Last October, Lebanese luxury retail mogul Tony Salamé opened a glittering shopping mall on the beachfront in Beirut. Designed by British architect David Adjaye, the $100m Aïshti building offers brands from Burberry to Moncler to Prada in a shining black and white interior, wrapped around by a fretted red metal grid. Key to the whole project, however, has been the construction of a 40,000sq ft exhibition space, also designed by Adjaye, with a contrasting spare, smooth concrete aesthetic, offering high ceilings and extended wall space to best show ambitious works of contemporary art by international artists, as well as more intimate spaces where smaller groups of works or works by a single artist can be displayed. Here, Salamé will mount regular exhibitions drawn from his Aïshti Foundation, which has at its core a collection of over 2,000 artworks.
Salamé, now in his late 40s, has been collecting art seriously for 15 years. Rather than taking on an in-house curator, he has been led by his own voracious interests and by serendipitous encounters with artists and curators. In the mid-2000s, Salamé met the American art adviser, writer, curator and dealer Jeffrey Deitch at Art Basel, who guided his buying for several years, but for the past few, Salamé has also been much influenced by Massimiliano Gioni, the Italian curator of the imaginative 2013 Venice Biennale, The Encyclopedic Palace. And it was Gioni, now artistic director of the New Museum in New York, whom Salamé invited to curate the first show in the new space, New Skin.
New Skin brought to the fore a central strength of Salamé’s collection: a thread of abstraction that leads from the first artists Salamé began seriously to collect – those associated with the Arte Povera movement such as Lucio Fontana (Concetto Spaziale, Attese), Piero Manzoni and Alberto Burri – to contemporary artists rediscovering the language of abstraction, such as the Americans Glenn Ligon and Wade Guyton, the Swiss artist Urs Fischer, the Italian Rudolf Stingel, the German artist Kerstin Brätsch and the young English artist Alice Channer, whose 2013 work New Skin, exhibited by Gioni at the abovementioned Venice Biennale, and now in Salamé’s collection, gave the show its title. “My job is more like his dietician, not his adviser,” Gioni jokes, “It’s to say this is wonderful, but you know what, you don’t need it.” Salamé admits that he is a compulsive collector. “As a child, I collected old books and stamps. After studying in Beirut, it was antique carpets.” Later, he began to buy Old Masters and antiques, before turning his attention to arte povera. “My tastes may have changed,” he says, “but since then, the only things that have remained constant are those very abstract arte povera monochromes: the black Burri and the white Manzoni.”
Around 2009, Salamé met Gioni, then director of the Trussardi Foundation in Milan. “I had heard of Tony through common friends, so we invited him to one of Trussardi’s opening dinners,” says Gioni. “He came with [his wife] Elham; they were so beautifully stylish, putting everyone to shame.” He adds, “I don’t have relationships with many collectors, perhaps two or three. Tony is genuinely enthusiastic and dedicated.” For his part, Salamé says, “Before we met, I always admired Massimiliano, because he was young, fun and always laughing.” He also admired his judgment and would take a look at any artist Gioni recommended. “When he did the Venice Biennale, I liked his taste. So many of the artworks that I saw, I later bought.” He went on to support not only the Venice Biennale, but also shows Gioni organised at the New Museum, including, in 2014, an exhibition of art from the Middle East, Here and Elsewhere.
For Salamé art is very much a vehicle “to travel the world,” says Gioni. “I tease him that he is a Phoenician – he has a home in every port. He believes in trading ideas.” He also highlights that “the trajectory of Tony’s collection coincided in the past 10 years with a renaissance of interest in abstraction among many younger artists”, and it is here that Gioni has had most influence, encouraging Salamé to buy works by Rudolf Stingel or Kerstin Brätsch. For Gioni, what is interesting is how in an era dominated by the rampant development of information technology, “younger artists use abstraction to deal with the pressures of that technology, both as technique and as a theme”. He points to Wade Guyton, “who makes sublime paintings that look like Rothko or Barnett Newman, but which are made with a computer”, or to “Christopher Wool [Untitled], whose silkscreens act like a computer screen”. Salamé has been thrilled by the shape that Gioni has given to his collection.
Among his proudest recent purchases have been the 10m-long Strip [930-5], 2013, by Gerhard Richter, an artist much admired by Gioni, which he bought from a show at Marian Goodman, London. Salamé says he rarely buys at auction, preferring studio visits, and collaborating with galleries such as Massimo De Carlo, Sadie Coles, Regen Projects, Gavin Brown, Max Hetzler and the young New York gallery 47 Canal. Gioni, meanwhile, is especially pleased to have introduced him to the wildly inventive work of Urs Fischer, including the beautiful aluminum sculpture Ix, 2006-2008, and the hanging lilac shape, Dunno, from 2012, which are among several works by the artist Salamé has bought.
When I ask which holes he has left to fill, Salamé protests, “I can’t have any holes – I’ve just built this gallery!” Gioni, meanwhile, knows better. “One question Tony is always asking is: ‘Is there a young artist I should be buying?’ In that sense he is a great learner.”