Art In Conversation
Y.Z. Kami with Phong H. Bui
“Whenever a face calls me, I just follow. Thats how it is.”
Y.Z. Kami: Night and Day
January 17–February 25, 2023
“We’re part of people, and people are part of us. And we find ways to contribute and encourage the best or the better to survive the worst in the world of humanity, and that’s what our work is about. So much can vibrate in one or two simple words, and for me, the word that is the most important in everything we do is touch. You can look up in every dictionary what the word touch means. But in direct experience, everyone in any race in every part of the world of any age would know [when they experience] a moment [of], ‘Wow, Ah, Ah.’ It’s touch. That’s how a true memory is ingrained in us and becomes vibrant, and in the end useful.” — Peter Brook
I’ve visited Y.Z. Kami’s studio in Chelsea, New York a few times over the course of the past few years. The feeling of sympathy, transformation, and compassion infused with the thrill of exaltation, among other sentiments, comes close to describing the condition of being touched. This is momentous. While looking at Kami’s painted surfaces, be it his well-known portraits, paintings of domes, or abstractions, what is made visible of the otherwise invisible subjects and their inner lives is his sensitive yet intense concentration. Kami creates matter so concretely that he refers to his paint as skin covering the canvas below. As endless questions of how to convey spirituality through sensuality, criticality through deference, strength through tenderness, and so on, continue to populate my mind, my eyes are transfixed on the different skins that evoke such sentiments through countless painted images. The subtle textures that lie on the skin, caressing their exquisite deployment of color, edges, tonality, and atmosphere are most compellingly concrete yet ethereal. On the occasion of his recent solo exhibition Night and Day at Gagosian Gallery, and four other exhibitions at Museo Novecento, Palazzo Vecchio, Istituto degli Innocenti, and Abbazia di San Miniato al Monte in Florence (on view until June 4, 2023), I managed to pay another visit recently to relive those experiences in his studio. While absorbing everything through looking at this new body of work, we were able to sit down at the end for a lengthy conversation.
Phong H. Bui (Rail): My first question, given our mutual interest in philosophy, is you once confessed in a conversation with the Rail Editor-at-Large Francesca Pietropaolo that if you knew how to write, you could have been a philosopher instead of being a painter. [Laughter]. While you were a student at the Université Paris Sorbonne, where you studied from 1976 to 1981, you attended lectures given by Claude Lévi-Strauss, Roland Barthes, Henry Corbin, and Emmanuel Levinas. Can you recount the experience?
Y.Z. Kami: It was an exciting time! There were these amazing thinkers teaching in Paris. Corbin was then at l’École des Hautes Études while Levinas was teaching at the Sorbonne. I took Levinas’s course one semester and a few semesters with Corbin, and at the same time, I attended lectures of both Claude Lévi-Strauss and Roland Barthes who were teaching at the Collège de France. I was fascinated by Lévi-Strauss’s structural anthropology as much as I was with Barthes’s semiology theory, but it was both Corbin and Levinas’s work that had a significant impact on my thinking at the time, especially Levinas’s preference of ethics over ontology; I mean his deep reading on the human face…
Rail: As he said, the face can be read as an invitation to an act of violence or what forbids us to kill, for the word of god is in the face.
Kami: Exactly. It was a natural attraction, given that my mother was a portrait painter when I was a child growing up in Tehran in the sixties. I in fact started painting with oil paint at the age of five or six in my mother's studio. As for Corbin, his deep interest in Iranian mystical traditions, as well as other esoteric philosophy from both the West and the East was so informative to how I felt about the issues of spirituality, as well as my attempt to understand where I was in-between two seemingly different cultures.
Rail: Which totally makes sense, given your interest in the intersection of philosophy and poetry, especially William Blake, who was deeply influenced by Emanuel Swedenborg, and Corbin’s own interest also in Swedenborg’s theological works in relation to the esoteric tradition in Iran and elsewhere in the Middle East. We spoke once about Corbin’s essay “The Imaginary and the Imaginal”—do you feel there’s an affinity between philosophy and mysticism in your work, as in the work of Suhrawardi, the Persian philosopher and founder of the Iranian school of illuminationism—what was referred to as Platonic Orientalism?
Kami: Suhrawardi was the love of Corbin. Corbin wrote extensively about him and translated his writings into French. Even though Corbin came from a Protestant family, he was interested in both the Protestant and Catholic mystics, especially while he was in college at the Catholic Institute of Paris. It was, however, in his encounter with Louis Massignon, the brilliant Catholic scholar of Islam, who introduced the works of Suhrawardi to Corbin, which changed the course of his life. Corbin went to Istanbul andTehran to study Suhrawardi’s manuscripts, which eventually led to his prolific writing career, including one of my favorite books of his, Alone with the Alone: Creative Imagination in the Sūfism of Ibn 'Arabī and also The Man of Light in Iranian Sufism.
Rail: Looking back now, introspectively speaking, like most educated, middle-class Iranians, be it in Egypt, Turkey, India, Vietnam, or elsewhere, were you aware of the particular friction that seemed to loom large in that on one hand, you treasured your own cultural heritage in a variety of forms, be it philosophy, literature, painting, or, say, dance, music, and so on, and on the other hand, the Age of Enlightenment had transformed European economic, social, and political thought, placing a great deal of emphasis on reason and empirical knowledge, as it was connected to the expansion of the European empire. I’m curious as to when you came to realize that you were a product of the two worlds, East and West?
Kami: It’s something we don’t take for granted, but at the same time, the humanity within us isn’t always ready to surrender one way or another, for what belongs solely to the West or the East. Actually, I had a conversation a few months ago with Setsuko Klossowska de Rola, Balthus’s widow, and mentioned to her how, for me, her paintings are more related to the West in their formal composition, while her ceramics are more related to the East, to her Japanese cultural heritage in their restraint and simplicity of forms.
Rail: Can we say in your case, while the painted faces may relate to Western tradition of portraiture, their spirits or their souls evoke the realm of angels and spiritual visions that have deep roots in esoteric Islamic spirituality? Again, this was wonderfully articulated in Corbin’s essay “Comparative Spiritual Hermeneutics” calling forth the similar revelation of the internal sense of the sacred books of both Christianity and Islam. Just as Suhrawardi was a revivor of ancient wisdom of Persia, a reformer of the Avicennan peripatetic philosophy which was partially influenced by Aristotelian philosophy, we spoke of the subtle differences yet interrelatedness between your portrait paintings and your “Night Paintings” (2017–ongoing).
Kami: Which was the subject matter and title of my last exhibition at Gagosian in Rome in 2020.
Rail: Exactly, as they were talking about the portraits and the “Night Paintings” as they share countless subtle differences between the spirit in the former and the soul in the latter. First of all, we should be reminded that the word “spirit” comes from the Latin word spiritus, or the Greek word pneuma, which means “breath/wind.” Whereas the word “soul” refers to the Latin word anima or the Greek word psykhe. In other words, we may think of the “spirit” as a pathway that allows us to transcend our humanity. As with the “soul” we enter our humanity fully with the hope of realizing it fully. When we say a certain person is full of soul, we imply they have endured the highs and lows of life—marriage, work, death of loved ones, etc.—all of which are motivated by a compassionate heart. And yet, we all know it’s the spirit that needs to be strong to protect the soul. I’ve always felt the way you depict faces, being painted frontally with their edges blurry, their eyes closed most of the time, and so on, can be read as your endless transmigrations of the “soul” under different subtle conditions of “light.” For the “Night Paintings,” I see them as abstract explorations of darkness, which seems as though the spirit is moving from one place or space to the next.
Kami: I appreciate that subtle distinction. From the beginning, in my childhood, I always painted the various sitters with eyes that were gazing at you—which can appear both threatening and inviting. Later, I became fascinated with Fayum portraits, as I’ve mentioned before, especially their stylized eyes, also knowing they were painted during the life of the sitters, and the paintings were kept in their homes until they were placed on their faces upon their death. As much as I was taken by the distinct individuality of the faces, I was also moved by the universal neutrality in their expressions.
Rail: And we should add that artists definitely know faces in ways that are different from our knowledge of them, for they must be conscious of how they are made, whether in the form of a sculpture or a painting. It’s so complex when we think of how certain features get built up from one area to the next; how colors emerge through the skin’s surfaces…
Kami: And then the whole issue of distances and proportions, and ultimately how to get something else beyond the likeness of the person.
Rail: Right. Which Levinas explored so brilliantly about the others as objects, objects that belong to the “spectacle” of the world.
Kami: Yes! Thinking about it, it was approximately two decades ago when the images of the faces I was painting became a little softened and blurred, and their eyes closed, or in some cases looking down. It was then I discovered that with the absence of the gaze (which has always been the focal point when we look at a person’s face), the attention is now distributed equally across the painted surface.
Rail: What you refer to as “the skin” of the painting.
Kami: Yes, so I learned the two different expressions of faces with eyes opened, and faces with eyes closed. The idea of looking inwardly generates this sense of stillness, a presence of meditation or introspection.
Rail: And it’s interesting to remind ourselves that the word Zen is the Japanese borrowing of the Chinese word Chán, both words meaning contemplation or meditation. We can then imagine that in China, one can climb up on the top of a mountain somewhere and walk for hours and days without seeing any other human beings. Partly due to China being the world’s third largest country, the communion with nature is sublime and vast as an outward mediation. Whereas in Japan, its land mass is approximately the size of California, and every time a person feels a need to get away from the city, they go up to the mountaintop only to discover there are already a bunch of folks camping out everywhere. So, this idea of Zen as a contemplation has to come from within.
Kami: So, nature is inside each of us.
Rail: Indeed, it’s what we call inner nature, which we can’t ignore or understand by simply being smart or clever.
Kami: As Levinas said, the experience of the face of the other is an opportunity for transcendence into infinity. When I think of the Fayum portraits, which were mostly painted in the second century AD, during which time Egypt was a Roman province, in addition to the Greeks and Romans, there were also wealthy immigrants in this Fayum region.
Rail: Also known as “The Fayum Oasis.”
Kami: That’s right. Also, since they were mostly painted with encaustic as a binder of color pigments on thin wooden panels, despite the decay of the corpses, the paintings survived in relatively good condition. In a sense, they survived into infinity, and this idea of portraiture and the infinity of the face interested me a lot when I first saw them at the Louvre during my student years in Paris, and still does to this day.
Rail: Would it be adequate to propose your idea of infinity be also the same as the idea of totality? I mean since the eyes are closed, they’re treated on equal terms as the nose, mouth, ears, hair, and so on, all of which belong to the skin of the painted surface in its totality.
Kami: That is a nice way to express it; they’re one and the same.
Rail: In regards to the face-to-face encounter, Jean Genet has beautifully explored this in his timeless essay, “What Remains of a Rembrandt Torn into Little Squares All the Same Size and Flushed Down the Toilet,” which was his account of having sat across from an old man on the train. While looking at this ordinary old man he sees a face which bears a certain gravity of life’s hardship and the inevitability of old age, yet emanates somehow this familiar sense of dignity. In that brief encounter, Genet sees himself through this old man and comes to recognize a universal truth of humanity, which leads to a new understanding of the singular greatness of Rembrandt’s late self-portraits. Unlike the early portraits that reflect only the mask he held up before the world, the later ones are results of endless personal tragedies, including the death of his first wife, Saskia; bankruptcy; the death of his son, Titus etc.…
Kami: And he painted these experiences of such intense misfortunes and pain as they appear on the painted skin of those canvases. Yet, at the same time, there’s this sublime beauty of his vulnerability that we all can identify with, which partly is because of how they were painted, with such intense concentration, and so many layers.
Rail: I couldn’t agree more. Do you think the way you deploy light and darkness through your personal sense of tonality may consciously or unconsciously relate to Suhrawardi’s philosophy of illumination, which is essentially based on the quality of light being in its direct and immediate manifestation, and tied to the concept of presence? Equally as important is the dual nature (substance and state) of the light, and how it relates to darkness.
Kami: I don’t think these are translatable to the making of my paintings, at least not directly in their applications. It’s true in regards to the issues of tonality and color—I’ve always wanted the surface to be dry and matte so the paintings can be brought closer to the frescoes and wall paintings of Byzantine and the early Renaissance.
Rail: And in order to eliminate the glossiness of the oil paint, you would add dry pigment, not to mention the ground is usually painted with a terra cotta color.
Kami: Yes. Just like any other painters, one has one’s own methodology and technique that one develops over time. In my case it’s neither too fast nor too slow as far as the speed of execution is concerned, but it nevertheless requires layer upon layer of paint in most cases.
Rail: It’s a Sisyphean cycle, no more no less than a hamster on a hamster wheel.
Kami: Totally. The labor of the hand that brings forth this production of different touches on the skin of the canvas.
Rail: In thinking of your deep attraction to faces, I imagine that we’re born to look at faces. The newborn with no visual experience probably prefers to look at faces more than any other object in the world. I imagine in the first year, 25 percent of their waking time is looking at faces. [Laughs] They're carried around by their mothers and fathers, among others, which simply means more looking at different faces, hence they gradually develop this innate reception to faces. In other words, the face is to be looked at more than any other object in the world for all of us human beings. I’d assume not just anyone gets to be painted by you. My question is: how does the selection process work?
Kami: The selection process is purely intuitive and often based on chance. Take the painting The Old Gardener (2022), for example, who was our gardener in the house that I grew up in in Tehran. And I had taken a few photographs of him in my youth, and I’ve kept them with me for years. Then finally, at the beginning of 2022, I had a strong urge to make a painting of his face. I’ve always loved taking snapshots of people with a camera, until recent years when I began using my iPhone instead. There's no particular logic behind how certain faces get made into a painting. I would say that whenever a face calls me, I just follow. That's how it is.
Rail: The same can be said of Lu (2022).
Kami: Yes, Lu has been, for the past seven or eight years, my assistant regarding Photoshop and my computer work. It’s only recently that I wanted to paint Lu, even though it was based on a photograph I took of Lu, perhaps six years ago. I feel strongly once the decision is made to make a painting of someone the concept of time in real life collapses. You can say that the painted image of a certain face has its own time.
Rail: I’d add it also has its own temperature. Are you saying that you are making a portrait with a certain apolitical position?
Kami: Yes. I don't have any preconceived ideas about icons of American pop culture or celebrities like Andy Warhol did in his work. Mine is just my endless fascination with the human face. Regardless of gender, race, age or whatever. Just the human face. And then the selection is just again a combination of chance and intuition.
Rail: How do you decide, within your economic use of color, which color from the get-go would determine the mood or temperature of the painting?
Kami: There is a certain palette that I’ve developed over the years. And, I should add, I never use the color that comes out of the tube. There are always bizarre mixtures. I’ve been obsessed with this Cinnabar green, which has a lot of yellow in it that I wanted to use for a mysterious reason. I just wanted to use that green for the background and see its effect next to, say, a purple.
Rail: As we see it in the painting Isaac in Purple Shirt (2022).
Kami: Yes, those Cinnabar green stripes that also create the background as an atmospheric space. The same can be said of The Old Gardener with the brick wall, which in some ways correlates with his wrinkles…
Rail: And both have similar patinas, weathered by time.
Kami: Exactly, whereas in the case of the painting of my studio assistant, it’s the concentric patterns of the black dome painting in the background that relate to his eyes looking downward.
Rail: Super true, for both share similar curvatures as a visual parallel. I particularly appreciate how you painted a ring of Indigo around the edges of Lu’s head, making it like a halo as he’s meditating. In any case, what you’re saying is each painting requires different treatments, and you then have no choice but to trust the process.
Kami: In most cases, yes, but there’s no guarantee. As for the abstract and “Dome” paintings, for example, they’re different in that I’d just apply pure white, be it permanent or zinc white, Mars black or Ivory black. The same with the “Night Paintings” which are done only with a single shade of indigo with white. Otherwise, there is no textbook to follow. One is on one’s way to discover. And then, sometimes new colors intervene and they dictate what I will do next. The truth is that whatever happens is not at all rational.
Rail: Do you ever rely on the grid to provide some forms of stability?
Rail: Which, again, made sense to me since the idea of Persian sacred geometry can also be internalized. Which to some extent is tied to the idea of a world of images that can exist beyond our earthly existence. Again, it made sense, since this world can be reached in sleep, in meditation, or even after death, that this other sort of belief must come from mysticism, not just a science. Light can manifest differently in the painting or the portrait, like it does with the “Night Paintings,” which means they’re necessary frictions to your practice.
Kami: It’s true that I learned to embrace these constant frictions a long time ago. I remember as soon as I’d decided to paint from photographs instead of painting from life in the mid-1980s, I discovered how much I love my solitude being with those large faces. Those frictions are seen as resources of energy and invention.
Rail: That makes sense. Can you share with us how the idea of the “Night Paintings” came about?
Kami: I must say they came all of a sudden. It was actually about seven years ago, and I got very perplexed, because I didn't know why and how these images came to me. They were not in any way precise, but they did come to me during a time when I was rereading some of William Blake’s poetry and also Kathleen Raine’s book, called Blake and Tradition (1968). These abstract images do not have any connection to Blake’s visual works nor his poetry. At the beginning, I totally ignored these images because I thought they were so bizarre and didn’t quite look like my work, so I put them aside for quite some time, but they kept coming back, and then I started to do some sketches, and to work with Photoshop to further develop this imagery. Then I started to paint them with this very dark shade of indigo. It is said that indigo is the color of the sky on a moonless night. The first two large paintings in this series are both dedicated to William Blake.
Rail: I’d call them Blakean images. I’m glad that you didn’t resist. In any case, the images hover over the frontal plane in each painting, while vaguely suggesting some forms of geometry. What about the relationship between sacred geometry as it is essential in Islamic and Persian culture, especially in architecture, specifically with your “Dome” paintings?
Kami: In the “Dome” paintings, the geometry consists of a series of concentric circles moving from the center outward to the edges of the canvas. Even though I call them “Dome” paintings which refer directly to domes in certain architecture—Eastern or Western—they are not actually domes because there is no perspective. The absence of perspective brings the idea of infinity whereby the circles could literally go on and on. Each circle is painted with either the same size rectangular brush stroke or square, like mosaic.
Rail: Like you’re concretely layering brick by brick on the dome, whereas you’re painting particles of light or air in the “Night Paintings.”
Kami: I guess I could say that there is a similar constancy also in the portraits. However, with the “Night Paintings,” the forms tend to change while I’m painting them.
Rail: I feel they all share different aspects of infinity. Say while the portraits are about the contemplation of infinity, the “Dome” paintings are painted infinity itself. And the “Night Paintings” are about transitory infinity. Do you remember the first four lines in “Auguries of Innocence” by Blake: “To see a World in a Grain of Sand / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand / And Eternity in an hour”?
Kami: It is so beautiful! I still read it regularly.
Rail: An equivalent of karma and transmigration as it’s revealed in the painting Messenger IV (2022). Where in fact did the image come from?
Kami: The image of the “Messenger” series comes from a photograph I took years ago on a trip to India. Until last year, I kept it on the wall in my studio when I made a small painting of the figure. I had made some changes to the garment, and the surrounding landscape so it could appear to be somewhere in South or Southeast Asia, or Africa. As the figure walks away from us, towards a landscape and a road full of light…
Rail: …implied by the small dirt road in the upper left of the painting. What prompted you to paint the Messenger’s legs in bold red color, especially his left leg with such a strong outline?
Kami: It is actually the outline of the legs which are in bright red. This just happened by itself as I was painting and so I decided to stay with it. I think it brings an intensity around the figure. Otherwise, it’s a complete mystery, and I need to live with it.