Where and when
Museo Novecento is pleased to announce Light, Gaze, Presence, an exhibition by Y.Z. Kami (Tehran, 1956) with a selection of works shown for the first time in Florence in some of the most iconic venues of the city: Museo Novecento, Museo di Palazzo Vecchio, Museo degli Innocenti and, exceptionally, in the thousand-year-old Abbazia di San Miniato al Monte (from February 17 to September 24, 2023).
Monday – Sunday
The project is a journey through the pictorial universe of the Iranian-American artist, who has lived and worked in New York since the 1980s. With a selection of 24 works located in some of Florence’s most prestigious cultural institutions, Light, Gaze, Presence unites some of the main strands of Y.Z. Kami’s artistic research in a close dialogue with the extraordinary medieval and Renaissance masterpieces kept in those venues.
The itinerary originates in the rooms of the Museo Novecento, where the famous portrait paintings, which have made the artist known to the international public, are interspersed with other works from the Dome and Night Paintings series.
At the center of his artistic production for more than 30 years, the portraits are large-scale paintings that capture men and women caught in close-up, often with their eyes closed and within neutral backgrounds that leave visible only a few details besides the faces. “In painting a face, what I’m really trying to achieve is the feeling I have of it, the experience of that face going through many layers of paint and in the end always appearing a bit elusive, as if I can’t get there,” the artist states. These paintings, made from photographs taken of friends or strangers, are the result of a very slow gestation that makes these representations true apparitions, bringing to mind the ancient portraits of Fayyum by reconnecting with the portrait tradition that runs through the history of art throughout the centuries, up to the present day.
Present and absent at the same time, the figures of Y.Z. Kami are immersed in a dimension that seems to have nothing to do with our everyday life, but which refers to an elsewhere, to a place that is memory or evocation of the beyond. The luminosity rendered by the rarefied painting, as well as the experience of stillness and silence, have the ability to attract the viewer to them, arousing intense feelings, such as a sense of placid contemplation bordering on transcendence. In this sense, Y.Z. Kami is a painter of invisibility; his gaze and painting are capable of narrating humanity beyond contingency, capturing the spirituality that envelops bodies.
In the Dome series, Kami evokes archetypal images, such as mandalas, as well as the architecture and concentric shapes typical of Persian tradition and sacred architecture around the world, a metaphor for the sky and contemplation. The Night Paintings, on the other hand, are reminiscent of nocturnal mental images, smoky and tenebrous, they are elaborated from rereading William. Blake’s poetry. The dominant color is indigo, interspersed with shades of white that in their blurred appearance resemble the patina of portraits, recalling something evanescent that is in danger of disappearing soon thereafter but clings tenaciously to the present and begs to be kept alive.
The exhibition continues within the evocative setting of the Salone dei Cinquecento – Museo di Palazzo Vecchio, where the works Untitled (2011), Untitled (Woman in Green Sweater) (2006) and Marwin (2013-2014) dialogue with Giorgio Vasari’s frescoes, creating an extraordinary contrast between the placid rarefaction of Y.Z. Kami and the vivid battle scenes that are featured on the walls of the room. The titles of the paintings, which can either refer to proper names of people or remain anonymous, reflect the constant oscillation between individuality and universality in the artist’s research. This dualism is congenital to the entire history of representation, particularly the artists’ abiding interest in the study of the human figure.
The Museo degli Innocenti houses within the picture gallery that houses to the extraordinary masterpieces of Botticelli and Luca della Robbia two works by Y.Z. Kami: Gold Dome II (2022) and Brunelleschi (Death Mask) (2022-2023).
In particular, Filippo Brunelleschi’s Death Mask pays homage to the great master and relates, on the one hand, to the great portraits of the artist exhibited at the same time at the Museo Novecento and in the Salone dei Cinquecento, and on the other hand to the history of the building.
The exhibition reaches its climax inside the thousand-year-old Abbazia di San Miniato al Monte, where the work Paul’s hands (2015-17) is exceptionally hosted. “I have been portraying hands for a long time; they represent a profound presence and meaning for me,” the artist explained. “The French theologian and philosopher Blaise Pascal said ‘L’âme aime la main – the soul loves the hand.’ Very often in my paintings of hands, the hands are joined in prayer. The imagery of hands in prayer is a direct and clear sign of devotion that belongs to many different religious traditions, from Christianity to Eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism, but not to Islam nor Judaism.”
Y.Z. KAMI (Tehran, 1956) began painting when he was only five or six years old in the studio of his mother. From then on, his love for painting and his focus on the study of the figure and human psychology would never leave him. After studying philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris, he moved in the 1980s to New York, where from the late 1990s he began exhibiting in museums and art institutions. His works are held today within important public collections, including those of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York), the Whitney Museum of American Art (New York), the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (New York) and the British Museum in London.
On the occasion of the exhibition of Y.Z. Kami Light, Gaze, Presence, the Museo Novecento is launching its first podcast series, Labirinto900, curated by singer-songwriter Letizia Fuochi.
“The Labyrinth-a symbol of bewilderment and complicated situations-represents an allegory of the complexity of the world whose comprehensibility cannot be grasped through reason alone,” says Letizia Fuochi. According to Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, the tortuosity of the path symbolically refers to our rational inability to fully understand its own meaning, since the very nature of the labyrinth hides more complex and profound contents. Labirinto900 is the podcast of Museo Novecento, a space laboratory place of art creativity beauty and memory.
The first episode is dedicated to Y.Z. Kami: L’invisibile silenzio della luce (The Invisible Silence of Light) will be available soon on MUS.E’s Spotify channel. Listen to it here!
In-kind support provided by Gagosian.
Special thanks to Hotel Savoy of Rocco Forte Hotels and Tuscan Excelsia.
Image cover: Y.Z. Kami, Daniele (detail),2016-2017, Oil on linen, 90×54 inches (228,6×137,2 cm), Courtesy of Gagosian.
Elisa Di Lupo
Realized in collaboration with
Abbazia di San Miniato al Monte
Istituto degli Innocenti
Museo di Palazzo Vecchio