The Jean-Paul Najar Foundation: Maintaining A Legacy In Dubai

Jean-Paul Najar Foundation, Alserkal Avenue, Harper's Bazaar Art

The Jean-Paul Najar Foundation at Alserkal Avenue. Photography: Birgitte Godsk

The foundation continues the vision of its founder from its new space in Dubai’s Alserkal Avenue

As one goes up the stairs of the Jean-Paul Najar Foundation in Dubai’s Alserkal Avenue, it’s impossible to miss the bold red canvas with delicately painted concentric white circles hanging prominently on the wall. Painted in 2009 in oil on wood by American artist Linda Francis, the work is called Neutron Star. Its complex symmetries easily transfix and delight the spectator into a long and meditative gaze. The artwork, which forms part of the Foundation’s inaugural exhibition Jean-Paul Najar: Vision & Legacy, is also its first acquisition. Curated by Jessamyn Fiore, through preeminent artworks from Najar’s collection as well as archival materials, the exhibition paints a vivid picture of the late collector’s artistic spirit as well as kinship with his artists.

The half-Egyptian, half-Columbian Jean-Paul Najar was born in Buenos Aires in 1948 and passed away in 2014, spent the larger part of his life in Paris acquiring works by French and American artists. An economist by training, as well as a photographer, sculptor, fashion and jewellery designer, and classically trained pianist, his life’s work was his art collection. His large collection includes works by artists such as Gordon Matta-Clark, Christian Bonnefoi, and Stephen Rosenthal. “Where it comes from, this necessity?” Najar once said. “Probably the necessity of collecting is related to the necessity of giving a sense to our biologic life.” He added,

“Through art, sublimation is completed in a way that my brain, my spirit, is totally satisfied”

Of note is Najar’s participation in a dialogue between American and European artists that took place in Paris during the 1970s. It looked at abstraction and philosophy as two genres to be used as means to not only represent reality, but to present it as it is. Such an ontological interest into the nature of art led Najar to have a particular penchant for abstraction or rather, post-minimalist art. Writing on the subjective and ontological order of the Najar Collection he states, “Despite the fact that it is difficult to speak of something that we have ourselves created and that still conserves its enigmatic side, it is possible to analyse that thing or object on the basis of the ‘subject of the unconscious.’ This work of the unconscious made possible the constitution of this collection where the reassembled images marked the absence of the subject of representation and the presence of the subject of the unconscious.” The works in Vision & Legacy reinstate exactly this: An almost spiritual quest to portray reality through the frame of abstraction.

The Mezannine at the Jean-Paul Najar Foundation. Photography: Elmer Magallanes

Najar’s post-minimalist artworks now have a new home in Dubai. While the Gulf megapolis might seem at first to be an unlikely base for a collector who spent so much of his time with European and American artists, its new bespoke home replete with two levels, designed by Mario Jossa of Marcel Breuer & Associates, supports Dubai’s ever-expanding arts scene as well as its platform for a dialogue between Eastern and Western art. Deborah, Najar’s daughter who was most recently Bonham’s representative in the Middle East from 2011 until June 2015, has spearheaded the move of her father’s extraordinary collection to Dubai to make his new private museum. “It was a question of opportunity,” says Deborah. “Over the past ten years the art scene has grown from strength to strength, thanks to home-grown catalysts such as Alserkal Avenue and Art Dubai. Today the whole world looks to Dubai, and knows what is happening here, which was not the case five years ago. In many ways, 2016 is the coming of age of the UAE art scene, and we had the opportunity, through our partnership with Alserkal Avenue, to be a part of it.” Since opening, the Foundation has received more than 11,000 visitors, including museum directors from the Guggenheim, the MoMA, the Met Breuer, LACMA and the Pompidou Center, artists, gallerists and collectors from around the world. “The Foundation has a three-pronged mission: Firstly, to show the collection; secondly, to support the artists by giving them institutional shows and publications; and thirdly, to converse with a new generation of collectors.” But what is at the forefront of the Foundation’s mission is Jean-Paul’s legacy. “We are inspired by his dedicated support of the artists,” adds Deborah. “We are very fortunate that most of the artists in the collection are alive and still prolific, and very attached to Jean-Paul, and hence to the Foundation. We work closely with all of them and endeavor to bring them to Dubai for the shows. We continue to acquire and commission works, and have a strong educational focus.”

The interior of the Jean-Paul Najar Foundation. Photography: Birgitte Godsk

In contrast to the other galleries in Alserkal Avenue, apart from Custot Gallery Dubai that also shows predominantly international art, the Jean-Paul Najar Foundation displays solely Western modern and contemporary art. While artwork made by Middle Eastern artists has been largely the focal point of the region’s art scene over the past decade, the display of such Twentieth-Century Western art adds to the crucial development of an artistic dialogue between cultures, which looks to the more recent past as it does to the present. “This was one of our motivations—the collection has been very nomadic from the start, with artists and artworks crossing the Atlantic constantly over five decades,” says Deborah. “That is how it all started—when the US government brought the first American show to Paris in 1968—l’art du réel at the Grand Palais. Since then, the relationship between Europe and America has been one of exchange, inspiration and sometimes competition. Our Founder bridged these two continents, and was very excited to show in Dubai, taking it further East, thus further uniting the US, Europe and Asia.”

But there is also the importance of an aesthetic dialogue. “Islamic art is traditionally abstract and often geometric, and one cannot help but see the clear resonances this has with the collection’s own aesthetic,” she adds. Housing the collection in Dubai is a question that Deborah has been asked countless times. And why not, move to Dubai? she states,

“As the first Western institution in the region, we have a message to convey, on how much art is loved and followed here, and how warmly we have been welcomed and supported” 

The Foundation’s mission is didactic. Not only does it host exhibitions of works from the collection but it also offers the chances the public engagement through talks and performances. “The educational facet is very important to us, as this is our best means of communication and transmission,” says Deborah. The Foundation has been hosting private tours of the exhibition Vision & Legacy since 1 July, and this coming fall will see New York City-based artist Judy Rifka come to Dubai for a two-week residency. Dubai-based curator Wafa Jadallah will be overseeing the programming, which will include talks, workshops, as well as an apprenticeship for a UAE-based artist to work personally with Judy. The residency will culminate with the solo show Judy Rifka: RETROactive displaying the artist’s new work alongside those from the '70s and '80s from the Jean-Paul Najar Collection.

A faintly coloured yellow canvas by Marcia Hafif hangs next to Linda Francis’ poignant work. It emanates warmth and a lightness of being. Painted in 1974, its title is Stronium Yellow Chromate. Next to it is an untitled work dating to 1964 by James Bishop. Its strips of colours in shades of blue, pink, red, mossy green and cream remind me of Colour Field Painting, a style of abstract painting that emerged in New York City during the 40s and 50s. Pure abstraction. No figures. Warmth and peace radiate from these works. And finally, there are some examples in Dubai. – Rebecca Anne Proctor

Judy Rifka: RETROactive will open at the Jean-Paul Najar Foundation on September 18, 2016.

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Jean-Paul Najar Foundation, Alserkal Avenue, Harper's Bazaar Art

The Jean-Paul Najar Foundation at Alserkal Avenue. Photography: Birgitte Godsk