Interview with Edward Tyler Nahem
A premier New York art dealer, Edward Tyler Nahem has long had a passion for art. Beginning as a collector, Nahem has taken his love of creativity to great heights. A major player on the international art fair scene, he represents contemporary artists, has an eye for the best secondary market works, and enthusiastically nurtures relationships with artists, curators, and collectors. ArtBahrain contributing editor Paul Laster recently caught up with Nahem at his Hamptons home to discuss his passion for art.
When did you first become interested in art?
Art wasn’t a big part of my life when I was growing up. My parents probably took me to a museum only five times during my whole childhood, but each visit was a salient experience. When I was about 20 years old, I walked into the Museum of Modern Art and looked at a Rothko painting that completely blew me away. It was a seminal moment; but, at that time, it didn’t have me thinking that I wanted to be an art dealer.
Were you a collector before becoming a dealer?
I started collecting Japanese prints when I was very young. I became fascinated with them from the moment I saw a book about them. One of my strong personality traits is that when I become enthralled by something, it’s never just dipping the toes—it’s a complete immersion. That’s when I immersed myself in art enough to start dealing.
When I first saw these prints I looked and looked and then bought and continued to buy. They weren’t expensive, which was good because I wasn’t a rich person at all. I’ve been earning my own way since I was 14. But I was really taken with the Japanese prints and within a year of buying and selling them I felt it was something that I might want to do for a living.
I was also fascinated by Impressionist, Modern and Post-War art, but at the same time it wasn’t really a field that I thought I could get into. Eventually, I just started doing it.
What type of art did you show when you first opened your gallery?
We showed Impressionist, Modern, and Post-War works of art—mostly masters.
Is that still the type of art that you show?
Yes, in addition to others. We don’t show as many Impressionists nowadays, because it is harder to get good works. Nevertheless, in the past few years we managed to sell an incredible Degas pastel and a major Modigliani, which had been in the collection of friends and clients of mine for more than 50 years. Where I am good is that I know where a lot of the bodies are buried—metaphorically speaking—and I’m a good getter of things.
How would you describe your gallery program?
We represent artists—and are increasingly representing artists—but 90% of our volume still comes from secondary market sales. We mount exhibitions and do art fairs. We present around three or four artist exhibitions a year and do about five art fairs per year.
How many artists do you represent?
We currently represent six artists and are working toward adding another two. The artists include the American painter Erik Benson, Spanish painters José María Sicilia and Alejandra Icaza, American photographer Andres Serrano, Iranian painter Farideh Lashai (whom we recently exhibited in conjunction with Leila Heller Gallery), American painter and performance artist Iona Rozeal Brown, and Romanian painter Miron Schmückle.
Where do you find your secondary market works?
Very often they come from private collections, although we do certainly buy works at auction. I know a lot of people, which helps in finding works. It’s very competitive—especially with the auction houses stepping up their private sales. When you have been in the business as long as I have, you come to find your niche. We have clients that we have been working with for a long time and are constantly nurturing new relationships, which is essential in this business.
You seem to have an eye for exceptional works from the secondary market.
I am very proud of that. I had a client in the gallery the other day that said it was like walking into a mini-museum. I am delighted with the quality of works that we get from month to month, year to year.
Do you consider yourself a connoisseur?
I am not a fan of that word, as it’s overused, but I am often told that I have a really good eye, which is the ultimate compliment. If I don’t have a certain level of passion for a work, I won’t take it into inventory. I am not a merchandise handler. For me, it’s important to maintain a certain level of quality and integrity.
Which art fairs do you do?
We exhibit at Art Basel and Art Basel Miami Beach. We also do Frieze Masters; this will be our second year there. Last year we did a very cool show at Frieze Masters called “Face to Face,” an exhibition of portraiture. There was a self-portrait by Basquiat facing a self-portrait by Picasso. There was another portrait by Picasso of Jacqueline opposite a Warhol portrait of Jackie. There were other portraits that were terrific, too. We got great feedback. And we do ARCO and Abu Dhabi Art. Last year we did seven fairs, but we realized that it was too much.
How does your gallery program relate to your art fair program?
By and large, we only bring secondary market works to the art fairs. We do, however, occasionally mix in one of our contemporary artists here and there. Both Basel fairs want exhibitors to bring the big guns and Frieze Masters is just that—a masters’ fair. Abu Dhabi Art is mostly secondary market works, while ARCO allows us to show both sides of the program.
When did you first start showing in the Middle East?
We started in the second year of the Abu Dhabi Art so the next edition will be our fourth year. We have done very good business there—mainly with the royal families of Kuwait, Abu Dhabi, and other emirates.
What type of works do you usually bring to Abu Dhabi Art?
The first year that we did the fair we brought a spectacular Stella “protractor” painting—arguably the biggest and best one he ever made, called Damascus Gate. It is a magnificent painting, measuring 10 feet by 50 feet, and it really dazzled people. All of the “protractor” paintings that Stella made in the early 1960s were named after ancient, circular cities in the Middle East. We sold it to an Abu Dhabi collector.
We also brought works by Sam Francis and Joan Mitchell—mostly abstract paintings. In subsequent years, we brought Boetti, Mitchell again, Richter, and a great Calder that was a study for the sculpture that was destroyed outside the World Trade Center. Last year we exhibited another Stella protractor painting, which we are on the verge of selling to someone in the Middle East.
How has the response been in previous years?
Abu Dhabi Art has been very successful for us. The fair has a strong turnout of serious collectors and we have enjoyed building relationships with them over the years. It is wonderful to learn about the culture of the region and experience the fresh eye that collectors from there bring to the process.
What do you think about the booming interest in modern and contemporary art in the region?
I think it’s great that there is this global outreach with art. Through the complexities and richness of modern and contemporary art, we can bridge our cultural worlds. Combining international art and Middle Eastern art is a great way forward.
Do you show artists from the region?
We show the work of the late Iranian artist Farideh Lashai. I had originally bought her work for my own collection and this year we had a solo show of her work. There was a big public tribute to her work in Dubai earlier this year. She is the only artist from the Middle East that we show at present, but we are entertaining other possibilities.
Have you seen standout collections in the GCC?
The collections are not as open to people as they are at other art fairs, but I find the collectors to be friendly and open-minded.
Which artist do you think Gulf Coast collectors should currently be acquiring?
That question is difficult to answer. I don’t think anyone “should” be collecting anything. I have three criteria for collecting: you have to love it; you have to be able afford it; and you have to have a place to put it. I, however, have forgone the last of those criteria. I believe you should only buy what you like—not what people tell you should collect. That said, I would like for people to buy what I sell, of course.
What will you bring to the fair?
It’s still a bit early to say for certain, but we may bring an important Francis painting from 1979 that has been in the same collection in Japan for about 25 years. We might bring a Ruscha “mountain” painting and another abstract painting by Mitchell. The list is still in formation. It’s always about keeping people happy, while keeping the material fresh. ab
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