‘Mostly New’ brings the best of NYU’s art collection into the spotlight

The latest exhibition at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery, which will run through May 20, shows a new breadth of work in the university’s collection.


Installation view of “Mostly New: Selections from the NYU Art Collection.” (Photo by Nicholas Papananias, courtesy Grey Art Gallery)

Alexa Donovan, Staff Writer

The humble exterior of the Grey Art Gallery, NYU’s fine arts museum located inside the university’s Silver Center, fails to convey the beauty of the spectacular pieces of art contained within. From Andy Warhol and Keith Haring to Robert Mapplethorpe, the gallery’s current show, “Mostly New: Selections from the NYU Art Collection,” puts the modern and contemporary art world’s best at the forefront.

The exhibition is the gallery’s first since it closed its doors in March 2020 due to the pandemic. It focuses on highlighting new and rarely seen works from the collection, featuring artworks from its recently acquired Cottrell-Lovett Collection as well as work by Middle Eastern artists — part of the original collection donated by founder Abby Weed Grey in 1975. The 90-plus artworks by nearly 60 artists in the exhibition were selected by curators Michèle Wong and Lynn Gumpert.

The exhibit is divided into different categories, beginning with beige mixed-media works, then progressing to photographs and abstract expressionist pieces, and finally, art that brings the viewer into a world of full-fledged color. This curatorial choice allows viewers to start their visit with a calmer tone and gradually move toward a bright and powerful ending. The color based organization allows visitors to ease into the show, with a clear sense of direction and progression throughout the space. 

Beginning with the beige tones, we see “Beautiful Collage” by Bruce Conner, a collage and assemblage on Masonite, which boasts different shades of browns and creams layered and crumpled together to create a rough texture, complete with a wooden ladder jumping off of the piece. The collage is accompanied by other similarly-colored works, like Norman Bluhm and Frank O’Hara’s gouache on paper “There’s an apple on the table/ it’s dawn/ I die.” Bluhm and O’Hara’s mix of poetry and red, black, green and white paint over rough, brown paper breathes life and prose into the gallery.

Moving into the modern photography section, we see Tseng Kwong Chi’s photograph of a suited man jumping joyfully in front of the Brooklyn Bridge, titled “New York, New York (Brooklyn Bridge).” The piece sits close to Peter Hujar’s black and white “Ethyl Eichelberger as Nefertiti (II),” featuring award-winning drag performer Ethyl Eichelberger as the titular ancient Egyptian queen. To contrast with the black and white photography, these works are placed near a traditional Mapplethorpe-style colored photograph, “Untitled 2,” which was originally published in his 1982 book “Black Males.” 

Within the more colorful section, viewers are presented with Farah Al Qasimi’s “Living Room Vape” — a photograph of a man vaping in a room full of intricate patterns, colors and florals — but the vibrant colors do not stop there. Yayoi Kusama’s “Flowers B,” a colorful painting of a vase full of plants in her iconic polka-dot pattern, is hung right next to the photograph. Another honorable mention in this category is Donald Baechler’s “The Lucky Ring,” an image of a cartoon diamond ring created using the silkscreen technique on paper.

It is difficult not to note the irony in the university’s newfound ownership of works by downtown Manhattan artists like Baechler, Deborah Kass and Glenn Ligon. NYU is infamous for its displacement of downtown artists, as seen clearly in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s “Edward Hopper’s New York,” which featured old newspapers with headlines such as “Washington Square Artists Rise In Protest — NYU’s Evicting Them (NY Post, 1947)” and “Washington Square Evictions Arouses Art Colony in Village: ‘Do They Want to Turn the Square Into an N.Y.U Campus?’ (The Sun, 1947).” Perhaps supporting contemporary downtown artists is an attempt by the university to reconcile with its past, but a formal recognition of its wrongdoings could go a long way in fixing NYU’s reputation within the artist community.

Despite its history with artists, the university’s holdings are very impressive — thanks to the generous gifts to the collection over time, there are over 6,000 pieces under NYU’s ownership. The works of art the university possesses add to its status as a cultural leader across the country and the globe.

Unlike in most art shows, there is not only one curatorial thread in the university’s exhibition — there are many. Each step taken around the space is a surprise due to the stark contrast between each piece. Keith Haring’s “Bill T. Jones,” a large color offset lithograph piece showing a man’s back silhouette and its accompanying Haring-esque line work, sits next to James Brown’s “Untitled” panel — a small and abstract rectangle with a splotch of purple paint and gold leaf. This contrast and quick change of pace takes the viewer on a roller coaster ride through a diverse array of art. 

The exhibition opts to provide viewers with insight on the wide range of existing modern art rather than walk them through a concrete story with the artwork. Though more unusual for temporary exhibits, there is something to gain from viewing these spectacular works of art and their respective stories outside of an added curatorial context. Rather than trying to understand one cohesive storyline, the viewer has the opportunity to see the individual message of each piece.

Beyond all else, each work on display has the ability to spark excitement and curiosity. Perhaps that is the greatest take away from the exhibition — although the artworks are wildly different, every single piece evokes joy in the viewer.

“Mostly New: Selections from the NYU Art Collection” is on view until May 20.

Contact Alexa Donovan at [email protected].