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LONDON — While one Helly Nahmad sits in a bare concrete prison cell in upstate New York, another Helly Nahmad strides around his lavish Frieze Masters booth in London’s chi-chi Regent’s Park. I don’t know how captivity is suiting the former, but freedom isn’t doing that much for the latter.
For his turn at the London fair, the free Nahmad has imagined the apartment of a collector in Paris in 1968. (A collector who just happened to own Nahmad’s current stock.) His booth, right at the front, has been fitted out with partition walls, a television running black and white, Scandinavian furniture, and contemporary posters. Sir Norman Rosenthal, late of the Royal Academy, has written an accompanying biography of our collector, “Corrado N.” (Like Kafka’s Josef K., a similar victim of higher powers, he lacks a surname.)
Optimistically, one poster says “Mai 68, début d’une lutte prolongée” (“May 68, start of a long struggle”). But it doesn’t look like the collector struggled to pick, given that he has the canon of art history on his wall: there are 1965 Picassos, now re-evaluated by the market as great late works but back then hardly desired; the avant-garde work of Dubuffet, Arman, and Fontana; lyrical or brutal Surrealists like Ernst, Dalí, Magritte, and de Chirico.
The killing irony here is that in being so imaginative, there has actually been very little imagination used at all. Yes, the set has been dressed to the nines, piled heavy with unread movie magazines, the walls plastered with postcards, and Rosenthal has written a painfully detailed life. Sample: “One of the reasons he needed to escape Italy, or so had convinced himself, was that he needed to leave the scenes of his Milanese childhood.” This is trashy thriller writing, not biography (or even fake biography).
Despite the detail, I was not for one second convinced that this bore the traces of a realistic person or collection or apartment. If you had to imagine a composite of the most tasteful, intellectual and interesting aspects of people alive in 1968, you might well come up with this — but this composite has no reality, none of the rough edges or peculiarities of taste which actual humans have.
There is not so much as a snuffling of bad taste: an imperfect heap of déclassé magazines, an ugly armchair, a picture of a beloved late grandmother — anything to show that this was a person, not an art-world focus group’s wet dream.
The same is true for the art, which is more damaging for the concept: if a serious collector were alive in 1968, he’d also have bought work by artists we’ve never heard of, or terrible work by artists we do now know which was esteemed at the time. Even the greatest collectors — Sir Hans Sloane, Peggy Guggenheim — would have had works they secretly loved but didn’t think were of the first rank. That’s what it means to have genuine taste, not taste derived from an auction catalogue. To have such a perfect, antiseptic collection is disingenuous.
Helly Nahmad ought to take some time out to think about what’s he done. I hear upstate New York is quiet this time of year.
Frieze Masters 2014 continues in The Regent’s Park (Chester Road, London) through October 19.