Sixty years ago, Abby Weed Grey began traveling to Iran, Turkey and northern India to collect art. A childless, recently widowed St. Paul housewife, she used her late husband’s small fortune to establish a foundation for “the encouragement of art through the assembling of international collections of art for cultural exchange programs.” Such a project may have been inspired by the tours of “New American Paintings” throughout Europe, sponsored by the CIA in the late 1950s. She focused on Middle Eastern artists who were “breaking with the past to cope with the present,” much like modern artists in Europe and America had been doing for half a century. It does not appear that she had any aesthetic or ideological requirements—except that, like the mainstream art world of her day and ours, she must have considered beauty, naturalism and idealism to be outdated relics from another era. You will not find representations of places you would like to visit, people you would like to know or many feelings you would like to share. In the work selected for this exhibition, contemporary life is more like a problem than an opportunity.
“One World Through Art,” the title of her comprehensive 1972 exhibition, suggests that she was more interested in national similarities than differences in her collection. It’s not surprising that the wife of a professional army officer in her era would advocate for international mutual understanding. It’s not difficult for us fifty years later to identify national differences—as suggested by the plurality in the title of this exhibition, “Modernisms.”
The Iranian artists tend to be the most conceptual. For many, especially Parviz Tanavoli, painting appears to have been a species of writing. Ernst Gombrich would have approved. Mostly in their twenties, these young Iranians echoed the then-ruling monarchy that sought to connect itself to ancient Persia. Not many years later, the 1979 revolution forced both the Shah-of-Shahs and most of these artists to flee the country. The Armenian, Marcos Grigorian, became one of the most celebrated of these refugees. You might not guess it from his modest pieces here, but he was a pioneer in land art; his work is in the permanent collections of both MOMA and the Met.
Self-discovery and spirituality are the soft-focus of the Indian artists in this exhibit. Among my favorites is the printmaker Krishna Reddy (1925-2018). His “Seed Pushing” has that seed-germ energy that Louis Sullivan exemplified in architectural ornamentation—yet it also presents a human torso—inviting the viewer to look inward. It’s only among Indian artists that explicit religious images can be found. Francis Newton Souza (1924-2002) was born to a Christian family in Goa, yet his depiction of three Hindu deities in “Trimurti” makes me wish that earlier Hindu artists might also have been familiar with Abstract Expression.
There are two kinds of Turkish artists in this exhibit: the well-born and those with a politically conscious, blue-collar background. Neither show much interest in the spiritual or intellectual concerns that engaged the artists mentioned above. The woodcuts of Nevzat Akoral (b. 1928) exemplify a gruff, unsentimental strain of social realism. Much different are the works of the painter-poet Bedri Eyübo?lu (1911-1975), the son of a provincial governor. Like so many young modern artists from around the world, he went to Paris and studied with André Lhote (as did the Chicagoans Leon and Sadie Garland). There’s a cheerfully immanent violence in his “Full Moon” that sets it apart from the color field paintings of his American contemporaries. Other favorites in the exhibition are the lithographs of Princess Fahrelnissa Zeid (1901-1991). The daughter of an Ottoman pasha and the wife of an Iraqi prince, her work has a riveting formal intensity and sensuality.
The exhibition catalog argues “for the importance of non-Western art as a component of modernity—and defies the long-held belief that other forms of modernism can only be second-rate.” Very little of the work in this collection, however, would substantiate such an assertion. The collector’s self-stated motivation was geo-political, not aesthetic. Most of the artists were associated with some local group of progressive artists, like Saqqakhana in Iran, Group D in Turkey or Delhi Silpi Chakra in India. Most pieces feel as tired, ordinary and hygienic as a faculty show at a community college. Indeed, many of the artists were teachers at the art schools visited by Mrs. Grey. Which is not to say that all these artists should be called second-rate. Much more promising examples of their work can often be found online, and a few have become quite collectible for public museums as well as individuals. Unlike a major museum, Mrs. Grey had neither the experience, inclination or possibly even the funds, to acquire the best examples.
Over the past decade, the Art Institute of Chicago has shown two twentieth-century artists from India, Rabindranath Tagore and M.F. Hussain (who also has a piece on view here). Modern art from Iran and Turkey has yet to appear. Perhaps this show is a step in that direction. All it really takes is the enthusiasm of one museum trustee—like Thomas J. Pritzker, who recently sponsored an exhibition of contemporary Chinese painting. (Chris Miller)
“Modernisms: Iranian, Turkish and Indian Highlights from NYU’s Abby Weed Grey Collection” is on view at the Block Museum, 40 Arts Circle Drive, through April 5.