In paintings, drawings, collages, and sculptures, Y.Z. Kami explores the flux between matter and spirit, external appearance and inner life. In large-scale portraits based on his own photographs, he restages face-to-face encounters, using sfumato to depict family, friends, and strangers with eyes open or closed, gazing straight ahead or looking down. Rendered in matte oil paint on linen, these meditative images recall Byzantine frescoes and Fayum funerary portraits, locating the unknown and the infinite in material form and presence. In his abstract works, Kami extends this interplay of surface and interior through forms inspired by architecture, geometry, poetry, and, more recently, hazy, oneiric imagery.
Kami was born in Tehran in 1956. He painted from early childhood, sometimes with his mother (who worked for a time under the well-known Persian academic painter Ali Mohammad Heydarian [1896–1990]), and was exposed to both Western and Near Eastern influences, particularly the paintings of the European masters and the verses of thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Persian poets. Following high school, and after a year spent in Berkeley, California, he moved to Paris. There he studied philosophy at the Sorbonne—from which he graduated in 1981—and subsequently at the Conservatoire Libre du Cinéma Français.
In 1984, Kami moved to New York, where he continues to live and work. There, he started work on Self-Portrait as a Child (1990), which marks the beginning of a series of paintings, drawings, and photographic works based on a picture of himself as a boy in Iran. Over the subsequent decade he produced multipart works, including Untitled (18 Portraits) (1994–95). A 2006 exhibition, Without Boundary at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, saw Kami starting to paint his subjects with their eyes closed or lowered, making the entire surface of the face a focal point. Other works, such as Dry Land (1999–2004), juxtapose painted portraits with photographic images of façades and buildings, the structures’ weathered surfaces underscoring a sense of lived history.
In 2007, Kami participated in the 52nd Biennale di Venezia, exhibiting several paintings including a group of portraits titled In Jerusalem (2005–06). In this work, the subjects’ cultural context is clear; the multiple canvases depict clerics representing Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and were based on a New York Times photograph of a gathering aimed at banning a gay pride festival (“Intolerance,” Kami recalls, “was something that they all agreed upon and shared”). In the Endless Prayers series, Persian, Hebrew, Arabic, and Sanskrit poems, prayers, and verses have been cut into rectangular fragments and pasted into mandala formations, their spiraling patterns echoing the repetitive nature of worship.
Endless Prayers led to the Domes series, which incorporates references to sacred architecture. Rendered in black, white, blue, or gold, these paintings feature square or rectangular marks painted in concentric circles to create pulsing tessellated voids—universal evocations of the passage from darkness into light. Kami has also expanded his figurative painting to include depictions of hands, often shown with palms pressed together in prayer, underscoring the physical nuance of this part of the body, as well as the pervasive symbolism of its gestures. Recently, the tenebrous Night Paintings (2017–) find him using a single shade of indigo (often said to be the color of the night) with various gradations of white to populate canvases with shimmering biomorphic patterns that shift between solid, liquid, and gaseous states, crossing the boundaries between the earthly and the sublime.
Kami’s work has been collected and exhibited by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC; British Museum, London; and Parasol unit foundation for contemporary art, London. Solo institutional exhibitions include The Watchful Portraits of Y.Z. Kami, Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York (2003); 52nd Biennale di Venezia (2007); Perspectives: Y.Z. Kami, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC (2008); Y.Z. Kami, Endless Prayers, Parasol unit foundation for contemporary art, London (2008–09); Beyond Silence, National Museum of Contemporary Art, Athens (2009–10); and Endless Prayers, Los Angeles County Museum of Art (2016–17). In 2019, he again collaborated with Parasol unit on The Spark Is You: Parasol unit in Venice.
Extended through May 18, 2018
Geometry of Light
March 16–May 18, 2018
rue de Ponthieu, Paris
Setsuko and Y.Z. Kami
The artists address their shared ardor for poetry, the surfaces of painting, and nature.
Y.Z. Kami and Steven Henry Madoff
Y.Z. Kami and curator Steven Henry Madoff sit down in Kami’s studio to discuss the artist’s exhibition at the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Castilla y León, Spain. Entitled Y.Z. Kami: De forma silenciosa/In a Silent Way, the survey features portraits; images of buildings, both sacred and ordinary; a sculptural installation of loose bricks inscribed with texts; and recent dreamlike abstractions.
Y.Z. Kami: Dematerialized
In celebration of the release of the monograph Y.Z. Kami: Works 1985–2018, and in advance of an exhibition of new works by the artist at Gagosian, Rome, Ziba Ardalan and Elena Geuna sat down to discuss Y.Z. Kami’s work. The conversation was moderated by Gagosian’s Kay Pallister.
An exhibition at Gagosian, Paris, is raising funds to aid in the reconstruction of the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris following the devastating fire of April 2019. Gagosian directors Serena Cattaneo Adorno and Jean-Olivier Després spoke to Jennifer Knox White about the generous response of artists and others, and what the restoration of this iconic structure means across the world.
Y.Z. Kami: Luminosities
Elena Geuna interviews the artist on the subjects of his childhood, his approach to portraiture, and the centrality of light in his practice.
Gagosian Quarterly Summer 2019
The Summer 2019 issue of Gagosian Quarterly is now available, featuring a detail from Afrylic by Ellen Gallagher on its cover.
Y.Z. Kami: Behind the Vanishing Point
Blaise Pascal, the seventeenth-century mathematician and philosopher, served as a crucial inspiration for Y.Z. Kami’s newest body of work. Angela Brown examines Pascal’s ideas and their relevance to these portraits and Dome paintings.
Fire and Water
Y.Z. Kami and Peter Marino discuss the power of bronze, the current state of architecture, and the infinite.
During preparations for an exhibition in London, Y.Z. Kami met with Gagosian’s Alison McDonald to discuss the evolution of his work, technique, and his combination of influences.
2022 Asia Arts Game Changer Awards
Y.Z. Kami has been selected to receive a 2022 Asia Arts Game Changer Award. The award, presented by Asia Society at a gala on May 19, 2022, honors important figures across the arts who have made a significant impact on society and brings together artists, arts professionals, collectors, and Asia Society trustees and patrons to celebrate excellence in the arts from across Asia and the diaspora. Asia Society is the leading educational organization dedicated to promoting mutual understanding and strengthening partnerships among peoples, leaders, and institutions of Asia and the United States in a global context.
Photo: Sueraya Shaheen
West Bund Art & Design 2020
November 12–15, 2020, booth A102
West Bund Art Center, Shanghai
Gagosian is pleased to participate in West Bund Art & Design 2020 with an extensive group presentation. Along with the gallery’s booth at ART021 Shanghai, on view between November 14 and 15, this will be Gagosian’s first in-person art fair since the covid-19 lockdown in March. The gallery’s participation was made possible by extraordinary support from the artists involved.
Hao Liang, Spring and Fall, 2020 © Hao Liang
Tuesday, February 25, 2020, 6–8pm
Y.Z. Kami will sign copies of his new monograph, Y.Z. Kami: Works 1985–2018. Copublished by Skira and Gagosian, this comprehensive monograph presents more than three hundred of Kami’s artworks in color, from his early figure studies and photographic works to his portraits, Dome paintings, sculpture, and works on paper. The publication features essays by curator and critic Robert Storr, Guardian art critic Laura Cumming, and curator Elena Geuna. To attend the free event RSVP, to firstname.lastname@example.org. Space is limited.
Y.Z. Kami, White Dome VI, 2012–13 © Y.Z. Kami
De forma silenciosa/In a Silent Way
Through January 22, 2023
Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Castilla y León, Spain
De forma silenciosa/In a Silent Way is a mid-career survey of more than thirty years of work by Y.Z. Kami. The exhibition features portraits by the artist; images of buildings, both sacred and ordinary; a sculptural installation of loose bricks inscribed with texts; and recent dreamlike abstractions. Steeped in the traditions of the antique art of Egyptian Fayum portraits and ancient Persian poetry, while influenced by the writings of French moral philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, Kami’s works look at bodies in ethereal calm, with a meditative and philosophical assessment of outward and inner being.
Y.Z. Kami, Messenger, 2021 © Y.Z. Kami. Photo: Rob McKeever
Y.Z. Kami in
Rebel, Jester, Mystic, Poet: Contemporary Persians
September 10, 2021–May 8, 2022
Asia Society, New York
Drawn from the Mohammed Afkhami Collection, Rebel, Jester, Mystic, Poet: Contemporary Persians presents works by more than twenty artists from Iran and its diaspora. Revising traditional aesthetics and probing subjects such as gender identity, war, peace, religion, and spirituality, the works, which date from 1998 to the present, are realized in a variety of mediums, from painting and sculpture to photography and video installation. Through open critique or subterfuge, humor, spirituality, and poetry, the artists overcome the restrictions and pressures that have affected Iranians in the past quarter century. This exhibition originated at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto. Work by Y.Z. Kami is included.
Y.Z. Kami, Black Dome, 2015 © Y.Z. Kami
Y.Z. Kami in
The Spark Is You: Parasol unit in Venice
May 9–November 23, 2019
Conservatorio di Musica Benedetto Marcello, Venice
In celebration of its fifteenth anniversary, London’s Parasol unit foundation for contemporary art presents an exhibition of works by nine contemporary Iranian artists in Venice. The Spark Is You has at its heart the need to develop mutual respect and understanding between different nations and cultures. The exhibiting artists, all of whom look beyond the ordinary, were selected for the affinity with openness, respect, and human interconnectedness presented in their practice. Work by Y.Z. Kami is included.
Y.Z. Kami, Chartres III, 2018 © Y.Z. Kami
Y.Z. Kami in
Rebel, Jester, Mystic, Poet: Contemporary Persians
July 1–September 24, 2017
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Contemporary Iranian artists have used power, humor, mysticism, and poetry to both openly and subversively critique subjects such as gender, politics, war, religion, and spirituality. While some of the works in Rebel, Jester, Mystic, Poet: Contemporary Persians reflect the sociopolitical tensions of the past twenty-five years, others transcend them to create all-embracing spaces free of strife. This show is traveling from the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto. Work by Y.Z. Kami is included.
Y.Z. Kami, Black Dome, 2015 © Y.Z. Kami