Grey Art Gallery is NYU’s archival gem

The museum’s first exhibition since the COVID-19 pandemic, “Mostly New” features an eclectic and impressive sampling of contemporary art. 

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Camila Ceballos

The newly reopened Grey Art Gallery features several artworks and sculptures on display for the NYU community. (Staff Photo by Camila Ceballos)

Isabella Armus, Deputy Arts Editor

Don’t let the side entrance through the Silver Center for Arts and Science deter you — the Grey Art Gallery is an essential visit. Established in 1975, the column-fortified museum has been NYU’s robust archival space for curious and savvy patrons of modern and contemporary art for over 40 years. Featuring everything from early-20th-century European pieces to the Iranian avant-garde, the Grey’s diversity of acquisitions has established the space as a vital cultural institution for downtown Manhattan. However, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Grey shut its doors, closing its collection of more than 6,000 pieces to the public. It hadn’t had an active exhibition for over two years.

Finally, for their new collection, entitled “Mostly New: Selections From the NYU Art Collection,” the museum is open exclusively to NYU students, faculty and staff to visit at their leisure until June 17, 2022.

“Mostly New” offers over 90 objects from 60 different artists, featuring new additions to the collection and older archival fixtures. The space itself is quaint and delicately organized, with three smaller enclaves jutting out from the main exhibition room, creating a winding backdrop to NYU’s little-known collection.

To the right of the entrance is a selection of pieces in a neutral color palette and a variety of mediums. Presented are three-dimensional works, including an assemblage shadow box by American artist and filmmaker Joseph Cornell entitled “Untitled: (Chocolat Menier).” This lined glass box encloses a chocolate bar wrapper stuck to obstructed wood and rope, working as an ode to an Emily Dickinson poem written on the same candy packaging. Opposite are more austere pieces, like Adolph Gottlieb’s mesmerizing “Quest.” This pictograph features a smudgy range of inverted symbols whose warm tones create an immersive graph-like pattern, both contrasting and complementing the starker pieces that surround it.

Continuing this intrigue, the Grey also clusters together a series of mid-20th century photographs in striking black and white. Most of the snapshots aptly concern New York City and its inhabitants. This includes a quad of industrial images by photographer Danny Lyon that explore liminality and negative space in different corners of the city and a buoyant 1979 centerpiece by Hong Kong artist and member of the the queer East Village avant-garde scene Tseng Kwong Chi. In Chi’s large self portrait, he can be seen flamboyantly jumping beside the Brooklyn Bridge. Chi is impeccably styled in generic gray suiting and biking sunglasses, an image that, according to the artist’s statement, effectively satirizes the “Chinese tourist avid for Western culture.” 

Two white photo frames are next to six black photo frames with images displayed within at the Grey Art Gallery.
The exhibit also features original Polaroids by Andy Warhol. (Staff Photo by Camila Ceballos)

Among its variety of mediums and artistic perspectives, this exhibition isn’t afraid to name drop. Original polaroids by Andy Warhol dot the eastern wall of the space, along with two of Cindy Sherman’s iconic transformative self portraits. Works from prominent members of the downtown art scene such as Keith Haring, Robert Mapplethorpe and Donald Baechler are also on view. One would think that displaying such high-profile pieces would be the Grey’s pièce de resistance. However, by design, the gallery uplifts works outside of the Western canon.

One of the most effective chapters in the exhibition is the room dedicated to Middle Eastern art. The capsule includes more recent works, including Abu Dhabi-based artist Farah Al Qasimi’s 2017 print “Living Room Vape,” in which ornate furniture and smoke coalesce in a decadent scene, obstructing the figure in frame. Also mounted are overtly political pieces, like “Gathering” by Iranian artist Nicky Nodjoumi. This oil painting of ape-like figures huddled under white and red splatters conveys Nodjoumi’s allegorical and confrontational critiques of the Iranian regime and is emblematic of his impactful oeuvre. 

Although the exhibit is housed in a small space, “Mostly New” packs a punch through its thoughtful and consistently surprising orchestration of highlights from the NYU archive. It’s thrilling to witness the revival of an artistic space in the center of campus. Hopefully, given that the Grey is only presenting a fraction of their collection, this exhibition is just a preview of all that’s yet to be unearthed.

Contact Isabella Armus at [email protected]