What Nairy Baghramian Is Looking At: The Artist on 3 Cultural Touchstones That Keep Reappearing in Her Work

Baghramian has a new show at Marian Goodman and a Performa commission.

Nairy Baghramian during the installation of her current show at Marian Goodman in New York. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

It’s been a busy week for Berlin-based artist Nairy Baghramian. On Tuesday, she was honored at the SculptureCenter during the Queens museum’s annual gala, and on Wednesday, she debuted her first-ever performance (commissioned for the Performa Biennial) with the Kitchen, which she did in collaboration with choreographer Maria Hassabi. Finally, yesterday, she opened “Work Desk for an Ambassador’s Wife,” a show at Marian Goodman.

The Performa commission revisits earlier shows she did in collaboration with the late Art Deco designer Janette Laverrière.

Despite their large age difference—Laverrière was born in 1909, Baghramian in 1971—the two became close friends while working together on the 5th Berlin Biennale in 2008. The younger artist had been asked to create a project showcasing the work of a figure she believed to have been overlooked. But she felt uncomfortable benefiting from the work of a deceased artist, at which point the curators called her back. Laverrière was alive, and they had her phone number.

The Berlin Biennale became the first of several collaborations between the two. “It was an equal relationship,” Baghramian says. “Janette was amazing. She was 97 and she called me her ‘sister in creation.’ If you look at the age gap, I could be her granddaughter.”

Nairy Baghramian and Maria Hassabi, <em>Entre Deux Actes (Ménage à Quatre)</em> being performed at Performa 19. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

Nairy Baghramian and Maria Hassabi, Entre Deux Actes (Ménage à Quatre). Photo by Sarah Cascone.

Laverrière died in 2011, but her work is still an integral part of the Performa piece and the Marian Goodman show. “I’m sharing this exhibition with her again,” Baghramian says. “We are showing together even though she’s not there.”

The invite from Performa came as something of a surprise to the sculptor. “I’m not a performing artist, but my backgrounding is in dance and theater,” Baghramian says. “I invited Maria, and I said, ‘Let’s coexist together, but not collaborate in the classical way that I put down sculpture and you dance around it.’”

Ahead of the work’s public debut, we spoke to Baghramian about her artistic influences.


Janette Laverrière
Work Desk for an Ambassador’s Wife (Cabinet de Travail d’une Femme d’Abassadeur) (1956)

Janette Laverrière, <em>Work Desk for Ambassador’s Wife (Cabinet de Travail d’une Femme d’Abassadeur)</em>, 1956. Photo courtesy of Janette Laverrière.

Janette Laverrière, Work Desk for an Ambassador’s Wife (Cabinet de Travail d’une Femme d’Abassadeur) (1956). Photo courtesy of Janette Laverrière.

My first time in New York, I wanted to go to MoMA. It was raining and we escaped to the Rizzoli bookstore, where I found this beautiful book about Janette Laverrière. I didn’t know her work, but I fell in love with this piece, not because it’s an amazing picture, but because of the title. It’s Work Desk for an Ambassador’s Wife, which is a very long title for a design object.

Janette got a commission for a work desk for an ambassador. When she visited, his wife answered the door, and said, ‘He’s away, but I can tell you what he needs.’ It turned out she was going to be the one working at the desk. The desk folds and has a hidden drawer. Janette told the wife, ‘This is for all your lovers you should have when he’s gone.’ And the name of the desk is now the title of the [Marian Goodman] exhibition. I’m presenting our first collaboration together with models and sketches of unrealized projects by myself in a landscape of design objects by Janette.

Janette Laverrière
Entre deux actes—Loge de comédienne (1947)

Janette Laverrière and Nairy Baghramian, <em>Entre deux actes—Loge de comédienne<em> (1947/2009). Photo courtesy of Nairy Baghramian.

Janette Laverrière and Nairy Baghramian, Entre deux actes—Loge de comédienne (1947/2009). Photo courtesy of Nairy Baghramian.

This is a piece that Janette did in 1947 at a design fair. She was asked to create a proposal for a room. They gave her an awful spot in the end corner of the fair; the main architects occupied the front. She made a green room for a stage, dedicated to a friend of hers, a Egyptian singer who left Paris and stopped performing.

For her, it was painful that someone who was for so long on the stage stopped singing and disappeared. [Laverrière] called it Entr’acte, which means between the scenes. We reinterpreted this piece together for an exhibition in 2009, and and this version was my starting point for the installation at Performa.


Carlo Mollino
Untitled Polaroids (1962–73)

Carlo Mollino, <em>Untitled Polaroid</em> (1962–73). Photo courtesy of the artist.

Carlo Mollino, Untitled Polaroid (1962–73). Photo courtesy of the artist.

Because Janette’s piece was about the absence of the female singer, I started thinking about Mollino. I thought that we could bring back the female voice and I asked the Mollino Foundation to borrow 52 of his Polaroids of naked women, which express the liberation of the female body in a very complex way. Mollino designed a house in Turin. It was a secret house. He would open the door and take pictures of women and men, like transvestites. He was obsessed with the body of women and all the furniture is related to the bodies of women, even though he was gay. I was inspired by that.

Looking at this female protagonist, it’s not through the lens of a heterosexual macho guy. It’s more about the liberation of the body. And you can see in the mirrors that he was part of the whole scenario, because he was also naked, or just in his underwear.

At Performa, Maria Hassabi will dance where these pieces are placed. I took out some of the doors [from the space] and made new sculptures in some of the thresholds. They will be bridges between all four of us.

Nairy Baghramian and Maria Hassabi: Entre Deux Actes (Ménage à Quatre)” is on view at 1014 5th Avenue, November 5–10, 2019.

“Nairy Baghramian & Janette Laverrière: Work Desk for an Ambassador’s Wife” is on view at Marian Goodman Gallery, 24 West 57th Street, New York, November 7–December 20, 2019.

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