Brazilian collectors Genny and Selmo Nissenbaum use their holdings to create a conversation, and keep people talking
For their island retreat in Angra dos Reis, not far from their main home in Rio de Janeiro, Genny and Selmo Nissenbaum commissioned an outdoor piece by Brazilian artist José Bechara. Titled Ok, Ok Let’s Talk, the installation consists of 26 colliding tables that trap two chairs, rendering them impossible to sit in. “Bechara talks about how hard it is nowadays to find someone to talk to,” Genny, a psychoanalyst, explains of the penned-in chairs, adding that she likes how the durable furniture can withstand the rain-forest climate. She and Selmo, a private investor, recently invited other Brazilian artists, including Pedro Varela and Carolina Ponte, to propose works inspired by the unruly natural setting. “I said, ‘The house is yours, just be creative,’” Genny recalls.
But the bulk of the Nissenbaums’ collection resides in their Rio house. There, minimalist works by Sol LeWitt, Fred Sandback, and Cildo Meireles counterbalance wildly exuberant pieces by Beatriz Milhazes and Maria Nepomuceno. The juxtapositions mirror how the house, spaciously remodeled by the young architect Gisele Taranto, opens to a lush garden designed by renowned Modernist landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx. “You have this idea of the garden coming inside the house,” Genny says. The artwork also creeps into her psychoanalysis practice. In her home office, an Ernesto Neto sculpture is suspended from the ceiling and a Bechara painting of a flying house often becomes a point of reference during therapy sessions. “I like artists who really help open your mind.”
The Nissenbaums, who have been together since their teens and are now in their early 50s, began collecting in 1998 and accelerated their art-world activities after Selmo sold his brokerage firm six years ago. They now regularly come to New York, where they have an apartment on the Upper East Side adorned with works by Richard Serra, Bill Viola, Carol Bove, and Ellsworth Kelly, and Genny recently joined the board of the Dia Art Foundation.
Selmo is collaborating with the new Museu de Arte do Rio to help build up its collection of Judaica, the first of its kind in Rio. Last year, the couple—whose families both immigrated to Rio from Poland and Russia before World War II—bought a collection of historical oil lamps in Israel to donate to the museum. “When you’re married for a long time, it’s very good to have something you like to do together,” says Genny. “Art is a good thing to have in common.”
A version of this story originally appeared in the Summer 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 72 under the title “The 10.”