Nairy Baghramian is having quite the year. She has works on view in major institutions across the U.S., including a solo show at the Aspen Art Museum and a new cast-aluminum and stainless-steel sculpture in MoMA’s sculpture garden. This September, the Iranian-German artist embarks on her highest-profile project to date: the coveted commission to create work for the facade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Baghramian’s practice pushes the boundaries of disciplines and spans materials: from steel and plaster to resin, wood, and rubber. Her abstract, polychrome sculptures for the Met resemble components seemingly washed up like “flotsam and jetsam.” The commission represents the artist’s first-ever public installation in New York City and marks the fourth time the museum has tapped contemporary artists to fill the four niches that adorn its iconic entrance.
But the artist has a long relationship with New York. Her debut U.S. solo exhibition was in 2013 at SculptureCenter in Long Island City, an institution she continues to support as a board member. Since then, Baghramian has been featured in several group and solo shows in the city, including at MoMA and with her longtime gallerist, Marian Goodman. “New Yorkers are open to contemporary art, and their approach is one of magnanimity and humor,” Baghramian tells Avenue. “New York City is my big weakness and, honestly, the work for the Met just feels like an homage to the city.”
For her facade commission, Scratching the Back, Baghramian draws inspiration from a variety of sources, including the late conceptual artist Michael Asher, who famously sought to dismantle institutional art practices and reframe how art is viewed and displayed. Baghramian’s work addresses similar themes from art history and concepts of function and decoration: Scratching the Back responds to the architectural features of the Met and reimagines the function of a niche.
“Niches in general seem representative, and everything placed in my imagination on the pedestals involuntarily turned into a figurative and representative object,” explains Baghramian. “I wanted to escape this narrative, and I gathered sculptures in the niches on lattice structures I designed in front of, around, and on the pedestals, seemingly landed like flotsam in front of the institution. This has transformed the historic niche architecture into more of a contemporary storefront situation or open display case.”
Similar spatial relationships and themes can be seen in Baghramian’s solo show at the Aspen Art Museum, which is on view through October 22. Spanning the last decade of her career, the works resemble debris and fragments of body parts, such as bones and joints, as well as medical devices, architectural framework, and garments, the last of which is also alluded to in the exhibition title, “Jupon de Corps.” Jupon means “petticoat” in French.
“I consider my work process to be continuous, and I think less in terms of specific temporal stages,” says Baghramian. “The compilation of works for the [Aspen] exhibition does not follow a chronological principle and it was not my intention to describe the last decade of my practice. Rather, the sculptural body was the impetus for seeing these works together. It appealed to me to relate the existing works as studies in the museum, more than a conversation.”
Throughout “Jupon de Corps,” sculptures build on one another as materials, forms, and gestures repeat. New works conceived for the museum’s outdoor area, for example, respond to Stay Downers, a group of sculptures she made in 2016–17, which themselves were done in response to earlier pieces, such as Class Reunion from 2008. The Aspen exhibition includes three new colorful, bulbous Stay Downers that engage with the space and architecture of the building and greet visitors in the museum’s walkways, in a similar way to her engagement with the Met facade.
As with all Baghramian’s work, there is no linear relationship between individual pieces. Even sculptures that respond to one another evolve as the circumstances in which they are displayed change. What is clear from the presentations of the artist’s work across the U.S. is that her approaches to art-making are fluid, complex, and ever-changing.
Scratching the Back is on view through May 28, 2024, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; “Jupon de Corps” runs through October 22, 2023, at the Aspen Art Museum.