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

At the NYUAD Art Gallery, the three art histories of Iran, India and Turkey are brought together by a rather unlikely character: an American named Abby Weed Gray. In the 1960s and 1970s, Gray traveled to the Middle East and Asia and as a result built an art collection of over 700 works that capture the development of modern art across the regions.

Over 100 of the most significant works in Grey’s collection are part of Modernisms: Iranian, Turkish and Indian Highlights from NYU’s Abby Weed Gray Collection, on display at the university’s art gallery from Monday. This is the first time that the NYUAD Art Gallery has presented a physical exhibition in space since the pandemic.

In Modernisms, Gray’s story and glimpses of Modernist art movements in Iran, India, and Turkey run parallel, with works of art on display alongside archival records and ephemera from the collector’s travels. . The exhibition first premiered in New York in 2019 and was also shown at the Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. Originally slated for display in 2020, Modernisms had been postponed due to the pandemic.

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 exhibition considers the role of the collector in the formation of the history of art. Born in Minnesota in 1902, Gray attended Vassar College in 1924 before marrying Army Officer Benjamin Edwards Gray four years later. He was 20 years his senior and, when he died in 1956, had left his wife a sum of money from his investments. In 1960, Gray, along with 13 other women, embarked on a world tour which began in Iran. The trip, which coincided with the second National Modern Art Biennale in Tehran, would become a transformative experience for Gray, and in the decades that followed, she shaped her life purpose around art and cultural exchange. .

“She began to see the collection as 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, ”says Maya Allison, chief curator and executive director of the NYUAD Art Gallery.

“A lot of the story around the collection in the press is about finances, investing or selling, but that’s not really what people collect. Many collectors have something deeper than money that drives them, ”she says. “For Gray, she was trying to place her [money] somewhere that could be used to learn about other cultures and stories over time. She had a vision for the collection.

This vision was reflected in the founding of the Gray Art Gallery at New York University in 1974. The patron’s acquisitions are at the heart of the gallery’s collection, which today numbers around 1,000 works. Collectively, they exist to promote scholarship around the artists and the contexts in which they have operated. Modernisms is the culmination of Grey’s efforts to shine a light on the artistic production of these periods, but also raises questions about the use of art in promoting national narratives.

The exhibition begins in India, where artists of the 1960s were reacting to the country’s recent independence. Gray visited India four times and acquired 175 works during his travels. Although trained in Western techniques, artists of this period, including members of the radical Progressive Artists’ Group, for example, navigated new means of expression by mixing elements of Indian iconography and religious symbols with the Western artistic styles, as seen in MF Husain’s Cubist -inspired Virgin night (1964), which shows a mysterious woman, possibly a goddess or other religious figure, smoking a hookah, and the FN Souza film Trimurti (1971), a colorful vision of the Hindu gods Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva rendered in an expressionist style.

The next section, Iran, features works by Parviz Tanavoli, who became Gray’s closest contact (she also collected around 75 of her works) and 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 extending its concept to the mystical and the spiritual.

Artists Siah Armajani and Charles Hossein Zenderoudi also used letters as aesthetic elements. that of the latter A rain of gold (1966) depicts letters struggling and clinging to each other in a swirl of greenery, while the first Calligraphy (1964) bears inscriptions of Persian poetry meticulously inked on the canvas.

In her diaries, she writes that it is her poetry. The act of collecting is his creative act

Maya allison

Iranian art features prominently in Grey’s collection, and this is also where the patron has collected the most work – 200 – and visited most often, about eight times. She also got involved in supporting artistic production there, setting up a bronze foundry at the University of Tehran with help from Tanavoli.

His connection to the country before the Iranian revolution also captures a fascinating moment in history, when the borders between the United States and Iran were still open to each other. Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who ruled Iran at the time, instrumentalized art and culture to show Iran’s acceptance of modern Western attitudes.

Gray’s dedication to supporting artists was accompanied by a desire to promote cultural diplomacy, especially in light of the Cold War, when the United States sought to forge political alliances across the world, including including Iran, Turkey and India, through art and culture. Some of the cross-cultural exhibitions hosted by Gray have been made possible through his relationships with governments, as well as with US consular staff. One of the show’s archival exhibits – a photograph of Gray with Tanavoli and Queen Farah Pahlavi, who was married to the last Shah of Iran – shows that it caught the attention of the ruling classes.


But his choices in his collection were not entirely determined by politics. On a larger level, Gray believed in the possibilities of art, rather idealistically, to foster unity. Following her phrase “a world through art”, she sought out artists who lived and responded to their present. As Allison describes it, she has played the roles of “curator”, “art presenter” and “dialogue promoter”.

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

The final section of Modernisms focuses on Turkey and offers an insight into a period of artistic production rarely seen in the United Arab Emirates. Highlights include works by female artists such as Fahrelnissa Zeid, whose lithographs Composition in red and blue are rich in abstract shapes and colors. Shown by his side is Fureya Koral 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 in history that garnered public interest as the country established its republic.

Gray collected a total of 95 works of art from Turkey, where she had traveled four times.

Allison points out that the artists in the section track how they handled identity issues as these states were in transition. “The history of art in Turkey in the early twentieth century became a narrative of Turkish national identity, and much of the art was geared towards this, but was also a growing rebellion against it,” says she, citing Ercument Kalmik. as a transitional figure who produced figurative and later abstract works that move away from the representation of simple and picturesque symbols.

Meanwhile, Ozer Kabas’s paintings show the tension between the old and the new. In Exile (1968), a man with a fez, part of traditional Ottoman attire, ominously leans down as a ship with the flag of the Turkish Republic sails in the background. In the 1960s, following Turkey’s accession to the Council of Europe in 1950, the country’s path to multi-party democracy was repeatedly hampered by coups and military intervention.

These historic backdrops are part of Grey’s collection, if viewers are looking to learn them, with art, politics and social movements interwoven into the stories of the works. The possibilities of art opening up new avenues to knowledge and understanding are exactly what Gray had foreseen, the main driving force that led her to bring her collection to an educational institution.

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

Gray had also chosen a multitude of styles and at times returned to the same artists at different points in their careers, tracing their development along the way. The modernisms of the NYUAD Art Gallery reflect the impact of patrons on the construction and preservation of art narratives, but also the way in which the artists themselves often acted as unique historians of their time.

Modernisms: Iranian, Turkish and Indian highlights from NYU’s Abby Weed Gray collection are on view until February 2. More information on

Updated: November 16, 2021, 3:09 am

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