The West doesn’t have a monopoly on the modern.
That’s the insistent, even defiant, message of some 25 striking Iranian works on display at the Grey Art Gallery this fall, where calligraphic letters and poetic fragments, drained of meaning, swim on canvasses as if in a sea of alphabet soup, bits of latticed grillwork and other elements from traditional Islamic architecture lie in a jumble, and holy Shi’ite symbols and icons are reduced to their basic shapes—emptied of religious significance.
These paintings, drawings, sculptures, and jewelry pieces date from a time of blossoming creativity during the decades leading up to the1979 Revolution, when a rapidly modernizing Iran was in the midst of tremendous political, economic, and social change. The arts flourished there during this period with the founding of the Shiraz Arts Festival, which drew international talent such as Peter Brook and Ravi Shankar for 11 summers. The inauguration of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art in 1977 brought modernist works from around the world, and Iranian visual artists, many of whom had studied in the West, turned to centuries of Persian heritage to create a politically frank modernism all their own. Art critic Karim Emami took note of their new visual language, coining the term saqqakhaneh art to characterize works that drew on traditional Shi’ite structures.
The pieces in this small Grey Art Gallery show are relics from a pre-Revolutionary era in which art by the Iranian avant-garde moved freely throughout the world’s galleries—in contrast to today, when political sanctions all but prevent Iranian and American museums from lending each other works. Together, they make up a mere fraction of the Grey Art Gallery’s complete collection of modern Iranian art, which is the world’s largest outside of Tehran.
How they got here, Grey Art Gallery director Lynn Gumpert explains, is the stuff of University legend.
“It essentially started with a cold call in the early 1970s,” she explains, from Abby Weed Grey. The Minnesota widow had begun collecting art after her husband’s death, and, by 1967, had amassed the largest assortment of Iranian modern art outside of Iran. After falling in love with the scene in Tehran on the first of many visits, Mrs. Grey had become close with a number of Iranian artists, some of whom spent time in residencies and fellowships she helped arrange for them in the Twin Cities.
Now she was looking for somewhere to house her treasures—and she’d gotten to know NYU, as the story goes, by watching Sunrise Semester, an early effort at educational TV that offered college-level courses on CBS. “Mrs. Grey rose early in St. Paul,” Gumpert says, and watched Sunrise Semester beginning at 6 am. Two of her favorite lecturers were Peter Chelkowski, an NYU Middle Eastern and Islamic studies professor who taught Persian history on the show, and NYU art history professor Ruth Bowman. Mrs. Grey called Chelkowski, and one thing led to another: In 1975, she donated most of her nearly 700 works of modern Asian and Middle Eastern art to NYU and endowed the Grey Art Gallery to house them. Bowman became the museum’s first curator.
In 2002, the Grey Art Gallery presented works from the Iranian collection in Between Word and Image: Modern Iranian Visual Culture, a landmark exhibition that brought together fine art, posters, and photographs from around the time of the 1979 Revolution. More than a decade later, this smaller show complements Asia Society’s concurrent Iran Modern, a two-floor exhibition for which NYU has loaned several of the Grey Art Gallery works and letters from the pioneering Mrs. Grey to her beloved artists.
“Abby Weed Grey was truly ahead of her time,” Gumpert says. “She was really one of the first Westerners to go and seek out artists in Iran.” That a major show like Iran Modern exists today is a testament to her belief that art was a universal language that could speak across continents. Her motto, as touching as it is perhaps naïve, was “one world through art.”
A handful of highlights from Modern Iranian Art: Selections from the Abby Weed Grey Collection at NYU, which runs through December 7, appear in the slideshow above.