|Abby Weed Grey, Parviz Tanavoli (middle) and Sohrab Sepehri © Grey Art Gallery. Courtesy the British Council.|
Head of her last trip to Iran in 1973, Abby Weed Grey, the American midwestern widow who had by that time gathered the biggest international collection of Iranian modern art, wrote down her goals for the journey. ‘What I want from this adventure,’ she wrote, before answering, from one to five: ‘the rigors of travel, the demands of the strange, the unfamiliar, the accommodation of self to hosts, the retrieval of all this in new learning and enlightenment, the return home to “normal” with the least culture shock.’ She promised herself earnestly to make ‘actual progress in cementing of friendships’, and achieve ‘greater understanding of Persia, its culture and peoples’ and find new ‘fluidity’ for her poetry.
When she was a young girl growing up in Minneapolis, as a reward for her prowess in spelling, Abby Weed’s father gave her a copy of The Arabian Nights, in an illustrated edition published by the Scottish anthropologist Andrew Lang. Fifty years later, in 1962, she found herself at the studio of Parviz Tanavoli, spellbound by a giant painting in ink, gouache and gilt called Myth (1961). Inspired by the timeless story of Shirin and Farhad, it showed three figures: the legendary sculptor, Farhad; his apprentice, holding a mallet; and a gold and blue angel, with its wings open, protecting them. ‘For me, it went back to Arabian nights,’ she would write. ‘But of course, it was a Persian tale. I felt I had to have it and purchased it on the spot.’ It was the beginning of an enduring friendship between artist and patron.
With her US college friends, Abby Weed had laughed at ‘the ridiculous things we were being shown as contemporary art’, ‘outlandish’ works like Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907). She bought her first piece of art in college, a painting from an exhibition of works by Austrian children. At the age of 26, she married Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin Edwards Grey, a West Point graduate and First World War veteran, twenty years her senior. He died of cancer in 1956, after a happy but childless marriage, leaving her a small fortune. After the ‘terrible blow’, the 54-year-old widow began to feel ‘a bewildering sense of freedom’.
She found her outlet in 1959 when she signed up for a trip around the world with fourteen women. While the others went hunting for souvenirs, Grey decided to search out contemporary artists and buy their work to show at home.
In India, she wrote in her memoir The Picture is the Window, the Window is the Picture (1983), ‘I didn’t look for miniaturists or gem setters; in Iran, I didn’t look for rugmakers. In many places, I didn’t know where to look or exactly what to look for, but whatever it was going to be, it had to express the response of a contemporary sensibility to contemporary circumstances.’
At the time – and arguably until the 1980s – Middle Eastern modernists were massively overlooked at home, and abroad. Watching her money carefully, with the Ben and Abby Grey Foundation already in place, Grey made eight trips to Iran over a dozen years, typically the highlight of tours that took in India, Turkey, and several other countries. She acquired some 200 artworks, including eighty by Tanavoli, with key pieces by Hossein Zenderoudi, Sohrab Sepehri, Monir Farmanfarmaian and other artists, whose studios and homes she visited.
She recalls Zenderoudi’s car, on which he had painted violets. And Tanavoli’s studio, where ‘there was a feeling of desperate labour in the tidied clutter, in the dirt of the floor... Parviz’s mean little sleeping room with a record player on the shelf.’ At the same time ‘a fabulous creature in concrete painted Persian blue’, one of his own creations, kept watch over the doorway. The interior, she would recall, ‘glowed with brilliant colours and the vitality of his work – paintings, sculpture, ceramics.’ On one of her visits, Tanavoli turned up at her hotel with an early Zenderoudi painting – of a lion with sword and sun – which had belonged to the artist Faramarz Pilaram, from whom she also bought key works. ‘It is gorgeous; I feel very lucky,’ she wrote.
When she first met Zenderoudi himself, ‘he was only about twenty years old, covering rolls and scrolls of paper with images of fabulous monsters and men – enough to carpet a king’s throne room.’ His work reminded her of the American painter Mark Tobey, now in the collections of the Guggenheim and the Tate, but inspired by calligraphy.
The Abby Weed Grey Collection of Asian and Middle Eastern Art is now held at the Grey Art Gallery, after Grey gave it to New York University as a gift, valued at the time at about $1 million (a single Zenderoudi work can sell for hundreds of thousands, while Tanavoli has set the world auction record for a Middle Eastern artist). While Mohammed Afkhami’s stunning private collection of Iranian art was recently chronicled in a magnificent catalogue, Honar (2017), the Grey gallery still boasts the biggest public collection outside Iran.
The gallery is planning a major exhibition for 2020, looking again at Abby Weed Grey’s legacy, drawing on her diaries and papers. Her achievements include supporting the first sculpture foundry in the country, at Tehran University, under Tanavoli. She paved the way for him to study and work for two years in the US, and was a guest at the landmark 1973 show of his ‘Heech’ works. (The Heech she bought for her collection arrived in Minnesota after being nearly destroyed in a warehouse fire.) When her gallery opened in 1975, she wore a Tanavoli pendant.
On her last trip, she waxes lyrical about the Friday mosque in Isfahan, where ‘a white pigeon on top of the archway... looks down at the great square, craning its neck. Swallows swoop, a few children climb the centre platform shouting... the pillars and domed ceiling of the mosque are like tents.’ She watched the glass-blowers and metal engravers in Isfahan on repeated visits there and met Hossein Khataie, ‘the last survivor of an antique art’, painting Persian pictures on paper-thin leather (several romantic pieces are in the collection). But she knows Isfahan well enough to lament the ‘dust and rubble’ where a four-lane road is being driven through an old part of the city, and she worries for the 7-year-old girls tying the knots on Persian carpets.
In her autobiography, she comes across as an earnest, uncomplicated American adventuress, whose tastes mature as she buys what she loves, with a mission to bring countries together through art. She first visited Iran only eight years after the coup that toppled Mossadegh, with the former prime minister still alive and under house arrest in Ahmadabad. She worked with the United States Information Agency to promote cultural diplomacy. Only once does she talk of a glimpse of a prisoner, running to keep up with three mounted policemen with a leather leash around his wrist, and in Isfahan remembers a boy who threw rocks.
‘She had come into this inheritance quite unexpectedly, she and her husband had lived very modestly and he made these very wise investments in railroads, all of a sudden when he passed away she was still in her 50s and had a large sum of money,’ said Lynn Gumpert, the gallery director, who has been researching Grey’s legacy on and off for twenty years. ‘From reading her autobiography and talking to people who have done extensive researches, she thought long and hard and felt she actually had a Christian duty to use this money in a way that made a difference. She started out being a poet, she is a very, very thoughtful person.’
Grey’s achievements include touring early shows of Iranian, Turkish, Indian and Japanese modern art around the US. On her buying trips she took examples of American art with her, so local artists could see originals for themselves; she arranged the first exhibition of original contemporary American art in Iran, and Turkey, where she bought some 175 works. In 1972, the former army wife pulled off her most ambitious project: ‘One World Through Art’, a show of 1,001 works, held in Minneapolis.
But it was the Iranian art scene which outshone the others from the day she first set foot there; a place where she bought rugs with Tanavoli that resembled works by Miro or Klee. ‘There was an energy, a buoyancy,’ in Iranian art, she wrote, ‘a delightful do-and-dare quality comparable to what some artists were doing back home.’
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Via Underline Magazine, British Council