Early Life & Education
Grigorian was born in 1925 to Armenian parents and immigrated to Iran with his family aged five. His art education began in 1948 at the Kamal-el-Molk School in Tehran. In the 1950s, he studied at the Accademia delle Belle Arti – with cubist sculptor Roberto Melli – where he was exposed to the work of classical and modern masters. After exhibiting work in several solo and group shows in Rome, Grigorian returned to Tehran in 1954 and established Gallery Esthétique, one of the city’s first modern galleries.
Pioneer of Modern Art in Iran
By now, Grigorian was a fundamental proponent of Iranian-Armenian Modernism. As well as a trailblazer in his own creative endeavours – even being awarded the honour of representing Iran at the 1956 Venice Biennale – he also championed the cultivation of Iran’s wider art scene. After founding Gallery Esthétique, which offered free exhibition space for younger artists, he went on to establish the first Tehran Biennial in 1958, under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture.
He was appointed the Head of the Graphic Department at the Ministry of Culture and Art and also taught painting and drawing at Tehran University’s Faculty of Fine Arts where one of his most notable students was Charles Hossein Zenderoudi. In 1960, he became part of the faculty of the School of Decorative Arts in Tehran.
Grigorian was an enthusiastic advocate for a form of folk art known as qahveh khaneh (coffeehouse painting), a style that merged Iranian painting approaches with European techniques.
As well as helping the art scene to flourish within Iran, Grigorian was also responsible for bringing Armenian art to an international audience. Between the 1960s and 1980s, he split his time between New York and Tehran. He established the Arshile Gorky Gallery in New York City in 1980, an homage to the famed Armenian Abstract Expressionist painter, where he would spotlight the works of Iranian and Armenian artists.
Despite Grigorian’s cross-cultural career and extensive travels, he returned to his ancestral home of Armenia for the remainder of his life. There, he opened the Sabrina Near East Museum of Yerevan in honour of his daughter who died aged 29. Grigorian donated his entire collection to the Armenian government as a symbol of lifelong commitment to his nation.
Artistic Style and Earthworks
Although Grigorian’s early work was abstract, figuration began to infuse his work on his return to Iran in 1954. Among his most notable and compelling figurative works is the twelve-panel mural The Gates of Auschwitz (1959). With this monumental and harrowing series, Grigorian became one of the first artists to commemorate the Holocaust; he described the work as a ‘120 feet long cry of horror.’
Soon after, Grigorian began his Earthworks series when he moved to New York in 1962. These works are steeped in a physical and conceptual affinity with the earth, and were notably conceived a decade before the pivotal western Land Art movement surfaced.
Grigorian’s Earthworks form the foundation of his mature output. In these pieces, humble organic materials such as straw, sand, soil, enamel, clay and even ethnic food coalesce to create the three-dimensional compositions that blend the formal structure of painting with the sensibilities of sculpture. Whereas traditional canvas works saw paint take centre stage, Grigorian used paint to bind the earth’s raw materials, which symbolised regeneration and the purity of life.
One of the artist’s signatures was the square format, a reference to sacred geometry, harmonious, symmetrical proportions, and universal cosmology. Embedded in these works are powerful interplays between light and shadow, earthly and unearthly forces.
A prime example of this series is Convergence (1981), which was sold at Bonhams for an impressive £94,000 (inc. premium) in 2021 against a pre-sale estimate of £35,000 – 50,000. Earthworks such as Convergence get to the very core of mankind’s relationship with its environment. With their cracked surfaces, and subdued colouring, reminiscent of expansive, barren landscapes and indigenous dwellings, Grigorian’s work didn’t just depict the earth but used it as a medium to explore the complex relationship between humanity and nature.
On the Market
Grigorian’s artistic vision crossed media, borders, and generations. In a globalised world increasingly concerned with the human impact on the earth, his work, though anchored in tradition, feels more contemporary than ever.
Respected and sought-after internationally, Grigorian’s work continues to achieve high prices at auction, with particularly impressive results seen for his Earthworks series.
His work is held in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Tate Modern, the British Museum, the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, the National Gallery of Armenia in Yerevan, the Near East Museum in Armenia, and the Nelson Rockefeller Collection.
Like a shadow, Like a thought
A portrait documentary about "Marco Gregorian" an Iranian Armenian Artist.
Director: Hamidreza Zeinali