How an American woman built a unique collection of 1960s art from India, Iran and Turkey

Modernisms: Iranian, Turkish and Indian Highlights from NYU’s Abby Weed Grey Collection is on view in Abu Dhabi until February

At NYUAD Art Gallery, the three art histories of Iran, India and Turkey are drawn together by a rather unlikely character: an American woman named Abby Weed Grey. In the 1960s and 1970s, Grey travelled around the Middle East and Asia, and consequently built an art collection of more than 700 works that capture the development of modern art across geographies.

More than 100 of the most significant works from Grey’s collection are part of Modernisms: Iranian, Turkish, and Indian Highlights from NYU’s Abby Weed Grey Collection, on view at the university’s art gallery starting Monday. It is the first time that NYUAD Art Gallery is presenting a physical exhibition in the space since the pandemic.

In Modernisms, the story of Grey and glimpses of the modernist art movements in Iran, India and Turkey unfold in parallel, with the artworks displayed alongside archival documents and ephemera from the collector’s travels. The exhibition was first shown in New York City in 2019, and has also travelled to the Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. Initially meant to be exhibited in 2020, Modernisms had been postponed owing to the pandemic.

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It was more than the object, but the human connection
Maya Allison, chief curator and executive director of NYUAD Art Gallery

At its core, the show considers the role of the collector in shaping histories of art. Born in Minnesota in 1902, Grey studied at Vassar College in 1924 before marrying army officer Benjamin Edwards Grey four years later. He was 20 years her senior, and when he died in 1956, had left his wife with a sum of wealth from his investments. In 1960, Grey, along with 13 other women, embarked on a world tour that started in Iran. The trip, which coincided with the second national biennial of modern art in Tehran, would become a transformative experience for Grey, and in the decades that followed, she shaped her life’s purpose around art and cultural exchange.

“She started to think about collecting as being a meaningful use of her money, to invest in international dialogue through art. It wasn’t that she liked the act of buying. It was more than the object, but the human connection,” Maya Allison, chief curator and executive director of NYUAD Art Gallery, explains.

“So much of the narrative around collecting in the press is around the financials, investment or sales, but it’s not really why people collect. Many collectors have something deeper than money that pushes them,” she says. “For Grey, she was trying to place her [money] somewhere that could be used for learning about other cultures and histories over time. She had a vision for the collection.”

This vision translated to the foundation of the Grey Art Gallery at New York University in 1974. The art patron’s acquisitions are central to the gallery’s collection, which now numbers about 1,000 artworks. Collectively, they exist to promote scholarship around the artists and the contexts in which they operated. Modernisms demonstrates a culmination of Grey’s efforts in highlighting the artistic production of these periods, but also raises questions around the use of art in promoting national narratives.

The exhibition begins in India, where artists in the 1960s were responding to the country’s recent independence. Grey visited India four times and acquired 175 works during her travels. Though trained in western techniques, the artists of that period, including members of the radical Progressive Artists' Group, for example, navigated new ways of expression by blending elements of Indian iconography and religious symbols with western art styles, as seen in MF Husain’s Cubist-inspired Virgin Night (1964), which shows a mysterious woman, perhaps a goddess or other religious figure, smoking a hookah pipe, and FN Souza’s Trimurti (1971), a colourful vision of the Hindu gods Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva rendered in Expressionist style.

The next section, Iran, showcases works by the likes of Parviz Tanavoli, who became Grey’s closest contact (she also collected about 75 of his works) and who introduced her to a network of other artists. Grey’s collection focuses on members of the Saqqakhaneh group, which sought to reinterpret traditional Iranian imagery and motifs. Tanavoli is one of the best examples of the style, using the Persian word “heech” or “nothing” as a kind of form and expanding its concept towards the mystical and spiritual.

Artists Siah Armajani and Charles Hossein Zenderoudi were also using letterforms as aesthetic elements. The latter’s A Shower of Gold (1966) depicts letters wrestling and hooking into each other in a verdant flurry, while the former’s Calligraphy (1964) bears inscriptions of Persian poetry inked meticulously across the canvas.

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In her diaries, she writes that this is her poetry. The act of collecting is her creative act
Maya Allison

Iranian art features heavily in Grey’s collection, and it is also where the patron had collected the most works – 200 – and travelled to most often, around eight times. She was also involved in supporting artistic production there, establishing a bronze foundry at the University of Tehran with the help of Tanavoli.

Her connection to the country before the Iranian Revolution also captures a fascinating point in history, when borders between the US and Iran were still open to each other. Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who ruled Iran at the time, instrumentalised art and culture to showcase Iran’s acceptance of western modern attitudes.

Grey’s dedication to supporting artists was joined by a desire to promote cultural diplomacy, especially in light of the Cold War, when the US sought to forge political alliances around the world, including Iran, Turkey and India, through art and culture. Some of the cross-cultural exhibitions organised by Grey were made possible through her connections with governments, as well as US consular staff. One of the archival displays in the show – a photograph of Grey with Tanavoli and Queen Farah Pahlavi, who was married to the last Shah of Iran – shows that she had gained the attention of the ruling classes.

But her choices in her collecting weren’t entirely determined by politics. On a broader level, Grey believed in art’s possibilities, rather idealistically, to foster unity. Following her phrase “one world through art”, she sought artists who were living and responding to their present. As Allison describes it, she played the role's “curator”, “art presenter” and a “promoter of dialogue”.

“She was collecting people who were working with references from their own cultural history, but in a modern format,” Allison says. “These artists weren’t famous, so for her, collecting wasn’t about profile-building in her own circles, but something else. In her diaries, she writes that this is her poetry. The act of collecting is her creative act.”

Modernisms’ final section focuses on Turkey, and offers a look into a period of artistic production not often seen in the UAE. Among the highlights are works by female artists such as Fahrelnissa Zeid, whose lithographs Composition in Red and Blue are rich with abstract forms and colour. Shown alongside her is Fureya Koral’s Hittite Sun (1956), a sketch for an installation of ceramic pieces. The title refers to an ancient Anatolian people who ruled parts of modern Turkey, a point of history that gained public interest as the country was establishing its republic.

Grey collected a total of 95 artworks from Turkey, where she had travelled four times.

Allison points out that the artists in the section trace how they dealt with issues of identity as these states were in transition. “The story of art in Turkey in the early part of the 20th century became a narrative of Turkish national identity, and a lot of the art was pitched towards that, but was also a growing rebellion against it,” she says, citing Ercument Kalmik as a transitional figure who produced figurative, and later on, abstract works that drifted away from depicting straightforward, quaint symbols.

Meanwhile, paintings by Ozer Kabas show the tension between the old and the new. In Exile (1968), a man with a fez, part of the traditional Ottoman attire, hunches grimly as a ship with the flag of the Turkish Republic sails in the background. In the 1960s, following Turkey’s membership to the Council of Europe in 1950, the country’s path towards a multiparty democracy was thwarted many times by coups and military interventions.

Such historical backdrops are part of Grey’s collection, should viewers seek to learn them, with art, politics and social movements intertwined in the stories of the works. The possibilities of art opening up new paths to knowledge and understanding is exactly what Grey had intended, the main driving force that led her to bring her collection to an educational institution.

“She saw the role that art could play in helping students see the world from more cultural perspectives. It’s a vision shared by the university, which has a truly global campus,” Allison explains. “Art allows you to see the world through multiple lenses.”

Grey had also chosen a multitude of styles, and at times, returned to the same artists at different points in their career, tracing their development along the way. Modernisms at NYUAD Art Gallery reflects the impact of patrons on building and preserving art narratives, but also how artists themselves have often acted as unique historians of their time.

Modernisms: Iranian, Turkish, and Indian Highlights from NYU’s Abby Weed Grey Collection is on view until February 2. More information is at nyuad-artgallery.org

Updated: November 16th 2021, 3:09 AM