Karl Momen is a painter and sculptor whose works are in public and private collections in Europe, Japan and the U.S. Here in America, Momen is best known as the creator of the epic 87’-tall “Metaphor: The Tree of Utah” sculpture that is located adjacent to Interstate 80 in the stark Bonneville Salt Flats region of Utah. This monumental sculpture, completed in 1986, is seen by millions of travelers each year.
Born in Iran 1934, Momen moved to Germany in the late 1950s and studied art and architecture there. In Germany he worked for both Max Ernst, one of the masters of Surrealism, and Le Corbusier, one of Europe’s foremost architects. Momen moved to Sweden in 1962 and, after establishing himself as a successful architect, began to work full-time as an artist and sculptor in 1977. Since then his work has been exhibited in numerous museums and galleries shows and worldwide exhibitions including: Berlin Cultural Center – Berlin, Moderna Museet – Stockholm, Striped House Museum – Tokyo, Salt Lake Art Center – UT, Utah Museum of Art – UT., The American Swedish Museum – Chicago, IL, The Tech Museum of Innovation – San Jose, CA, Nordic Heritage Museum – Seattle, WA, “Nexus” exhibition at the Krasl Art Center – St. Joseph, MI, (where it was sponsored by the Michigan Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts), Monte Carlo Biennal’s – (for international scuplture) Monte Carlo and Royal Academy of Art – Stockholm and many others listed in the EXHIBITONS section.
His ten-painting suite on the operas of Richard Wagner was by Seattle’s Nordic Heritage Museum, which plans to add a new wing to the museum for permanent exhibition of this series of 67″ x 67″ works. Momen, who holds dual U.S. and Swedish citizenship, currently lives in Stockholm, Sweden, and frequently works in the U.S.A. at his studio.
The Art of Karl Momen – A Synthesis of Universal Proportions
What do music, the opera, modern art, and technology have in common? Perhaps more than you might think. All are ways in which we try to explain the world around us; all proceed by the spirit of genius that inspires innovation. And all have contributed to the complex worldview that underpins Karl Momen’s painting and sculpture -the subject of his 2009 retrospective at the esteemed Royal Academy of Arts in Stockholm. This is the first time that such a comprehensive body of Momen’s paintings and sculptures had been shown in one venue. Now in his 78th year, Momen’s prolific career has spanned over 40 years in Iran, Germany, Sweden, and the United States. This retrospective included works from public and private collections from as far afield as the Nordic Heritage Museum in the United States, to private collections in the Middle East. The Royal Academy was a fitting venue for this international artist who, more than five decades ago, chose to make Sweden his home.
Momen’s work has been exhibited widely in museums and galleries around the world, including solo exhibitions at such diverse locations as the Striped House in Tokyo (1985), and the Salt Lake Art Center in Salt Lake City (1985). He was thrice selected to be shown at the Biennale de Sculpture de Monte Carlo. Momen’s paintings and sculptures with their abstract geometric orbs, intersecting lines, and stylized organic forms are the result of a unique synthesis of Persian and Western worldviews; a potent mix that came to fruition in 1962 when Momen relocated to Sweden─a country known for its purity of design. Here he established himself, first as an award–winning architect, and then as an artist of resilience, with a doggedly idiosyncratic vision.
But who is this cosmopolitan itinerant once referred to by respected Swedish art critic Stig Johannsson as “a vagabond in the art world”? Karl Momen was born in Iran, of Russian and Persian heritage, during a period when Iran stood at the crossroads of Occidental and Western thought. Although raised in a large family and steeped in the rich cultural heritage of the ancient land of his birth, he received a Western education in literature, art, and architecture. He never married. During his early years growing up near the Russian border he was deeply influenced by the work of the Russian Constructivists and the Suprematists who were the first artists to explore pure geometric abstraction. As a teenager, Momen became a highly skilled portrait painter before moving to Germany where he studied art and architecture at the Stuttgart Art Academy.
It was here that he became acquainted with some of the most significant artists of the modernist movement in Europe. In end of the 1950 he became people of Max Ernst, one of the great masters of Surrealism. He also worked as an intern with Le Corbusier the foremost exponent of the International Style in architecture, later becoming a successful architect in his own right in Sweden. As the son of a designer and producer of fine Persian rugs, Momen was exposed at an early age to the bold colors and decorative designs of his father’s craft. His abiding interest in abstraction can be traced to his childhood art teacher, Yuri Popow, an early Russian avant-garde painter. In Popow’s studio the young Momen received his first exposure to the works of the Russian Constructivists: Malevich,
Tatlin, and El Lissitzky. At the time he did not understand their abstract compositions, but it was here that he resolved that one day he would. Momen’s images are a combination of Persian and Western perspectives; the quest for spiritual transcendence through contemplation of ideal form, grafted together with the modernist concern with formalism and the expressive intent of the artist. This confluence of modernist aesthetics and Middle Eastern spiritual currents imbue Momen’s geometric abstractions with an iconic character that is reinforced by their uncompromising frontality and by the metallic luster of carefully patterned brushstrokes.
Karl Momen’s work is rooted in the visual language of formalism, the aesthetic movement that dominated modernism after World War II. The notion of “significant form”, first advocated by British philosopher Clive Bell, finds new meaning in Momen’s sparse but scrupulously conceived compositions that balance simple geometric shapes within elegant figure-ground relationships. Momen’s vocabulary of circles, hemispheres, straight lines, and triangles are indicative of his early vocation as an architect. His deceptively simple compositions are enlivened by subtle gradations of color, vibrant hues, and palpable textures that serve as a counterpoint to their architectonic rigor.
Momen’s sculptures exemplify the notion of “truth to materials,” a guiding principle of the modernist aesthetic. His refined architectural sensibility charges his sculptural work with a keen sense of the corporeal, often resulting in monolithic forms of heroic proportions. The largest of his works is the Tree of Utah (1985) which has become a permanent feature in the Utah landscape, rising over 28 meters 87 feet above the barren Bonneville Salt Flats. Built at considerable personal expense, the “Tree” was a gift from Momen to the State of Utah.
This ambitious work has joined other works such as Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty in the Great Salt Lake, and Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels in the Utah desert as another significant example of land art with a strong environmental awareness.
However, Momen’s work rises above the soullessness of pure formalism. In spite of its abstraction, his art engages us because of the constant tension we find between the cool, rationally conceived compositions, and the dynamic colors and textures that enliven familiar shapes with the passion of a warm and humane spirit. Momen is ever cognizant of the viewer as a sentient being. His emphasis on balance, control, and craft is counterbalanced by the scintillating colors and textures of his compositions.
It was through his abiding love of the theatre and of classical music that he eventually discovered the sounding board of his true vision. In his Homage to William Shakespeare and Richard Wagner suites he was able to synthesize his passion for operatic and dramatic literature, with his love of the musical equivalent of these forms. It was here that Momen not only discovered a new iconography of formal elements, but he also discovered what he needed to say. His language became more passionate, touched by an ancient reverence for the world of mysticism that transformed stolid forms into universal signifiers for the human condition.
Early in his career Momen eschewed the mainstream of the progressive art movements of his day and chose to follow the impulse of his own artistic vision. Like Odysseus of old, he had been compelled to forsake his fellow travelers along the way. Many of his contemporaries had been consumed by their passion for short-lived art movements that gained currency by sheer promotional intent, having little substance other than the gloss of their popular appeal and their newness. Momen always remained true to himself. Just as Paul Cézanne once said “art is a harmony parallel to nature” so Momen created his own parallel universe of innovation —a world that continues to be amazingly resilient and yet invitingly familiar.
About the author:
Herman du Toit, Ph.D. is the former Head of Museum Research at Brigham Young University Museum of Art, Provo, Utah.