International press loves to dismiss Dubai as a soulless place devoid of local culture and invested instead in yachts, luxury malls, camel racing, and cheap labor. Just a few miles from the touristy glitz, however, a strong and stable art scene lies in the industrial area of Al Quoz, where artists have been testing conventions and beliefs in the United Arab Emirates since the 1980s alongside pioneering dealers who have sold work to increasingly cultivated collectors for more than a decade. And now a show of works by another community of artists—this one from the historical lore of downtown New York—is on view at the Jean-Paul Najar Foundation, a private museum on Al Quoz’s Alserkal Avenue.
“Artist Run New York: The Seventies,” a group exhibition featuring 44 works by 18 artists including Richard Nonas, Tina Girouard, Trisha Brown, Richard Tuttle, and Gordon Matta-Clark, prompts conversations about the resonance of art from a very different time and place. Perhaps more importantly, in the midst of a fast-developing 500,000-square-foot Alserkal Avenue complex of warehouses now containing around 12 galleries and 40 creative outlets as well as a new Rem Koolhaas-designed exhibition space, connections can be drawn between a celebrated period from a foreign past and a growing UAE art ecosystem.
In the early ’70s, young artists in New York moved away from uptown galleries and headed downtown to SoHo, where they lived, worked, and exhibited in crumbling factory spaces like 112 Greene Street. Rallied by anti-establishment feelings triggered by the Vietnam War and bad urban planning that blighted New York at the time, SoHo artists were skeptical of authority in all its forms—from government to the art establishment. What mattered most was testing conventions in a methodical way. “So many of these artworks are experiments,” said Jessamyn Fiore, who curated “Artist Run New York” for the Najar Foundation’s year-old space in Dubai. “They set up parameters and followed through. The result is the result. If the result isn’t predetermined, it is executed by this ongoing questioning.”
Half of the pieces in the exhibition are on loan while the core of the work comes from the collection of the late Jean-Paul Najar, a deeply philosophical half-Colombian, half-Egyptian patron. From the ’70s until his death in 2014, Najar befriended American artists and brought them to Paris, where he built bridges for their entrée into the French art scene. His daughter Deborah, a long-time resident of Dubai, set up the foundation in partnership with Alserkal Avenue with the aspiration that, by being positioned at a new global crossroads, it would serve to continue her father’s legacy by promoting artistic dialogue across cultures. The foundation holds curated exhibitions and plays home to Najar’s collection of European and American abstract art dating from the ’60s through recent years.
Solidarity amid social upheaval and the merging of disciplines connected the activist artists in the show and defined them as influencers for following generations. Highlights include Babette Mangolte’s silent black-and-white film of a youthful Trisha Brown flying across a stage and decoding familiar human gestures into precise, mathematical movements with illusory easiness in Water Motor, a short dance from 1978. Robert Grosvenor’s seven-foot-long Steel Pipe (1975) dominates the concrete floor, looking at first like misplaced industrial building material waiting to be carted off by workers to a construction site down a pockmarked road. Further examination reveals the artist’s sense of play with materiality by way of sliced steel slivers that were grafted back together with a blowtorch and then given a rubber undercoating, transforming the metal into something else. Upstairs, Nickel Ether (1979) consists of a complex cellular snarl of wire that hangs from the ceiling like a little planet; this is the work of Alan Saret, an instigator of the Process art movement who largely rejected selling or exhibiting his work beginning in the ’80s. Despite his public disappearance, Saret became what Fiore called a “best-known unknown artist” for the ways that museums and collectors now clamor to acquire or show his work.
Like Saret and his New York contemporaries, many contemporary UAE artists’ primary concern has been radical artistic dialogue with one another. Within a community formed in the early ’80s, they chose to be outsiders, rejecting traditional methods and movements including Arabic calligraphy, Orientalist painting, and the Modernist-saturated domestic scenes that were popular with a public that was unfamiliar with and unreceptive to more conceptual art. When the market really got rolling in 2006, they were still operating under the radar. “Of course New York in the ’70s is not comparable to the UAE, but, still, [in recent years] you could give yourself a chance to completely neglect the market because it neglected you as well,” said Dubai-based artist and curator Cristiana de Marchi.
Mohammed Kazem, who was one of “The Five”—a pioneering group of Emirati conceptual artists, filmmakers, and poets anchored by the late Hassan Sharif beginning in the ’80s—said that until he was first asked to participate in the Venice Biennale in 2009, he kept his day job and didn’t even know the art he was making was sellable. “For 30 years, the work remained with us—the artists,” Kazem said. “It wasn’t collected by foundations or museums. It’s only very recently that collectors, galleries, and institutions here noticed Emirati artists.” These days, young Emirati artists have much more ready access to grant funding, patronage, and gallery representation.
Synonymous with the art scenes in old New York and later the UAE is a strong sense of community. Like Gordon Matta-Clark at 112 Greene Street, Rami Farook, who owns Satellite in Alserkal Avenue, acts as an informal organizer and catalyst. He said artists including James Clar, Lantian Xie, and Vikram Divecha just walked into Traffic—his previous Al Quoz space, founded in 2007—and began to collaborate. “We started seeing this city as an exhibition space,” Farook explained.
At Traffic and now at Satellite, Farook has provided funding and basically no guidelines, with the motivation to construct a generation of serious, established artists rather than to sell. “This is the advantage of having an artist-run gallery,” Farook said. Similar to 112 Greene Street, which did not function as a conventional gallery, Satellite is an open interdisciplinary studio that presents largely unadvertised exhibitions and also welcomes UAE makers, designers, and artists to use its unstructured loft space.
With a strong assemblage of works from the ’70s, “Artist Run New York,” which runs through June 30, leads viewers through a transitional period in art history and suggests that two disparate scenes—New York in the past and the UAE now—have more in common than may initially appear. It could be viewed as a bold move to have timed the opening of the show—and its cautionary critique of commercialism gone too far—with the Art Dubai fair in March, as neighboring galleries hustled through what is commonly touted as the best sales week of the season. But beyond the market, it resonated just as much against the backdrop of the fair’s Global Art Forum, the Sharjah Biennial, and numerous attendant artist talks that bring together people from all over the world to reflect on the status of art in the Middle East.
“This is why it is an ideal moment to open the exhibition,” said the curator Fiore, who also serves as co-director of the Estate of Gordon Matta-Clark in New York. “It highlights the importance of a nonprofit private museum like the foundation as part of the UAE art scene, because its mission is to spur in-depth thought, discussion, and engagement with art beyond its commerciality. It brings art history into the conversation.”