A Painter of Large Portraits Adds a Contemporary Motif to Florence

This article is part of our special report on the Art for Tomorrow conference that was held in Florence, Italy.

FLORENCE, Italy — The Basilica of San Miniato al Monte is perched high up in the hilltops of Florence, offering wondrous views of the city. Inside, visitors to its 1,000-year-old crypt can take in a more contemporary scene: a large painting of a pair of pale hands joined in prayer.

“Paul’s Hands” (2015-17) is by the Iranian American, New York-based artist Y.Z. Kami, who has a solo exhibition of 24 works across four Florence sites — including Palazzo Vecchio, the town hall — through Sept. 24. The exhibition is part of a continuing program led by the Museo Novecento, the museum of modern and contemporary art, to show 21st-century art in the city’s leading cultural institutions.

Florence, known as the cradle of the Italian Renaissance, was the site of the Art for Tomorrow conference on April 26-28. One topic the conference explored was how Florence could be a place of ancient art and architecture, but also a host for contemporary art.

“Our program is aimed at creating an osmosis between the great artworks of the past, which Florence is endowed with, and contemporary art,” said Sergio Risaliti, the artistic director of the Museo Novecento, who organized and curated Mr. Kami’s exhibition. “That way, the past can be reawakened and viewed from a different perspective.”

Mr. Kami (whose full name is Kamran Youssefzadeh) is best known for his brooding portrait paintings and representations of sacred Eastern architecture. The figures in the portraits often have their eyes closed, as if in a state of deep reflection or contemplation. The artist first came to public attention in the 1990s, when his somber depictions of young men became associated with the AIDS epidemic.

In Florence, Mr. Kami is showing both human figures and architectural paintings. A specially commissioned work pictures the mortuary mask of the Renaissance architect Filippo Brunelleschi (who designed the city’s famous Duomo); it’s on display near a Botticelli painting of a Madonna and child, inside the Museo degli Innocenti, a 15th-century former orphanage. At the Palazzo Vecchio, three figures are pictured with their eyes shut amid giant battle scenes by the 16th-century painter Giorgio Vasari.

Mr. Kami was born in Tehran in 1956. He grew up watching his mother, Mahin Youssefzadeh, paint portraits, still lifes and landscapes in a style that was prevalent in European academies in the late 19th century, he said in a telephone interview.

He started to paint when he was 5 or 6 years old, and by the time he was a teenager he took to copying Western masters — Velázquez, Rembrandt, Degas (pastels), Picasso (Rose Period) — and painting his own still lifes, abstract works and portraits of friends.

He also became an avid reader of Persian poetry, from the centuries-old verses of Rumi and Hafez to the contemporary writings of the female author Forough Farrokhzad. And while attending the Shiraz Arts Festival — an international avant-garde performance event held in Shiraz in southwestern Iran — over three summers, he was introduced to other forms of art, such as a Merce Cunningham ballet with sets by Jasper Johns, and productions by the experimental theater director Robert Wilson.

He left Iran in the mid-1970s, just ahead of the revolution that established the Islamic Republic, and headed to California, then France, where he obtained a philosophy degree from the Sorbonne in Paris.

On vacation in New York in 1984, he was enthralled by the city’s energy. “Painting was very much alive, and you had all these new tendencies,” he recalled. “I thought: ‘This is it. I’m not going to go back to Paris. I want to live here.’”

Renting a $200-a-month studio, he focused on painting and toured the city’s museums for inspiration. In an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, he said, he came across an oversize portrait of the Chinese leader Mao Zedong by Andy Warhol and was mesmerized.

“I had never seen a portrait as large as that, except in churches in Europe, and in Istanbul,” he said. Having regarded portraiture up to that point as “something very small and very precise,” he found it liberating to scale up.

He began to enlarge the faces in his own paintings, using bigger canvases, broader brushes and sweeping gestures. Portraiture became a central preoccupation.

“There is no subject matter that fascinates me as much as the face,” he said. “Everything is there.”

Yet the excitement of living and working in New York soon gave way to gloom and despair, as H.I.V., the virus that causes AIDS, spread with catastrophic consequences. Since the 1980s, according to estimates, more than 100,000 people have died of AIDS in New York City.

“I went through that period, witnessing it,” Mr. Kami said, “and then the experience of the fear, of sexuality being connected to death.” It was, he said, “a devastating situation, where you could see people around you, people in your orbit, people that you knew, just getting sick and dying.”

Mr. Kami started painting portraits of young men with gloomy expressions, which he said were inspired by the Fayum funerary portraits attached to Egyptian mummies in Roman times.

Mr. Kami noted that his paintings were “not portraits of sick people, just portraits.” Yet in the context of the time, they were taken by many to be representations of people with AIDS.

Gradually, Mr. Kami started to paint faces and figures with eyes closed or looking down, giving “a meditative aspect to the sitter,” he said. He developed a technique that allowed him to blur the edges of the faces and figures, giving them a spiritual and sometimes ghostly air.

Describing one of his exhibitions in a 1998 review, Holland Cotter, a critic for The New York Times, said it looked “less like a portrait show than a monument to unnamed everyday people, past or present, whose ordinariness is part of their mystery.”

Mr. Kami joined the Gagosian Gallery in 2008 and had an exhibition of portraits at the gallery in Los Angeles that year which was seen by the video artist Bill Viola. He “told me something very nice,” Mr. Kami recalled. “Bill said, ‘I can hear them breathing.’”

The artist is also known for another series of works: mandalas, domes and other circular shapes that evoke the ceilings of sacred spaces. These intricate canvases, composed of innumerable elements that look like mosaics or brickwork, are hand-painted by Mr. Kami, who gets help from a couple of assistants for the oversize ones. With repetitive, circular motifs, they are soothing and calming, conveying “the feeling of the sacred place, that notion of the temple and contemplation, the ceiling being a metaphor for the heavens,” Mr. Kami said.

While many faiths and cultures have employed domes and circular ceilings in their holy spaces, these works by Mr. Kami recall the colors, textures and interiors of sacred sites that he visited as a child in Iran.

Iran is “something that I carry inside,” he said. “The connection with the culture, with the poetry, with the language, with the architecture; it’s all there.”

Mr. Kami now travels to Iran a couple of times a year to visit his mother. While he spends most of his time with her at home, “you feel the atmosphere and the suffering of the people,” he said.

Recent events — the uprising led by women and girls protesting the mandatory hijab, or head scarf — sometimes make him “optimistic that there might be a positive change,” but at other times he is less hopeful.

With exhibits on multiple continents and his paintings paired with masterpieces of the Renaissance, how would the artist like to be remembered?

“I don’t think about legacy — not yet,” Mr. Kami, 67, replied. He was “not young,” he said, but was living “very much in the moment.”

“Basically I’m working all the time,” he said. “And the work happens in the present.”

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