b. Tehran, Iran, 1922.
Born in 1921, Yektai began his studies in Tehran University’s Faculty of Fine Arts, but like a few other of his peers who form the core group of Iranian masters, decided to travel abroad and abandon his training half-way to live in France and the United States. He held his first solo show in 1951 in New York, and very quickly garnered acclaim in New York’s artistic circles. A few years later, he showed in other major American cities such as Washington DC, Chicago and Baltimore, and New York’s Museum of Modern Art bought one painting and two of his drawings. Yektai easily established himself amongst the leading artistic lights of that time, mingling with renowned Abstract Expressionists such as Rothko, De Kooning, and Pollock. Leo Castelli was a friend. This was all the more unusual as he was fundamentally a product of the Kamal al Mulk school with its excessive focus on Realism. He came from a background where he was encouraged to suspend creative thinking and innovation, and concentrate on accurate draughstmanship and reproduction.
Even in his early days in Iran, Yektai was exposed to the works of Van Gogh and the avant garde thinking of artists and writers such as Sepehri, Sadegh Hedayat and Shokuh Riazi. He learned that shadows could be purple, or trees red. It was then that he painted the world’s first red cucumber, breaking a mould that had for so long dominated Iranian fine arts. Yektai did not produce much work before his 30s, travelling from New York to Paris and back. But in New York the Abstract Expressionist movement and Action Painting left a strong impression on him. For the first time, artists were moving towards the properties of paint and their relationship on the canvas instead of solely addressing volume, perspective and space. For Yektai, it was colour that determined whether a flower declared its existence – he had cast aside lines and definitions.
Yektai was the first Iranian artist to utilise layered paint and impasto in the way that he did. He moved from the shackles of Kamal al Mulk’s fine paintbrush and minute strokes, to the speed and building power of the spatula or mallet. He used four types of spatula, using a narrow one for leaves or stems (which were often made abstract), a flat one for his white backgrounds, a lozenge-tipped one to harmonise the composition, and a spoon-like one for drip painting. His main aim was to give paint tangibility, almost treating it as a sculptor would, building his layers like clay. He has been known to substitute the builder’s spatula for a painter’s one because it had a more flexible end than the other allowing for a different manipulation of paint in constructing layers.