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Illustration Courtesy of the NYUAD Art Gallery.

Modernisms Exhibition Opens at The NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery

NYUAD Art Gallery’s Modernisms exhibition highlights the developments of modern art in Iran, Turkey and India through the Abby Weed Grey collection.

Dec 12, 2021

On Nov. 15, The NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery opened its doors to the public for its latest exhibition, Modernisms: Iranian, Turkish, and Indian Highlights from NYU’s Abby Weed Grey Collection.
This exhibition tells the story of Abby Weed Grey and her aspiration of creating one world through art 一 a story that began with the passing of her husband in 1956. Freshly widowed, Mrs. Grey inherited a sizable fortune. Intent on creating a meaningful impact with this wealth, she set her sights on her life’s next chapter: to collect and bring attention to contemporary non-Western art.
This began in March 1960, with her arrival in Tokyo and commencing the purchase of Japanese prints. Over the following two and a half months, she traveled to seven more countries in search of artists who were breaking from the past to cope with the present. In the subsequent few years, Mrs. Grey developed a fondness of the contemporary art scenes in India, Turkey and Iran, returning to each country several times.
Through the 1960s and early 1970s, she amassed a collection of nearly seven hundred pieces of Asian and Middle Eastern art. Intent on creating a permanent home for her art, she donated her collection in 1975 to help found The Grey Art Gallery, NYU’s first fine arts gallery.
The Modernisms exhibit in The NYUAD Art Gallery marks the first time the Abby Weed Grey collection is being showcased outside of the U.S. The exhibition is structured to give India, Iran and Turkey separate spaces to highlight their respective contemporary art scenes, with 25 to 30 pieces of artwork in each area of the gallery.
It is necessary to note, however, that the artwork on display is not necessarily indicative of the entire contemporary art scene in these respective countries. Rather, the collection is a reflection of what Mrs. Grey deemed valuable to collect, and as an American at the peak of the Cold War, political biases weighed heavily on her judgments.
Seen as at risk of “falling to communism” from the U.S. perspective, India, Iran and Turkey were treated with exceptional attention. Mrs. Grey personally involved herself in these efforts through soft diplomacy with these countries, assisting in projects like Communication Through Art, which displayed exhibits of American art in Lahore, Tehran and Istanbul. Thus, her collection reflects these aims, and the U.S.-supported style of abstraction was favored over the Soviet-supported style of realism.
In dialogue with Maya Allison, Executive Director and Chief Curator at The NYUAD Art Gallery, she further explained the context of the exhibit, acknowledging the pluralization of the exhibit title as multiple Modernisms, not a single Modernism.
“We can understand modern as the moment of global contact, not just contact with the West. So the modernism in European art happens in part because these artists are in dialogue with or responding to art from Africa in the case of Picasso, or Japan in the case of Matisse,” explained Allison.
“It's not simultaneous one giant modernism around the world, it's a modernisms [eruption]. What we identify as modern first of all should be questioned: how do you identify what modern even means?” Allison continued, “I think this is what the artists are grappling with in India, Iran and Turkey: connecting to their own culture, wanting to also push forward and be modern in whatever that means to them.”
Open to the public, the exhibition allows for direct engagement with the wider UAE community, and the setting of the exhibition in Abu Dhabi creates a unique context for dialogue between the community and the art. “Here, we have a lot more viewers who have direct experience of Indian culture, Turkish culture and Iranian culture, and whether they themselves are from that diaspora or ethnicity, or they just have more direct encounters with it, they're going to enter into a dialogue with the work with a different set of references,” Allison elaborated.
These unique perspectives and conversations are important to Allison. “I think that the most interesting moment when you're looking at art with another person is the conversation that it makes possible between the two people … each artwork is going to do that differently for different people.”
The exhibition runs until Feb. 5, and The Art Gallery hours are 12 to 8 p.m., Monday through Saturday, open to all those with a green Al Hosn. Tickets are free and pre-registration is encouraged but walk-ins are also welcomed.
Dylan Joseph Herman is a Staff Writer. Email him at
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