From New York to Palestine

NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery maps the journey

December 08, 2017

Mariam Nihal

Saudi Gazette

The NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery recently announced their upcoming exhibitions ‘Inventing Downtown: Artist-Run Galleries in New York City, 1952–1965’ and a collaboration with duo Sandi Hilal and Alessandro Petti with site-specific installations planned to be showcased in the art gallery and around the NYUAD campus on Saadiyat Island.

The exhibition observes the New York art scene between the peak of Abstract Expressionism in the early 1950s and the rise of Pop Art and Minimalism in the early 1960s. It will bring a major collection of historical artworks organized by the Grey Art Gallery to Abu Dhabi. Inventing Downtown is open to public and ends on 18 January.The show features over 200 paintings, sculptures, installations, drawings, photographs, films and works by over 50 artists who pursued abstraction and figuration alongside those who worked with installation and performance art. The artists include Yayoi Kusama, Alex Katz, Mark di Suvero, Claes Oldenburg, and Yoko Ono, Ed Clark, Emilio Cruz, Lois Dodd, Rosalyn Drexler, Sally Hazelet Drummond, Jean Follett, Lester Johnson, Boris Lurie, and Aldo Tambellini. Maya Allison, Founding Director and Chief Curator of the NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery spoke to Saudi Gazette in an exclusive interview about the exhibition.

She said Inventing Downtown focuses on an important group of artists in their early development in 1950s New York. It was organized by their sister museum at NYU in New York, with loans from over 100 museums, collectors, and artists. “We are proud to bring it to our own academic museum. In may ways it continues our thinking about how artistic innovation happens, as with the work of a certain UAE group of avant-garde artists, whose work we showed last Spring in the survey of their work in the two decades before they became famous, in the exhibition called ‘But We Cannot See Them: Tracing a UAE Art Community, 1988-2008.’ During our Spring show, we saw how artists supported each other’s creative development at a time when there was not a commercial market for selling their work. These artists are now considered groundbreaking and art-historically important,” she said.

Likewise, in New York City of the 1950s, there was not much market for contemporary art, beyond Abstract Expressionism. Artists who did not fit that style, a generation of younger artists, left the commercial art gallery scene to start their own spaces.

They shared the responsibility and costs of running these alternative art spaces, so they could be free to experiment more freely with ideas and materials without having to wait for a curator or dealer to give them a show. Allison said that experimentation and mutual support led to some of these artists developing styles that became known as Pop, Minimalism, Conceptual art, and Performance art. “Their early work shows them thinking through materials, concepts, and innovative new ways to compose artwork. We see a beautiful painting-collage by Dan Flavin, from the year he started working with his famous florescent light bulb installations, a squishy-looking hat sculpture of a hat by Claes Oldenberg, who later became famous for his soft sculpture renderings of everyday objects, and a major example of Yayoi Kusama’s earliest ‘infinity net’ paintings, to name a few — there are over 50 artists represented in this exhibition from their earliest periods,” she added.

Arab art historian Salwa Mikdadi, and their gallery curator, Bana Kattan, will curate the Sandi Hilal and Alessandro Petti artistic residency program.

“Hilal and Petti are best known for their conceptual architecture installations, and this will be their first mid-career retrospective, in which we will create anew a series of their past projects, as well as a few new ones. One of the key themes of our venue is how our landscape, both built and natural, factors into our experience of the world,” Allison said.

Hilal and Petti’s projects look at what happens when a state that was meant to be impermanent becomes, for all purposes, ‘permanently impermanent’ as with refugee camps that are now seeing multiple generations of families. Instead of viewing them as without a country, without continuity, Hilal and Petti bring to the surface the history of these impermanent settlements, and even propose designating them as sites of world heritage.

The exhibition will emerge in various sites around the university campus, for people to discover an artwork, an installation, a performance, outside of its supposed ‘home territory’ of the art gallery. “They are lyrical works. For example, a major installation is in the form of a standard-issue tent often seen in refugee camps. However, the artists have rendered it in cement, with lovely lighting and windows, a gathering place outdoors where people can come together as a community. This structure as an artwork encourages us to reflect on the aesthetics of displacement: what does a refugee tent feel like when it is home to generations of families? Does it feel ‘permanent’? But it also connotes cultural exchange and universal human experience of gathering, and of safety vs. vulnerability,” she explained. The exhibition will run from February 2018 until early summer.


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