New York CityGrey Art Galley
September 10 – December 7, 2019
Museums have become increasingly more critical and self-reflective in their collection-based shows and installations, including dealing with parts of their collections that have until now been relegated to storage. Although the Grey Art Gallery’s exhibition Modernisms: Iranian, Turkish, and Indian Highlights from NYU’s Abby Grey Collection, is certainly not the first time its rare collection of postwar art has been on view in recent years, the modern art of these three countries is shown together for the first time to acknowledge the foresight of its major benefactor, as well as founder of the museum, Abby Weed Grey (1902-1983).
Modernisms focuses on the period of the 1960s and 1970s when Grey traveled and assembled her collection of approximately 700 works from the Middle East and Asia (114 of which are on view), after which she established the Grey Art Gallery at New York University. Grey amassed about 200 works during her eight trips to Iran, about one hundred works from her four trips to Turkey, and eighty works from her four trips to India. Many of the artists in the show, such as Marcos Grigorian, Parviz Tanavoli, Füreya Koral, and M.F. Husain, are now important figures in the modern art of Iran, Turkey, and India; thus, it offers a rare opportunity to see some of their early works in person.
Divided into three parts by country, the rich range of paintings, print, and sculptural works in each section makes clear the extraordinary diversity of artists and artistic practices Grey encountered. In India alone, for instance, there are representative cubist and expressionist works of the Progressive Artists Group in Mumbai, like Francis Newton Souza’s explosive Trimurti (1971), the narrative and figurative art of the Baroda Group, and the abstract spiritualism of the Neo-Tantric group. The extensive individual labels chronicle the artists’ activities when Grey met them and also provide biographical sketches of their overall careers, revealing that the art she collected on her trips were made when they were emerging artists, many of whom were just in their 30s and 40s.
Although the focus is placed here on the collector’s travels, the labels also detail how several of the artists featured were part of an international cosmopolitanism, such as Krishen Khanna, who studied ink painting in Japan and whose personal interest in Abstract Expressionism is apparent in the large layered washes of his Vijay (1965), that was made when he lived and worked in New York. Krishna Reddy, whose work Grey first championed when he was twenty-eight years old, went on to study sculpture and printmaking in London and Paris and later was head of the printmaking department at New York University. Kamran Diba, also represented in the show, studied in D.C. at Howard University and now lives in France and Spain as a successful architect. The labels also convey how the artists Grey collected were active promoters of modern art in their home countries. In 1966, for instance, Diba established with Tanavoli and poet Roxana Saba the important artist-run space Rasht 29 in Tehran.
The accompanying cases of archival materials in each section display numerous correspondences, photographs, and exhibition catalogues documenting Grey’s engagement on the ground with these artists and galleries in Iran, Turkey, and India. Besides acquiring art through these shows and galleries, she helped support and at times organized shows, such as her support of the US participation in the first two India Triennales (1968, 1971), represented here through the exhibitions’ catalogues. She also brought to the U.S. exhibitions of Indian and Iranian artists in the 1960s, further suggesting Grey’s involvement in postwar cultural diplomacy that would have been interesting to further develop and historically contextualize.
More historical and social context of the three countries in the 1960s and 1970s would have helped better situate the show’s narrative by reflecting on the circumstances under which the artists were making these works and Grey was viewing them. Most of the works in the show are abstract, alluding to the taste of Grey as well as the burgeoning non-objective movements in these countries. The only painting in the show that directly references visually the political and social moment is Turkish painter Özer Kabaş’s 1969 painting, Merhaba, Mrs. Grey (Hello Mrs. Grey), We Are Just “Fine,” in the last room. It depicts a painter at his easel turned around to address the viewer; instead of a head a skull looks out at the viewer next to a speech bubble declaring the title.
Foreboding red dabs of acrylic paint punctuate the easel’s canvas and the paint palette the figure holds, in sharp contrast with the monochromatic pencil and pen drawing of the rest of the work. The circumstances of this startling work are not given, but its creation in 1969 likely references Turkey’s Bloody Sunday, a major counter-revolutionary attack on leftist protesters. Merhaba, Mrs. Grey stands out as the sole work in the show where the art references Grey, which makes one wonder what Grey’s relationship with the artists was. As the exhibition clearly demonstrates, as an art collector, patron, and commissioner she was a strong force in shaping and promoting at home and abroad the modern art of Iran, Turkey, and India more than her modest self-described “dyed-in-the-wool Midwesterner” persona claims.
Only by seeing the geographical breadth of the Grey collection together in Modernisms, and the variety of abstract works she collected in postwar Middle East and Asia, can one understand the enormity of her collecting endeavor. Because of the absence of contemporary art from Iran, Turkey, and India on the international market at the time, she committed herself to be on the ground. A sense of the important historical and social times of the 1960s and 1970s in which she and the artists were creating modern art together would have helped place her legacy in an even more critical perspective for today.