Sometimes, when covering an art fair week you just have to accept the fact that a lot of the work is going to be publicity for the various galleries, booths and auctions that you’re covering.
But it is with no shame that I inform you of the Helly Nahmad London booth at Frieze Masters, which made a huge publicity grab this year by displaying its art in a stage set: the louche Paris apartment of a fictional character from 1968 called Corrado N., a k a “The Collector” (according to the booth’s wall).
Instead of, say, against a beige wall, here we have a Lucio Fontana above a fake desk, with a typewriter and an overflowing ash tray. In the living room there are Picassos and Mirós surrounded by Socialist posters, above the black and white television set, itself surrounded by piles of old issues of Paris Match.
Nahmad hired production designer Robin Brown (whose credits include two Robbie Williams music videos and a commerical for Entemann’s that stars Bonnie and Clyde) for the booth, where, he explained, he wanted to distill his “philosophy” of what the ideal collector should be.
“Passionate, intellectual, reclusive,” he said. “He’s not living to entertain people here, he’s living and breathing art.”
So this Collector, he’s a writer?
“He’s a writer, a collector, a philosopher, a poet,” Nahmad said, and handed me a 1960s newspaper they created with a text by Sir Norman Rosenthal, which fills in the backstory (e.g. “His home city Milan stood, above all, for design”). But then how does he afford all this art? “Occasionally he works for the French bourse, it’s all in the paper.”
Seems like he did more than dabble, given some of the names he collected, some of which work better in a dingy apartment than others: Giorgio Morandi, sure. Rene Magritte, maybe. Yves Klein, no way.
Still, the apartment is clearly a labor of love, from the dirty dishes piled in the kitchen to the Ileana Sonnabend business card in the key holder, atop a book on Andy Warhol. At some point someone definitely fought the impulse to take the set designer aside and say, “Look, I think there are just too many dirty ashtrays in here.”
“People have cried,” Nahmad said. “There’s a strong nostalgia.” And it was true that while I was there a number of older people walked through the booth muttering to themselves, or their cell phones, “incroyable, incroyable.”
One of them was the Nahmad family patriarch David.
“Of course!” he said, when I asked him if he’d ever lived in an apartment like this. And what did he have most in common with this Collector? “Well,” he said. “I really like all the art that’s in here.”