L’art à fleur de peau: the bold collection of a woman ‘in pursuit of the best’

An exceptional group of works with strong representation for female artists paints a picture of a passionate collector with an eye for ‘powerful images’

For Paul Nyzam, Senior Specialist, Post-War and Contemporary Art at Christie’s in Paris, the collection L’art à fleur de peau  that is coming up for auction on 13 October is an expression of ‘joyful and strong pictures’. 

As the second part of the collection name ‘parcours d’une collectionneuse’ suggests, this is a collection that has been put together through the unerring — and what Nyzam calls ‘passionate’ — eye of a woman and has a particularly strong selection of female artists.

The collection itself is, according to Nyzam, ‘bright and colourful’, but there is no single aspect that has been pursued. Instead, this is a collection built up from the late 1980s through to the early 2000s that shows what Nyzam calls ‘an eye open to the international scene’. It was put together ‘really just by her, just her money and her taste,’ says Nyzam.

Philippe Cognée (b.1957), New York, 2001. Encaustic on canvas laid down on panel. 25½ x 29⅛ in (64 x 74 cm). Estimate: €5,000-7,000. Offered in L'art à fleur de peau, parcours d'une collectionneuse on 13 October 2021 at Christie’s in Paris

The collection contains both ‘a French anchor, a French theme, buying works from the best French galleries such as Galeries Lelong, Daniel Templon, Louis Carré, Claude Bernard and Galerie France’ alongside abstract work by artists such as Zao Wou-Ki and Chu Teh-Chun, and landscapes and architectural paintings such as Sam Szafran’s Escalier  and Philippe Cognée’s New York.

The link between all these works, according to Nyzam, is that ‘they are all powerful, straightforward, direct images. She didn’t have a taste for minimalism at all.’

Yet what is most clear as a theme through many of the works is the body and the skin. From George Condo’s Rusty Skin  to Fernando Botero’s Femme à la guitare, there is a preoccupation with the depiction of flesh and the human form. The Botero is, ‘of course, a nude; within works like this, the pastel by Degas or the Buste de jeune femme I  by Jean Fautrier, there is a play with the body and the attributes of femininity,’ says Nyzam.

Barbara Kruger (b.1945), Untitled (Talk to me), 2000. Black and white photograph, in artist’s frame. Image: 56¾ x 47⅞ in (144 x 121.5 cm). Frame: 62⅞ x 49¾ in (159.7 x 126.4 cm). Estimate: €150,000-200,000. Offered in L'art à fleur de peau, parcours d'une collectionneuse on 13 October 2021 at Christie’s in Paris

Where the investigation of the female form comes into its own is in the group of works by artists such as Magdalena Abakanowicz, Rebecca Horn, Kiki Smith and Barbara Kruger. Of these, Kruger’s Untitled (Talk to me)  is the most overtly political, with the perfect ear and painted nails of a woman beneath a stark advertising strap that reads ‘Talk to me’ in screaming letters.

As Nyzam points out, ‘This kind of investigation into the body and the skin is mainly the body and skin of women — you can feel them playing with it in a sensitive way.’

For Nyzam, there is one particular favourite within the collection, apart from the top lots of the Botero and David Hockney’s Guest House Garden  (which will be offered for auction for the first time in London on 15 October), and this is Friedensreich Hundertwasser’s Schiff an Land.

For Nyzam, ‘this is such a joyful, pleasing picture and a perfect example of the artist’s work.’ At the same time, it also feels emblematic of the strength and boldness that is evident throughout the collection.

Friedensreich Hundertwasser (1928-2000), Schiff an land, 1995. Watercolour on paper, gold and silver leaf. 16½ x 23½ in (41.8 x 59 cm). Estimate: €100,000-150,000. Offered in L'art à fleur de peau, parcours d'une collectionneuse on 13 October 2021 at Christie’s in Paris

This collection almost exclusively made up of works that were bought from galleries or artists’ studios. The collector was driven by ‘an impulse to collect,’ says Nyzam. The artist Richard Texier, whose work she collected in depth describes her collecting as a ‘vital urgency’. She loved to interact with artists and there were a handful of artists whom she collected in depth, at times acting as a sort of sponsor.

Alongside Texier these artists included Olivier Debré, whose work appears in the auction. The examples of his work are described by Nyzam as ‘really great: the texture and the colour of them are really stunning.’ But his work is indicative of another aspect of this collection. It is not only that she was driven by the spirit of collecting but that she was so particular about the works she acquired. They are, says Nyzam, ‘the best quality of the artists.’

The story of this collection goes beyond an interest in form and the body to reveal something even more intense: the story of a collector passionately in pursuit of the best.

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