashionable women who appear as though stepping out of beauty and fashion magazines to enter another context...each struggling in a way to understand her own individuality.

In another context, the painter has summarized volumes of nature in line and color in an abstract way and ... with rapid rebellious movements of his brush, he has tried warm joyful summer and autumn colors on the grey white winter backgrounds... sometimes he shows the conflict of geometrical shapes with non-geometrical disorder... delirious rhombic movements of crossing lines... masses of distorted alphabets... fading in brightness to reach darkness... dance of alphabets ... without reaching semantic frankness from cryptic allusion.”

After the advent of the revolution, particularly after the war with Iraq (1980-1988), not only Katouzian revived the stagnant and forgotten fields of graphic arts and advertisement in his newly established company Karpay, but by holding several exhibitions (of his own new works and others, including Gholamhossein Nami), he resumed public presentation of visual arts in the country.

During the early years of 1990s, he changed the face of the war-stricken city by erecting mural panels and billboards in highways and streets, thereby initiating urban advertisement and a kind of artistic activity which led to the development of the idea of urban aesthetics in Tehran and a few other large cities. His activity on the scene of advertisement in the course of four decades of his presence in the fields of graphic arts and commercial advertisement in the press as well as the city itself has always been innovative, original and ingenious.

On the other hand, Katouzian’s preoccupation with painting decreased even more after 60s. He stopped painting in the style of pop art altogether and appealed to abstract art. He held only one solo exhibition in 1989 at Karteh Gallery with his next exhibition happening 20 years later at Mah-o-Mehr Gallery (2010).

In regard to his new works, Mojabi writes: “Colors appear more transparent and stronger in the firm composition of spaces of his paintings... Configurations possess freedom and resoluteness. Feminine element has disappeared, but two of his previous elements, i.e. interwoven rebellious lines and colorful volumes reminding abstract nature make powerful fine balanced compositions, sometimes together and other times apart from each other...” And he adds: “It is the feast of color games of a painter who plays young and in his old age wishes to create a space of color and light of all that he has seen in the world in the briefest expressive way reflecting his nostalgia and poetic disposition.”

And Katouzian himself says: “On the whole, I am an abstract painter. Pop art goes back to my youth; it was experimentation and adventure; a sweet pleasant period, not that much far away from abstract painting. And when I once again resumed working in abstract style, my works were naturally more mature, gradually abandoning formalism, fear and anguish (as formalism is usually the result of fear and anguish) which existed before. Now I feel total freedom when working and all that which previously I had to observe now happens unconsciously....In abstract expressionist painting, it is not only courageous behavior and movements of the painter which shapes the work, but also there is subtlety, contemplation and a significant degree of sensibility. Nevertheless, one thing that has to be there and it is always there is the artist’s mastery. That is to say, without this mastery the work will not come out right. When you begin, you don’t know what you are doing; you can’t know, it is a kind of improvisation. It is like jazz music; the first touch of the paintbrush on the canvas becomes a musical instrument. The next instrument must be somehow in harmony with the first. So are the next touches. Yet, too much harmony can spoil the work too. Sometimes inharmonious touches are imperative in order to give shape to the work... their movement should be in the direction needed. This makes the skeleton of an abstract work. A visual revelation, with everything laid down within the framework of this formula...”

Katouzian’s path from personal conscious and artistic synthesis of native cultural elements and motives, from calligraphy to geometry and symmetry, from graphical structure and framework combined with abstract expressionism, to reaching the evolved mature abstraction of his recent years in the most minimalist and beautiful forms, in this contrast of masses of accumulated energy in the limitless space of his canvases, in aggression and explosion of accumulated energy at the center of the painting and particularly his expressive utilization of colors, combining warm and cold colors, all point to the search of a reflective intellectual artist and his attempts to transform and objectify his mental, individual and social challenges in a tumutuous society in which he has lived for years, into beautiful curtains of abstract forms exhibiting firmness, balance and individuality.


  • Chopogh site
  • A Glance at Iranian Graphic Art, An interview with Kamran Katouzian, Arash Tanhaee, Tandis, No. 152, 2009
  • Wishes the city to be more beautiful, Javad Mojabi, Etemad Newspaper, 2009


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