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Multicultural Modernism

NYU’s Grey Art Gallery opens up new perspectives on 20th-century art from India, Iran, and Turkey.

Prabhakar Barwe, King and Queen of Spades, 1967

Prabhakar Barwe, King and Queen of Spades, 1967, oil and paper on
canvas, 39 3⁄16 x 54 1⁄8 in.

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From September 10 through December 7, the Grey Art Gallery at New York University is presenting a far-reaching view of modernism, one that extends beyond the popular Eurocentric view of 20th century art. In “Modernisms: Iranian, Turkish, and Indian Highlights from NYU’s Abby Weed Grey Collection,” each country will be represented by 30 to 40 works drawn from this invaluable collection, which represents one of the largest institutional holdings of fine art from these countries. Its cache of Indian modern art ranks as one of the foremost holdings by an American university museum.

The collection was assembled by its namesake, Abby Weed Grey, a native Minnesotan who subscribed to a “one world through art” philosophy. In Grey’s view, works of art could foster cross-cultural dialogue. Her focus on modern work evinces a desire not to flatten cultural differences but instead to comprehend the contemporary world through a multiplicity of cultural, national, and individual artistic perspectives. In 1975, after years of travel and acquisition, Grey donated her collection to NYU.

The gallery has exhibited works from the Grey collection before. Previous shows have largely stayed within the boundaries of national identity, particularly Iranian. With “Modernisms,” however, the gallery is creating a more expressly cross-cultural dialogue within its walls. Modern works from Iran, Turkey, and India will hang side by side, evoking in real space Grey’s original mission. Along with facilitating this dialogic end, the show also hopes to serve as a corrective to long-held Eurocentric views on modernism. By presenting the modern work of three culturally distinct countries, modernism is reinterpreted not as a particular, localized (Western) cultural event, but, in Grey’s words, as a “response of a contemporary sensibility to contemporary circumstances.” Through this lens, modernism becomes a much more fluid effect of responsiveness to the contemporary world, no matter where or how it may occur.

Iran, Turkey, and India each experienced the emergence of modernity in a particular way, and this, in turn, engendered particular responses in culture, politics, and fine art. India’s modernity is inflected by its colonial legacy, and Iran’s encounter with modernism witnessed the passing of two ruling dynasties (the Qajar and the Pahlavi), on the road to revolution and the establishment of the current Islamic Republic. Both countries’ pasts played different but integral roles in their respective quests for national identity during modernization. In India, the emergence of a national identity was based in an active rejection of key parts of the past in favor of secularism and rationality, and in Iran, the sense of national identity was galvanized by the country’s rich Persian past. These divergent but critical relationships to history led to unique responses on canvas and in sculpture.

With this in mind, the responses visitors will encounter in “Modernisms” are varied, dramatic, and insightful. Indian artist Prabhakar Barwe’s 1967 oil and paper on canvas painting King and Queen of Spades uses playing cards to present a clever modern take on India’s tradition of Tantric painting. By inserting a simple, outside element (playing cards) into his diagramatic composition, Bawre disrupts the closed esoteric symbolism of tantra in order to draw our attention to its presence in the familiar. King and Queen of Spades also serves as a historical riff of sorts, taking the king’s central place in medieval mandalas, which served as aids to meditation but also as reflections of the feudal structure, quite literally.

Fellow Indian painter and founding member of the Bombay Progressive Artist’s Group (a group of Indian artists who sought to establish an Indian avant garde shortly after the partition of India in 1947), M.F. Husain, more clearly embraced Western strains of modernism, as his 1964 oil on canvas Virgin Night proves. The figurative painting of a woman finds a powerful meeting place between Cubism and primitivism. The woman’s long face is totemic and ghostly, and her body is formed from geometric blocks of color. The complete effect arrives somewhere at the edge of abstraction. Husain remains in control, however, suggesting just enough to convey the presence of both subject and paint. Husain’s whimsical 1967 film Through the Eyes of a Painter offers a succint expression of his approach, one that transposed Western modernist ways of seeing into new contexts with new subjects. In the film, the world is deconstructed into the fragmentary details a painter might focus on, and these details in turn become sketches. The India that the film captures doesn’t resemble what most would consider modern, but the artist’s approach to seeing and representing it clearly does.

Iranian art represents the largest component of the Grey collection, and the 1962 oil on canvas Prayer for the Sun, by the prolific architect and artist Siah Armajani, is one of its most haunting and mysterious works. Armajani was born in Tehran and immigrated to the U.S. in 1960. Prayer for the Sun seems to convey a sense of uneasiness. Two ovals sit side by side in a sea of dark blue. The painting, while abstract, is composed like a portrait. What we see are two subjects inhabiting the same frame, shoulder to shoulder, so to speak. One of Armajani’s earliest works after immigrating was Letters Home, a 23-foot work on cloth composed from actual letters and illustrations the young man sent back to his family in Iran during his first year in the U.S. Prayers for the Sun seems to be the inward-looking counterpart to Letters Home, in which Armajani is expressing a deep sense of separation.

In contrast to Husain’s and other artists’ adoption of Western modernism, Turkish painter Bedri Rahmi Eyüboglu sought to break with Western traditions entirely in order to create a uniquely Turkish modernism. His 1961 oil and glue on canvas painting Full Moon represents one such attempt. Eyüboglu drew inspiration from the abstract nature of calligraphy. In Full Moon, the curved gestural lines of traditional Turkish calligraphy are employed in a purely abstract context to create a reimagining of the Turkish flag. The red canvas is populated by a variety of moons, each with its own character, engaged in a celestial conversation. Intriguingly, in Eyüboglu’s painting there is not one moon, as we find on the Turkish flag, but many. These multiple moons seem to represent the multiple, simultaneous perspectives modernism combines, not on a subject but, in this instance, on national and cultural identity. This work in particular seems to convey the essence of the Grey Gallery’s “Modernisms.”

By Chris Shields

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: August 2019

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