A singular vision: more than one style of modernism

Prabhakar Barwe, King and Queen of Spades (1967)

Cultural exchange’ might be an overused phrase these days, but there’s no denying its value – sharing ideas, traditions, knowledge, behaviours from a background completely different to your own is the essence of intellectual openness. And no, you don’t have to lose any of your personal or cultural identity in that process; indeed, you can add to them.

The exhibition that marks the reopening of The NYUAD Art Gallery to in-person visits on 15 November summarises what’s possible, not least because it’s the work of one woman who found herself embracing cultural exchange at a time when it was not at all fashionable.

It’s also a significant show for the gallery. Typically The NYUAD Art Gallery puts on only three exhibitions each year, so it’s important that they should be substantial contributions to the gallery’s ethos. As Maya Allison, Executive Director and Chief Curator at the gallery, puts it: “the visit of this exhibition allows us to continue our investigation of ideas at work in art, across time and place, in dialogue with our audience in the UAE” – what she also calls “international artistic exchange in an academic setting”. And that’s the principle behind the Abby Weed Gray Collection.

When her husband died in the mid 1950s, Abby Weed Grey found herself a wealthy woman. Her late husband Ben had invested their savings assiduously in Western railroad stocks and bonds; somewhat to her surprise she had a fortune of $1.5 million, worth well over $10 million today.

She used it well.

Abby Weed Grey described herself as a “dyed-in-the-wool Midwesterner”, born and raised in St. Paul, Minnesota. You might think that this might imply an inward looking conservatism; but Abby Weed Gray spent her later years travelling in the Middle East and India, meeting and befriending artists, and amassing one of the most impressive collections of modern art from Iran, Turkey and India – marked in hand on a map of her travels as her favourite destinations. (The Grey Art Gallery at NYU, of which more later, has produced a good survey of her travels and examples of what she bought where.)

In the 1960s and 70s, this was pretty radical. Not many American collectors were acquiring works from these places, and not many were making the connection between similar art movements and similar stylistic departures in different parts of the world. Abby Grey did; she believed enthusiastically in what she called “one world through art,” the ability of art to to stimulate dialogues between people of different cultures – we may not share the same verbal language, but what we see and how we react to it can be universal.

She was prepared to put her money into this principle. As well as buying art in situ, she was also committed to curating. In the early 60s she established the Minnesota Art Portfolio, a touring exhibition of work by US artists that travelled throughout the Middle East and the Mediterranean for two years. The idea was to let local artists there see original works by their Western counterparts; it was all of a part with her vision of dialogue through art. She also funded tours of America for Iranian and Turkish art; and going the other way were exhibitions of American work (under the commendably explicit title Communication through Art) which travelled for five years in the eastern Mediterranean, Asia, and eastern Africa.

And the 1972 exhibition One World Through Art at the Minnesota State Fair Grounds showed a thousand and one works from Mrs Grey’s collection.

As that suggests, she had a lot of art and she started looking for a place to house it and share it with other people. Eventually she chose New York University (partly because it gave her the flexibility that she wanted, partly because she had been impressed by an early morning TV series on Persian civilisation presented by NYU); and with the help of a million dollar donation from the Ben and Abby Grey Foundation, the Grey Art Gallery and Study Center was opened at NYU in the spring of 1975.

Now its sister institution in Abu Dhabi gets to see something of the story. ‘Modernisms: Iranian, Turkish, and Indian Highlights from NYU’s Abby Weed Grey Collection’ may be be an uncomfortably long title for an art exhibition, but it has the inestimable merit of accuracy. This show doesn’t of course include everything from the Abbey Weed Grey collection – over 100 works are being shown in Abu Dhabi – but this is the first time that many of them have been seen together outside Washington Square.

And there’s no denying that there are different forms of modernism, especially in Iran, India and Turkey. “These regions each had their own engagement with key issues of modernity,” notes Maya Allison, “and as art historians have begun to establish, there have been many ‘modernisms’”.

At the same time there is a thematic thread to these works: how can an artist make art that breaks with the restrictions of tradition while respecting and reflecting a sense of heritage and national identity?

Abby Weed Gray had a very good eye for art – and for artists, many of whom became friends.

One was the artist-sculptor Parviz Tanavoli, perhaps the most famous living artist from Iran; she met him in 1961, they became close (below is Abby Weed Grey with Tanavoli at the opening of a sculpture exhibition at Tehran University in May 1967), he advised her on what to buy, and the Grey Foundation funded him as a visiting artist at the Minneapolis School of Art.

The Grey Art Gallery’s holdings of modern Iranian art run to nearly 200 works, the largest component of Abby Grey’s collection. She particularly embraced the Saqqakhaneh school – Tanavoli, Faramarz Pilaram, Charles-Hossein Zenderoudi, and their peers who sought to reinterpret Iran’s rich traditions of calligraphy, architecture, ornamentation and Shiite iconography in contemporary idioms.

It wasn’t just Saqqakhaneh works that Mrs Grey acquired. The collection has works by many other Iranian artists, among them Siah Armajani, Jamal Bakhshpour, Marcos Grigorian, and the pre-revolution art of the reformist politician Mir-Hossein Mousavi Khameneh. There’s also a floral monotype by Monir Farmanfarmaian – Abby Grey was happy to collect prints as well as one-off paintings and 3D work.

Her four visits to Turkey in the 1960s resulted in a lifelong fascination with Turkish modernism. Ultimately she purchased nearly 110 works from Istanbul’s modernist visionaries, artists who shared who also sought to find a way of making art that would embody both a national consciousness and international awareness.

Abindin Eldergolu found it in an abstract calligraphy; Fahrelnissa Zeid looked to another kind of Turkish heritage, the geometric and curvilinear forms of Turkish ornamentation and architecture which she incorporated into her often recondite images. An alternative point of access was Turkey’s rich pastoral life, embraced by artists like Bedri Rahmi Eyüboğlu and Nevzat Akoral but with an overlay of the mid 20th-century processes of migration and urbanisation.

India was the other hotbed of artistic innovation that attracted Abby Grey. She collected some 80 pieces, described by the poet, critic and curator Ranjit Hoskote as a “unique group of works [that] embraces the diversity of artistic explorations, cultural alignments, and ideological perspectives that animated the Indian art scene as it unfolded between the 1940s and 1960s.”

Several of the works she acquired were by members of the influential Progressive Artists Group, which broke away from the traditional Indian nationalist art movement to form an avant-garde collective that looked outward to other cultures and embraced the hybridity that distinguishes most of Abby Grey’s collection. So PAG founder Francis Newton Souza often combined Hindu and Catholic iconography with deconstructed human forms; Maqbool Fida Husain went further, with bold, vibrantly coloured narrative paintings in a modified Cubist style that blended expressionism with traditional Indian iconography. Similarly Prabhakar Barwe combined Tantric styles with abstract symbolism clearly inspired by Paul Klee.

“Abby Weed Grey’s mission unwittingly foreshadowed the founding vision of NYU Abu Dhabi,” says Maya Allison. “Bringing this exhibition here continues and expands the conversations Grey helped to begin.”

Abby Weed Grey died in St Paul at the age of 80. Her vision was bold and farsighted but really quite simple – art is a universal language that can serve as a potent vehicle for knowledge, communication, and understanding. And more importantly she had identified the fertile soil of cultural hybridity, of young artists looking for a way to use the stylistic directions of international art movements to make art that spoke to the traditions and the future of their own countries.

As she said of her travels: “I didn’t know where to look or exactly what to look for, but whatever it was going to be, it had to express the response of a contemporary sensibility to contemporary circumstances. In every country, I asked ‘Where are your working artists? What are they doing? How are they breaking with the past to cope with the present?’”

Modernisms: Iranian, Turkish, and Indian Highlights from NYU’s Abby Weed Grey Collection was curated by Lynn Gumpert, the Director of the Grey Art Gallery. The accompanying book delves into the histories of the collector and the region, and an array of scholars explore the questions raised by the exhibition. The exhibition opens on 15 November and runs to 5 February next year; visits are free but require a prebooked ticket.

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