New York City is filled with big, flashy museums: the Guggenheim is known for its circular building by Frank Lloyd Wright; the Metropolitan Museum of Art now spans 2.2 million square feet; the Museum of Modern Art recently expanded for the third time to a massive total of 708,000 square feet. However, perhaps it is not the biggest museum that is the best, but the small, unique galleries that tell the story of one innovative individual. This is the story of the Grey Art Gallery at New York University in New York City.
The Grey Art Gallery owes its name to Abby Weed Grey, a world traveler, and art collector. Abby began collecting in 1960, largely gathering works of art from her travels. Although the collection has more than 700 works coming from regions all across the Asian continent, the emphasis of the collection is on works from Iran, India, and Turkey, which were Grey’s favorite places to travel. In 1974, Abby donated her collection to NYU, leading to the opening of the Grey Art Gallery. (You can read more about Abby Weed Grey here: https://greyartgallery.nyu.edu/2016/05/abby-weed-grey-collection-modern-asian-middle-eastern-art/) Now, NYU faculty, staff, and students can visit the gallery for free, and all other guests can visit for a suggested $5 donation. Closed Sunday and Monday, the gallery is open Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays from 11-6; Saturdays from 11-5; and Wednesdays from 11-5. More information about visiting the Grey Art Gallery can be found here: https://greyartgallery.nyu.edu/visithoursanddirections/.
I recently visited the Grey Art Gallery to see Modernisms: Iranian, Turkish, and Indian Highlights from NYU’s Abby Weed Grey Collection. This is the first time that many of these works have been shown together since they were first donated to NYU in the 1970s. Modernisms is divided into three different geographic regions: India; Iran; and Turkey. This particular curatorial format allows viewers to see how different modernisms develop within the region, before comparing across the regions. A close read of the labels also shows new details about key artists from this period, and how they interacted with each other. These larger interactions are also informed by Abby’s larger collecting practices.
My particular favorite is Abby’s collection of Iranian modernism that is highlighted within Modernisms. There are many gorgeous works by key figures such as Charles Hossein Zenderoudi, Kamran Diban, and Parviz Tanavoli. I have always been a big fan of Tanavoli’s work (shown here), especially his infamous Heech sculptures. Most museums show Tanavoli’s sculptures by themselves, and not in conversation with other paintings or drawings. At the Grey, you can not only see Tanavoli’s paintings alongside his sculptures, but you can also see the full range of Iranian modernism across different media.
Because of the Grey Gallery’s intimate size and unique location, visitors have plenty of time and space to enjoy the works of art in a more engaging context than one could typically see in a larger museum. The works have space to breathe, and viewers have time to look closely and contemplate. The Grey Gallery hosts three shows a year, both those curated by the gallery’s team, and by other institutions that the Grey hosts. Next up at the Grey will be Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950s-1980s, which is curated by and features work from the Barjeel Art Foundation. There is always something new to see at the Grey. When you’re finished with your time at the gallery, you can walk outside, and take a great walk through Washington Square Park!
The next time you’re in New York, make sure you stop by the Grey Art Gallery, a unique space that proves that in an era of mega-museums, that bigger is not always better.
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Rachel Winter is a third-year Ph.D. student at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) researching contemporary artists from the Arab World, Iran, and Turkey that are prominently featured in major museums post-9/11. Her dissertation examines the relatively unknown history of curating and collecting contemporary art from the Arab world, Iran, and Turkey before 9/11 in both the US and the UK. Rachel received her M.A. from the University of Iowa in Interdisciplinary Studies: Islamic & Middle Eastern Studies in 2017, where she also received an award for Outstanding Graduate Student in Islamic Studies; in 2015, Rachel also received her B.A. with honors in Art History from the University of Iowa.