On the edge of Geneva’s historic Old Town there is a tall house built into the city walls; it was constructed in the 18th century to keep out marauders by the ancestors of its current owner, asset manager Eric Freymond. Today there is a bold red door in the wall, inviting curious visitors into the thickly fortified basement, where Freymond and his wife Caroline have created a small exhibition space, Espace Muraille. Here, among the dark stone arches, they share their inspiring collection of contemporary art in a series of exhibitions curated by Laurence Dreyfus, their art adviser.
Dreyfus has curated highly regarded exhibitions at such forward-looking institutions as the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, Parasol Unit in London and Lincoln Center in New York. The Chambres à Part exhibitions she has put together for the past 10 years at Paris art fair FIAC have become legendary. Her most recent exhibitions at Espace Muraille have included new installations by British fine-art ceramicist Edmund de Waal and the mesmerising paintings and videos of Iranian artist Shirazeh Houshiary.
But it is upstairs in the Freymonds’ newly appointed living quarters that their collaboration with Dreyfus is most visible, the painstakingly restored plasterwork and delicate cream walls providing a striking contrast to the Freymonds’ cutting-edge collection of contemporary sculpture. An arcing and joyful geometric composition of neon lights (Petite Acrobatie No 5, 201; similar works €75,000-€85,000) by the late French artist François Morellet hangs opposite the entrance, signalling a dominant theme of the collection: the use of light and colour to transform place and mood. Thus, in what might once have been an unexceptional dining room, a shimmering polygonal hanging sculpture (Duo-Colour Double Polyhedron Lamp, 2011; similar works £80,000-£100,000) by Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson diffuses an alluring green-gold light. In another work (A View Becomes a Window, 2013; similar works around €100,000) by the same artist, a book of hand-blown coloured glass pages invites the reader to play with light, colour and reflection. In the smaller of two grand reception rooms overlooking the garden, a stirring 2015 video piece (Untitled 13 [Panorama], about $130,000) by Israeli artist Michal Rovner hangs on the wall; from a distance it looks like a multicoloured striped textile, but on close examination is revealed to be an endless stream of people crisscrossing a vast mountainous landscape.
“We wanted to live with our art here in a contemporary way,” explains Freymond, whose collecting career began in the more traditional realm of 18th-century furniture, porcelain and paintings. It wasn’t until the couple bought a new house in Gstaad in the early 2000s, that the thought of buying contemporary art crossed their minds. “The first concrete investment we made was four very small black ink and wash paintings by French artist Fabienne Verdier, who we met in a Paris gallery. Her work is completely new, but also a traditional artform,” says Freymond of the powerful, expressive pieces (Feuille d’Eau for the Abbaye de Sénanque and Homage to Saint Bernard from the 2004 series, about €4,000 each) that owe much to both abstract expressionism and Chinese calligraphy. Also honouring the past in a contemporary idiom, Ai Weiwei’s 2008 Marble Chair (€220,000) memorialises one of the only items his family was allowed to take into exile during China’s cultural revolution – a traditional wooden yoke-backed chair.
It was at another Paris exhibition – that of distinguished French abstract artist Monique Frydman, at the Espace Commines in 2008 – that the Freymonds first met Dreyfus, the curator of the show. “Monique told me they liked the Tarlatans, some of her very subtle textile works constructed from thin cotton veils impregnated with pigment,” says Dreyfus. “I instantly liked Eric and Caroline’s approach. They are not typical collectors; they really look hard at art and have a very deep love for the artists.” They stayed in touch and in due course developed a way of working that involves both Dreyfus and the Freymonds seeking out artists, and continually discussing their findings. “I was very lucky to find a couple with whom I have such a mutual understanding and shared sensibility,” reflects Dreyfus.
“It is partly a question of shared sensibility,” interjects Eric, “but Laurence also has an experience of the art world that we don’t. It is important to strike a balance between what the heart says and what reason advises.” The first works they bought on Dreyfus’s advice were some small gouaches (Untitled, 2000, £50,000-£70,000) by Anish Kapoor. “My next thought was that Shirazeh Houshiary, who I had met 15 or 20 years ago, would be very interesting to them,” says Dreyfus. “I try to share my knowledge of both the visual aspects of the art and the personality of the artist.”
This is clearly something that resonates with the Freymonds. “It is very important for us to know the artist, to understand the source of his or her creativity,” says Eric. “We collect because we love the spirit behind the work, and it is important for us to follow the evolution of an artist’s work over time.” The result is what Dreyfus calls a “deep collection, with at least 15 works by each artist”.
Given this close involvement, the Freymonds deliberate extensively over each artist they invest in. And looking again at their Geneva collection, a theme emerges: there’s the 2015 Blue Yellow Pink Mountain ($120,000-$140,000) by Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone, a totemic sculpture composed of three primary-colour-painted rocks; in the garden, two monumental bronze sculptures (Matrice di Bronzo, 2008, and Pelle di Foglie – 5 Foglie, 2011; similar pieces about £200,000) by Giuseppe Penone imitate trees; while another room is dedicated to two clusters of delicate polygonal structures (LGC 396/M+I, 2014; €60,000-€80,000) by Argentinian artist Tomás Saraceno, whose Aerocene installation of air-filled, sun-propelled spheres at the Grand Palais in 2015 was a highlight of the UN Climate Change Conference.
“We love nature and the idea of preserving the ecosystem,” says Eric. “This is perhaps the political aspect of our collection – our belief that artists can suggest ways to fix things and think about the future of the planet.” It is an ambition of Dreyfus to elucidate this focus; another, as she says, is to “fill in the gaps. It’s a moment of maturity for a collection when you can look at what is missing, which pieces and artists.” To which Freymond, laughing, responds: “There are always holes. There are holes in life, so it’s the same for the collection. But just look at all the beautiful things we do have.”