The Art Gallery at NYU Abu Dhabi has just announced its next two exhibitions, for autumn 2017 and spring 2018, and they both maintain an impressive pace for the newish non-profit gallery – interesting, insightful, something to say about the way art is and how it got here.
The NYUAD Art Gallery does three big shows a year, and these two exemplify two of the curatorial strands that are emerging from its curatorial approach – thoughtful overview of a key time and/or place (or both); and major regional exposure for an interesting living artist (two in this case) that might have something to contribute to the development of a working definition of art.
Inventing Downtown New York: Artist-Run Galleries, 1952–1965 opens on 4 October. It’s a collection that has been organised by the Grey Art Gallery, NYU’s fine art museum in New York City, and homes in on one of the periods when homegrown artist-run art spaces were able to flourish in Manhattan – specifically, among the low-rent tenements and industrial buildings of Lower Manhattan.
The dates bracket a period when America in general and art in particular were changing fundamentally. The 50s and 60s saw a commercial boom – and the flowering of the post-war baby boom too, producing a generation of young, often idealist consumers eager to stretch the boundaries. This was a time of sharp suits and new jazz, the beat poets and spontaneous expression, a time to forget and move on from the war and the tough times that preceded it – just before the hippies and the pill provoked the next convulsive changes.
In art, this is arguably the period that killed off the notion of the avant-garde, at least in terms of difficult-to-understand work that was impossible to sell. It’s the period that ranges from the peak of abstract expressionism in the early 1950s – avant-gardisme par excellence, a style that broke from accepted conventions to unleash a new confidence in non-figurative art that redefined the nature of painting as two-way encounters between artist and viewer. At the time that still felt radical.
But the period also covers the rise of pop art, work that embraced the imagery and techniques of commercial life to challenge both the established traditions of fine art and the personal, often intimate, frequently emotional approach of the abstract expressionists. Including imagery from popular culture – comic books, advertising, everyday store-found objects like soup cans – countered the elitism and lack of contact with real life that some saw in art.
The exhibition’s time slot also includes the beginning of the period when minimalism and (slightly later) conceptual art started to gain traction. Again, there was a challenge to the conventions; minimalists looked for a highly purified form of beauty, or simplicity, or harmony – truth even, for the work does not pretend to be anything other than what it is. Bright colours are there because they’re bright colours, not metaphors for excitement or emotion. Straight lines and right angles aren’t images of oppression or directness or life’s journey; they are neutral and impersonal, existing without the baggage of “meaning”.
Much of this explosion of creativity was happening in New York, and a lot of it centred on co-operative and artist-run galleries. Fourteen of them feature in Inventing Downtown, which is described in the blurb as the first major museum exhibition to survey “these vital years” from the viewpoint of artist-run galleries.
The show has more than 200 paintings, sculptures, installations, drawings, photographs, and films from around 50 artists. They range from staples of today’s art market like Yayoi Kusama, Alex Katz, Oldenburg and Yoko Ono to some less well-known names – 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 NYUAD Art Gallery, sees Inventing Downtown as a good fit with the current show, But We Cannot See Them (which closes 26 August – get to see it if you can). “But We Cannot See Them examines a home-grown UAE avant-garde community of artists, Inventing Downtown explores a similar impulse by artists to band together to enable artistic innovation and community, but in the very different circumstances of the New York art scene of the 1950s and 60s.
“It continues our reflections on the vision for the UAE, and Saadiyat, as a centre of cultural and knowledge production.”
Inventing Downtown is curated by Melissa Rachleff, a clinical associate professor in the Department of Art and Art Professions at NYU’s Steinhardt School. This is undoubtedly going to be another of NYUAD Art Gallery’s hits – and to be fair, it hasn’t had any duds yet in its short life.
Above: Allan Kaprow, Blue Blue Blue (1956)
The Spring 2018 show, a mid-career retrospective for Sandi Hilal and Alessandro Petti, is almost guaranteed to be another goodie too.
“Their theory and practice moves between art, architecture and education,” says the NYUAD Art Gallery promo; “Petti and Hilal’s body of work explores how our experience is shaped by our understanding of ‘permanence’ or ‘impermanence’ in our environment”.
Hilal and Petti are two of the three cofounders of DAAR, an architectural studio and art residency programme based in Palestine. DAAR (it stands for Decolonizing Architecture Art Residency) combines conceptual speculations and “pragmatic spatial interventions” with “discourse and collective learning”; it explores possibilities for the subversion and/or reuse of “actual structures of domination” – disused military bases, refugee camps, destroyed villages.
Petti’s TEDxRamallah talk back in 2011 summarises the reasoning and the goals. Practical examples of their work range from Campus in Camps, an experimental educational programme with Al Quds University based in the Dheisheh Refugee Camp in Bethlehem, to the ‘Concrete Tent’ (below) in the same refugee camp, a pavilion that embodies the contradiction of the permanent temporariness of Palestinian refugees.
For the Marrakech Biennale, they compiled The Book of Exile, a collection of stories of the plight of refugees in Palestinian camps; the Marrakech-based calligrapher Abdelghani Ouida transcribed the book in a performance that symbolised the production and dissemination of knowledge while confront the plight of refugees worldwide.
So we can expect both a conceptual and a practical reaction to the spatial realities of conflict, particularly of course in Palestine, delivered via a series of works that bridge architecture and art. As well as displays in the Art Gallery, there will be large-scale installations around the NYUAD campus.
Sandi Hilal and Alessandro Petti have exhibited regularly at the Biennale di Venezia and other biennials – Istanbul, São Paulo, Marrakech last year, the Asian Art Biennial – as well as several gallery and museum shows. They’ve also racked up many awards for art, architecture and design.
The exhibition next spring (it opens 24 February) is co-curated by NYUAD Associate Professor Salwa Mikdadi, a top historian of modern art from the Arab world, and the NYUAD Art Gallery Curator Bana Kattan who recently did a great job on the Invisible Threads show.
“Our spring 2018 exhibition connects our physical world (geographically and architecturally) to both historical and current events,” said Bana Kattan. “This exhibition marks a high point for one of our programme’s key themes, ‘the environment, natural and human-made’.”