In the wake of India’s independence from British rule in 1947, the nation’s artists began experimenting with new approaches, boosting the development of modernist art in South Asia. Abby Weed Grey, founder of NYU’s fine arts museum, explored the vital art scenes that flourished in the decades following Indian independence. In 1960 she set off on her first trip around the world, intrigued by the thought of collecting modern art from non-Western countries. “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,” she noted in her memoir. In four trips to India during the 1960s, Mrs. Grey acquired works by members of the influential Progressive Artists Group, including M. F. Husain, F. N. Souza, and Ram Kumar, all of whom are represented here. She was also drawn to artists associated with the Baroda School, the Delhi Silpi Chakra (Delhi Sculptors’ Circle), Neo-Tantric art, and the Kala Bhavan art school of Santiniketan.
Mrs. Grey’s interests, aspirations, and vision are reflected not only in the works she collected, but also in the substantial documentation—including correspondence, catalogues, receipts, photographs, and artists’ letters—preserved in her papers, which she donated to NYU. In her extensive diaries, she wrote of wanting first and foremost to “do good.” As her involvement with global modernisms grew—informed in part by Cold War cultural diplomacy—she developed a personal philosophy of art as a form of trans-cultural communication, a universal language. When she established the Grey Art Gallery in 1974, Mrs. Grey donated her collection of nearly 800 artworks, more than 80 of which she had purchased during her travels in India. The exhibition spotlights Mrs. Grey’s pioneering efforts, presenting Indian modernism through the lens of her ardent engagement with the country and its art.