The Grey Art Gallery, New York University’s museum, houses an unparalleled collection of modern Asian and Middle Eastern art. The very first exhibition to combine paintings, sculptures, prints, and drawings from the 1960s and early ’70s from Iran, Turkey, and India, Modernisms sheds new light on how artists drew inspiration from their respective heritages while also engaging in global discourses around key issues of modernity.
At a time when few Americans were attuned to contemporary art from the Middle East and Asia, Abby Weed Grey (1902–1983) assembled a collection of some 700 works. Born in St. Paul, Minnesota, she graduated from Vassar College in 1924 and, at the age of 27, married Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin Grey. Mrs. Grey spent the next twenty-seven years as an army wife, traveling across the country while her husband, without her knowledge, invested in railroad stocks and bonds. Upon his death in 1956, she moved back to St. Paul with a sizeable inheritance. Feeling a responsibility to use her fortune wisely, she established the Ben and Abby Grey Foundation in 1961 with the express purpose of collecting art from non-Western countries.
Beginning in 1960, this self-described “dyed-in-the-wool Midwesterner” traveled the world over the next thirteen years. She firmly believed in art’s power to stimulate dialogue between people, and she formulated the notion of “one world through art.” This aspiration coincided with a moment when, in response to shifting Cold War dynamics, the U.S. was actively engaged in cultural diplomacy and fostering international exchanges. Mrs. Grey’s mission was, however, also personal. Looking back in 1980, she reflected in her diary: “I wanted to know artists . . . because I thought they were motivated by the same impulses as I—the need to make something out of their life experiences and pass it along to others.”
Mrs. Grey would eventually make eight trips to Iran and four trips each to Turkey and India. In Iran, she gravitated toward artists who referenced poetry, calligraphy, and Shi’ite iconography as they were grappling with how to reconcile their contemporary sensibilities with their Persian and Islamic roots. Visiting Turkey amid a decade of political and social upheaval, she encountered artists who sought to cast off earlier Western-inflected styles and reinvent their young nation via new, modern aesthetics. In India, she explored a multitude of art scenes that emerged in the decades following independence. She also furthered cross-cultural exchange by organizing some of the first circulating exhibitions of contemporary Iranian and Turkish art and, in 1968, by supporting the First India Triennale.
In 1974, Mrs. Grey established the Grey Art Gallery at NYU. Her vision is reflected not only in the works of art she amassed, but also in the substantial documentation—including artists’ letters and other correspondence, photographs, catalogues, and gallery receipts—that now comprise the Abby Weed Grey Papers in the NYU Archives. Happily, Mrs. Grey ultimately succeeded in her mission—not only to support contemporary, non-Western artists but also to make their works available to scholars, students, and others who will learn from them and help propel her extraordinary project into the future.