Marcel Mariën's 'The Elusive' (1937)
Marcel Mariën's 'The Elusive' (1937) © Marcel Mariën / 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / SABAM, Brussels

The megagallery Hauser & Wirth has given over its giant, three-floor space in Chelsea to the accumulations of a single collector, Sylvio Perlstein, and, far from being a sop to a rich man’s vanity, the exhibition of over 360 pieces offers a peek into his profuse obsessions. The term that Perlstein uses to describe his splendidly quirky taste is “esquisito”, a Portuguese word that means peculiar, often unpleasantly so. This extravaganza of weirdness has little in common with a traditional museum show. It doesn’t make an argument, delve into a historical chapter or boast of an institution’s holdings. Instead, it lets us listen in on the eccentric, funny and smart conversation among artworks united by their buyer’s sensibility. (It’s not the usual gallery show, either, since nothing here is for sale.)

Perlstein has never been restricted by medium or timeframe. He owns photomontages, sculptures, photographs, paintings, installations and videos. His collection, which spans much of the 20th century, might seem inchoate and even random, but spend some time browsing and you come to know a man who enjoys making people smile and squirm. He uses art to throw the unsuspecting off balance, and if it upsets them, so much the better.

Walk in, and you meet a frumpy woman loaded down with bags, afflicted with a frowzy haircut and packed into an unflattering cardigan. You might mistake her for a fellow visitor who has wandered in from the mall to a sleek Manhattan gallery. Actually, she is Duane Hanson’s “Young Shopper”, a life-sized fibreglass figure who appears rapt by the art in front of her. Hansen was long considered a tacky realist, but his existential depths have always been evident to receptive eyes. The woman’s bulging sacks, red face and too-tight clothes invite the chic gallery-hopper’s scorn, but they are eloquent about life’s ordinary burdens. She has become a sort of sack herself, a vessel of acquisition and misery.

Duane Hanson’s 'Young Shopper'
Duane Hanson’s 'Young Shopper'

Before her dead eyes, Bruce Nauman’s 1985 video “Good Boy Bad Boy” plays in a mesmerising loop. Two actors on separate screens conjugate verbs that become creepy through force of repetition: “I eat, you eat, we eat . . . ” The litany culminates in a cri de coeur: “I don’t want to die. You don’t want to die. We don’t want to die. This is fear of death.”

Amplifying the morbid theme, two green heads dangle chillingly upside-down, one with its mouth open, the other’s tongue lolling in a corpse-like grimace. Nauman contrived these decapitations in one of his more aggressive moods, and it takes an unusual person to enjoy cohabiting with these mischievous and ghastly creatures. But Perlstein has a soft spot for the hostile object. “I live in this labyrinth where I accumulate bizarre ‘gadgets’,” he has explained. “They are signs and symbols of unease and questioning, of those inexplicable moments when something unsettles me.” With a cannily honed instinct, he finds the exact balance between the outlandish and the merely unconventional.

This proudly cosmopolitan maven was born into a clan of Jewish diamond-cutters in Antwerp, who in 1939 fled the Nazis and landed in Rio de Janeiro. The Perlsteins later returned to Belgium, where Sylvio reclaimed the family business. He made frequent trips to New York and fell in with the back room crowd at Max’s Kansas City, where Andy Warhol held court. Perlstein has always cultivated artists, and he purchased many of his finest pieces directly from friends such as Dan Flavin, Nam June Paik, Niki de Sant Phalle and Gordon Matta-Clark.

Irving Penn's 'Broken Egg'
Irving Penn's 'Broken Egg'

He was a kind of art-world Zelig, befriending Man Ray at an exhibition of his photos in the late 1960s, and contriving to be in the room when Keith Haring painted Grace Jones’ body so that Robert Mapplethorpe could take her portrait. He wound up with many obscure masterpieces by major names: Berenice Abbott’s portrait of Jean Cocteau, asleep with his arms wrapped around an albino mannequin; André Kertész’s racy duo of interracial dolls locked in an erotic embrace; Méret Oppenheim’s bicycle seat upholstered with stinging bees.

Perlstein’s taste transcended schools. Minimalism, Fluxus and conceptual art all drew his attention in spurts. Pop art’s bright seductive surfaces interested him not at all. (Too easy.) Instead of settling on a favoured aesthetic approach, he let certain motives run through his choices, giving an eclectic show a kind of contrapuntal unity. Hansen’s hyper-real mannequin resonates with Saint Phalle’s lumpy whimsical Nanas, which in turn evolve into Paik’s robot made of television sets. Nauman’s hanging heads harmonise with Jasper Johns’ gouache of a lynched lightbulb.

Marcel Broodthaers's 'The Weight of an Artwork' (1965)
Marcel Broodthaers's 'The Weight of an Artwork' (1965)

Perlstein felt a particular affinity for fellow Belgian Marcel Broodthaers, who cracked, smashed, and painted foods into unappetising odes to his country. These concoctions look better at Hauser & Wirth than they did at MoMA a few years back. Perlstein’s personality gives coherence to an anarchic menu: a batch of eggs sensually (if disgustingly) coated in yolk-coloured paint or glued, grid-like to a red canvas; mussels overspilling a casserole, their shells black and slimy. These gross-out tableaux hang beside an exquisite photo of an egg that’s been cracked open to reveal a gleaming golden yolk. That one is by Irving Penn, the consummate photographer of elegance.

Now in his 80s, Perlstein has largely lost interest in building up earthly treasures. But at a time when so many collectors, guided by the market and consultants, dutifully assemble anthologies of the same big names in contemporary art, his idiosyncrasies look practically visionary. His ardour for the bizarre reaches a critical point in a round, windowless room stacked floor to ceiling with black-and-white photographs. The stylistic variety is dizzying, but the presiding spirit is that of the writer Georges Bataille, the surrealist renegade and guru of perverse eroticism. Bataille’s book, Story of the Eye, would have made a fine subtitle for this show about a man who has always known how to look.

To July 27,

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