WELLESLEY, Mass. — Iranian artist Parviz Tanavoli has built a successful career around the concept of nothing.

Tanavoli creates sculptures of the word “heech,” which means “nothing” in Persian. The abstract shapes he fashions using Iran’s centuries-old calligraphic Nastaliq script have cemented his reputation as the father of modern Iranian art.

Tanavoli’s first solo retrospective in the U.S. opened this week at Wellesley College’s Davis Museum outside Boston and runs through June 7.

The exhibit comprises 175 pieces – including sculptures, paintings, jewelry and ceramics – from his more than five decades as a contemporary artist.

“If one wants to define my work, they cannot separate it from my heritage,” he said. “The richness of Persian culture – it has kept me busy.”

Tanavoli’s sculptures are highly sought after. In 2008, his bronze work “The Wall” (“Oh, Persepolis”) sold for $2.84 million at Christie’s in Dubai, United Arab Emirates – a record price for a Middle Eastern artist.

Lisa Fischman, director of the Davis Museum and one of the show’s curators, said she’s excited to give Americans a closer look at Tanavoli’s works.

“We wanted to bring U.S. audiences the work of a master who has been under-shown in this country,” she said.

Some of Tanavoli’s 3-D heech sculptures echo works by Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Jeff Koons, all of whom made the jump from the art world into mainstream American culture with their vibrant pop art.

At the Davis Museum, there are nearly two dozen heech sculptures on display: bright pink, red and blue Fiberglas creations, sensually intertwined heech lovers,” and an electric neon heech that glows like a sign in Times Square.

Because of the U.S. embargo against Iran, many of Tanavoli’s early works still in his home country could not be included.

“I’ve very happy this exhibition is taking place because of the conflicts between Iran and the U.S.,” Tanavoli said. “Artwork, to me, is like communications and artists shouldn’t suffer because of this embargo. They should be able to spread their messages.”

Tanavoli studied art in Italy. He returned to Iran in the late 1960s and held various teaching posts, retiring from Tehran University in 1979 and moving to Canada.

Tanavoli, 77, also has an extensive body of paintings, poems and books on everything from locks and rugs to tombstones. Despite his age, he remains a prolific artist.

Coinciding with the Davis Museum show is the 50th anniversary of Tanavoli’s heech art form. He began experimenting with the concept in 1965, and it turned out to be the foundation of his career.

“Using nothingness as a symbol … makes it easier to understand, and it strips away the meaning, seeing it over and over,” said Rosamond Herling, 18, a Wellesley College student attendeding the opening.

“But the word itself, it means nothing. I like that.”

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