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The sixth $100,000 Nasher Prize goes to an Iranian-born artist whose work speaks to the age of COVID

The jury praised the work of Nairy Baghramian ‘as exemplary for its tender and ebullient considerations of the material virtue of our bodies.’

Nairy Baghramian spent her early childhood in Iran, where she was born in 1971. She and her family left in 1984, five years after the Iranian revolution. They settled in West Berlin, where, in 1989, people reveled in their newfound freedom with hammers and picks, ripping apart the Berlin Wall.

Against the backdrop of such major events, Baghramian became an artist, an internationally known sculptor who the Nasher Sculpture Center announced Tuesday is the 2022 winner and sixth recipient of its $100,000 Nasher Prize.

Baghramian becomes the third woman to receive the prize, which was first awarded in 2016 to Doris Salcedo of Colombia. Baghramian’s selection echoes that of Salcedo, whose provocative, political statements have honored the victims of violence and repression around the world.

Which is not to say that Baghramian’s work is political. It is not, although as Jeremy Strick, director of the Nasher Sculpture Center, noted Monday, the artist “referred to her family as political refugees” during a 2021 interview she gave to a magazine.

Nairy Baghramian, "Knee and Elbow," 2020. Marble, cast stainless steel.
Nairy Baghramian, "Knee and Elbow," 2020. Marble, cast stainless steel.

Her selection, Strick says, carries another parallel to Salcedo. When the first Nasher Prize jury convened in 2015, they were determined “not to make it a lifetime achievement award.” Nor would it be given in memory of an artist who was deceased. In other words, it would not be given to Michelangelo or Rodin.

“They would pick an artist who had a substantial body of work, who was not an emerging artist,” Strick says. “They were particularly concerned with this: What is the impact that the artist’s work is making right now? In that respect, they were sensitive to conditions at the moment — how they were being addressed in the artist’s work and how that resonated throughout the artist’s career.”

So, how did Baghramian embrace this moment in time?

“Fast forward to 2020 and 2021, and what’s going on in the world,” Strick says. “And, of course, we’re all living in this condition of a pandemic.”

As a result, “two things in particular” brought her work to the forefront.

“It’s extraordinary work in and of itself, in so many ways,” Strick says. “But everybody in the world over the last year and a half has been feeling a vulnerability, a fragility — of physical threat.”

Nairy Baghramian, "Dwindlers," 2018. Glass, zinc-coated metal, colored epoxy resin. Installation view of Breathing Spell at Crystal
Palace, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina.
Nairy Baghramian, "Dwindlers," 2018. Glass, zinc-coated metal, colored epoxy resin. Installation view of Breathing Spell at Crystal Palace, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina. (Timo Ohler; TIMO_OHLER_FOTOGRAFIE)

On one level, Baghramian’s work is abstract, and yet, he says, “it carries with it these intimations of the human body. Whether in human forms or in prosthetics.”

Yes, she understands vulnerability and fragility, but her work also conveys, Strick says, “a sense of dependence on others.”

Americans take for granted that, in a single game played in the National Football League, there are exhibitions of how remarkable the body can be — and how eerily fragile.

In keeping with the parallel to sports, Strick cites the artist’s background in dance, her love and appreciation for dance, “of a pose and a movement. She’s very aware of all of that.”

Strick marvels at “how deeply she thinks about sculpture — what sculpture is and what it isn’t. One of the histories of the principle of sculpture is, what is the relationship of sculpture to the human body? The body of the artist who creates the work and the bodies of those who observe it? Part of her engagement with the body is also an engagement with the nature and history of sculpture itself.”

Nairy Baghramian. "Retainer," 2012. Cast and painted aluminum, silicon, polycarbonate, chromed metal. Installation view, Sculpture Center, New York, 2012.
Nairy Baghramian. "Retainer," 2012. Cast and painted aluminum, silicon, polycarbonate, chromed metal. Installation view, Sculpture Center, New York, 2012. (Jason Mandella)

As the online magazine Ocula noted in 2020: “Baghramian’s sculptures not only resemble bodies, however — they also behave like bodies. Their individual elements work together like anatomical systems — propping up, supporting, and sustaining each other.”

In Baghramian, Strick says, “You have an artist who’s among the most celebrated and acknowledged of her generation.”

In its official statement, the Nasher Prize jury went even further, embracing Baghramian’s work for the statement it makes in the age of COVID-19:

“Bearing in mind the deep longing for the physical presence of loved ones, places and things, the work of Nairy Baghramian stood out to the jury as exemplary for its tender and ebullient considerations of the material virtue of our bodies, our built environments and of the great, good and lasting service that sculpture in the most traditional sense — that is, physical objects — can offer the human spirit.”

Nairy Baghramian. "Maintainers (H), 2019." Cast aluminum, painted aluminum, cork, styrofoam, pigmented paraffin wax.
Nairy Baghramian. "Maintainers (H), 2019." Cast aluminum, painted aluminum, cork, styrofoam, pigmented paraffin wax.

Strick called the selection “all the more relevant, all the more essential. That’s why she was awarded the Nasher Prize.”

The pandemic even managed to affect how the prize was awarded. For the first time ever, the jury did not meet in person in London, as it has in picking the first five recipients. It was all virtual. The pandemic has also realigned the years attached to the prize.

After Salcedo won in 2016, Pierre Huyghe of France won in 2017; Theaster Gates of Chicago in 2018; Isa Genzken of Germany in 2019; but because of COVID-enforced delays, Iraqi American Michael Rakowitz is now listed as the winner for “2020-21.”

Current plans call for Baghramian to fly to Dallas in April to receive the prize, which also includes an “award object” created by Italian architect Renzo Piano, who designed the Nasher Sculpture Center.

The Nasher opened in 2003, and Strick came on board in 2009, after he left the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. But the prize, he says, harks back to a time even before the creation of the Nasher.

As he said in 2016, the notion of the Nasher Prize first came up in conversations among museum founder Raymond Nasher and his family. They saw it as a logical extension of the center and its mission, “that it would be an institution of international consequence located in Dallas, in a place that would have an impact on the field of sculpture internationally and on the Dallas community.”

So, the prize, Strick says, helps elevate both the profile of the Nasher and the art form championed by Raymond and Patsy Nasher. At the same time, the prize keeps the focus “every year in and on Dallas,” Strick says, “to help make Dallas the heart of that global conversation.”

Even with a pandemic continuing to make its presence felt.

Nairy Baghramian. "Installation view Work desk for an Ambassador's Wife," Marian Goodman Gallery NY, 2019.
Nairy Baghramian. "Installation view Work desk for an Ambassador's Wife," Marian Goodman Gallery NY, 2019.

Michael Granberry, Arts Writer. Michael Granberry was born and grew up in Dallas. He graduated from Samuell High School in Pleasant Grove in 1970 and from Southern Methodist University in 1974. Between his junior and senior years, he interned at The Washington Post during "the Watergate summer" of 1973. He spent 19 years at the Los Angeles Times before returning to Dallas.

mgranberry@dallasnews.com @mgranberry
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