In 1974 Abby Weed Grey established the Grey Art Gallery at New York University both as a permanent home for her art collection and to promote international artistic exchange in an academic setting. The Abby Weed Grey Collection of Modern Asian and Middle Eastern Art at NYU comprises some 700 works produced by artists from countries as diverse as Japan, Thailand, India, Kashmir, Nepal, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, and Israel. Mrs. Grey’s vision was bold and simple: one world through art. Believing that art, as a universal language, could serve as a potent vehicle for knowledge, communication, and understanding, Mrs. Grey formed this unique and unusual collection while traveling in Asia and the Middle East in the 1960s and ’70s.
Born in 1902 in St. Paul, Minnesota, Abby Weed graduated from Vassar College in 1924 and married Benjamin Edwards Grey, a career army officer, in 1930. Mrs. Grey began collecting in earnest in 1960, following the death of her husband four years earlier. In 1961, after traveling around the world with a group of fourteen women, she created the Ben and Abby Grey Foundation in St. Paul in order to sponsor and encourage artists, and to purchase their works for exhibition. She realized early on that what interested her was not the traditionally or conventionally appealing, but, rather, responses “to a world both beautiful and ugly; works that were arresting and strange, demanding that, through art, I perceive and understand reality in a deeper way.” She explained, for instance, that while in India, “I didn’t look for miniaturists or gem setters; in Iran, I didn’t look for rugmakers. In many places, 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?’”
Mrs. Grey’s interest in the modern art of non-Western cultures has contributed significantly to a greater understanding of these largely understudied areas. Many of the collection’s works adapt indigenous aesthetic traditions to contemporary circumstances. Often they blend representation and abstraction. Practical necessity helped shape the selection of the small-scale prints, drawings, and paintings―along with “craft media” such as batik―that formed the core of Mrs. Grey’s growing collection of non-Western contemporary art, which she later supplemented with large-scale sculptures and mixed-media objects. With her collection, Mrs. Grey called for a more complex understanding of the development of contemporary art around the world, acknowledging local relationships to popular and folk forms as well as interactions with modernism.
Iranian, Indian, and Turkish holdings represent particular strengths of the collection, with works numbering 200, 175, and 95 respectively. Mrs. Grey’s engagement with the art and artists of Iran was especially impassioned, and her collection includes major works by the country’s most important artists active in the 1960s and ’70s, such as Parviz Tanavoli, Hossein Zenderoudi, and Faramarz Pilaram. Her first trip to Iran in 1960 coincided with the second national biennial of modern art held in Tehran, and she described the experience as “an eye-opener.” In her visits to artists’ studios—in Iran and elsewhere—she found what she was looking for: artists who were not just practicing age-old traditional arts, often geared for the tourist market, but instead those eager to break away from clichés and contribute to the changing world around them. Representing the largest grouping of contemporary Iranian works outside Iran, Mrs. Grey’s collection provides a unique resource for—as well as a record of— the history of modern Iranian art. Many works from the collection were featured in the groundbreaking exhibition “Between Word and Image: Modern Iranian Visual Culture,” mounted at the Grey Art Gallery in 2002, as well as the accompanying book, Picturing Iran: Art, Society, and Revolution, published by I.B. Tauris.
Not content only to collect, Mrs. Grey initiated a number of projects promoting cultural exchange. The “Minnesota Art Portfolio” (MAP) sent a selection of works on paper by contemporary Minnesota artists to Rome, Madrid, Athens, Turkey, and Iran, in order to allow artists living in those places to see actual artworks—as opposed to reproductions—by their American counterparts. Another project, “Communication through Art”―comprised of three exhibitions of American work―opened simultaneously in 1964 in Istanbul, Tehran, and Lahore, then traveled for five years in the Eastern Mediterranean, Asia, and East Africa. In 1972, Mrs. Grey realized her most ambitious project to date—a show entitled “One World Through Art,” consisting of 1,001 works (the number inspired by the classic Arabian tales), held at the Minnesota State Fair Grounds. She also arranged for international exchanges, enabling Iranian artists Parviz Tanavoli and Siah Armajani to spend time in Minnesota. With the aid of Tanavoli, she also established a bronze foundry at the University of Tehran where the sculptor, eager to retrieve an ancient Persian art form, taught upon his return from St. Paul to Iran.
In 1970 Mrs. Grey began viewing one of the first attempts to broadcast university-level courses on television. Called Sunrise Semester, the series appeared on CBS. Three mornings a week, at 6:00 am, NYU professor Peter Chelkowski lectured on Persian history. On one of Mrs. Grey’s periodic trips to New York to visit her brother, who was a pastor at St. Luke’s Chapel in Greenwich Village, she contacted Professor Chelkowski to discuss their shared enthusiasm for Persian culture. From this initial contact, a link was forged. With the inaugural show at the Grey Art Gallery in 1975, NYU was able to exhibit both the art it had acquired over the years and the modern Asian and Middle Eastern works received from the Grey Foundation.
Truly multicultural before her time, Abby Weed Grey actually achieved what she set out to do, not only encouraging and sponsoring contemporary artists, but also ensuring that their works would be seen and studied in the future. Set within NYU’s vibrant educational community, the Grey Art Gallery brings to fruition the artistic seeds Mrs. Grey planted with “MAP,” “Communication through Art,” and “One World Through Art.” Through both her remarkable collection of art and her personal archives, now preserved at NYU—which span the years 1922–1978 and document her world travels and ever-expanding interest in art—Mrs. Grey’s prescient vision of cross-cultural dialogue lives on, continuing to grow and thrive within New York University and beyond.
This overview derives from “Reflections on the Abby Grey Collection,” by Lynn Gumpert, Director of the Grey Art Gallery (in Picturing Iran: Art, Society and Revolution, London and New York: I.B. Tauris, 2002). It is adapted by Rory O’Dea, doctoral candidate, NYU Institute of Fine Arts, and Grey Art Gallery Graduate Assistant in 2004–5.