Enrico Navarra, art world visionary, is dead at 67

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Enrico Navarra, art world visionary, is dead at 67
Enrico Navarra in an undated photo with monograph on Jean-Michel Basquiat, whom he played a crucial role in establishing as more than just a chic artist of the moment. Photo: Raul Higuera.

by Neil Genzlinger

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Enrico Navarra, a gallerist, collector and art-book publisher with a visionary instinct who promoted artists, especially Jean-Michel Basquiat, before the rest of the art world had fully appreciated the importance of their work, died July 21 in Le Muy, France. He was 67.

Justine de Noirmont of his gallery, Galerie Enrico Navarra in Paris, said the cause was emphysema.

Navarra was a charismatic behind-the-scenes figure whose career was defined by “not being afraid to believe in something no one else was believing in,” Grégoire Billault, head of the contemporary art department at Sotheby’s in New York, said in a phone interview.

Basquiat, the Brooklyn-born artist who started as a graffitist and became a hot commodity before his overdose death in 1988 at 27, was already receiving attention when Navarra bought his first Basquiat in 1986. But Navarra helped establish him as more than just a chic artist of the moment.

He published an extensive Basquiat monograph in 1996, and he organized or promoted exhibitions of his art all over the world. His efforts helped Basquiat’s work become the focus of serious auction-house sales, most famously in 2017, when Sotheby’s sold an untitled 1982 painting of a skull for $110.5 million. That was the sixth-highest price ever paid for a work of fine art, according to news accounts.

Navarra’s efforts laid the groundwork for that moment, Billault said. After the sale, he said, “My first phone call was to him.”

But Basquiat was just the best-known artist championed by Navarra. Navarra was among the first to explore the Asian art market, and his gallery’s publishing arm brought out a series of “Made by” books — “Made by Chinese” (1996), “Made by Brazilians” (2014), “Made by Thai” (2019) and so on — spotlighting contemporary art in countries not on much of the art world’s radar.

“His entire career was to connect all these dots,” Billault said, “believing in artists who were not the mainstream at the time.”

Navarra was born Feb. 6, 1953, in Paris. His mother died when he was a young boy; he was raised by his father, Fernando, a tailor.

Navarra had no formal education in art or related fields; his first jobs were in sales. One job, as a lithograph salesman, connected him to the art world, and eventually he struck up a friendship with Ida Chagall, daughter of Russian artist Marc Chagall, which proved pivotal.

He began working with the Chagall estate the year after the artist died in 1985, and she persuaded Navarra to open his own gallery to display Chagall works, which he did in 1989.

He also took those works around the world, including to places like China, where few were familiar with the artist.

“When you make a show in the United States, France or Australia, people know Chagall already,” he told The Sydney Morning Herald of Australia in 1995. “In China they don’t, but they are still able to respond to his color, the way he paints and the dreams he puts in his paintings.”

He took the same approach with Basquiat and other artists, showing them in Asia, Africa and elsewhere or quietly supporting exhibitions by others. Fred Hoffman, who published a Basquiat monograph, “The Art of Jean-Michel Basquiat,” through Navarra’s press in 2018, curated a Basquiat retrospective 15 years ago that was seen at the Brooklyn Museum of Art as well as in Los Angeles and Houston. He said Navarra and his staff were instrumental in securing key loans of works.

Navarra, a Frenchman of Italian heritage, was cosmopolitan in his understanding of art and its impact.

“From the outset of my association with Enrico,” Hoffman said by email, “I was singularly impressed by his keen insight into American culture, especially those artists focused on art as a reflection of the urban milieu.”

Navarra was fond of unconventional projects.

In the mid-1990s and again several years later, he put huge sculptures on the beach at Saint-Tropez, on the French Riviera. His international view of art was underscored in 1998 when he organized an exhibition at his Paris gallery called “Mondial” — “global” or “universal” in French — in conjunction with the World Cup, the international soccer match, which was held in France that year. Dozens of artists from France and other countries were invited to create works inspired by the World Cup.

Four years later, when the tournament was held in Japan and South Korea, he joined with exhibitor Gallery Hyundai to bring the concept to South Korea, a show that featured 70 artists from 19 countries.

Billault, though, said that much of Navarra’s impact came not from exhibitions but from facilitating networking by artists, patrons, buyers and others, often at gatherings at his home in Le Muy.

“He built his business on really connecting people, not only traveling around the globe like crazy but inviting everyone to his house,” he said. “Constantly there were 30 people in the house. Lunch and dinner were always occasions for people to talk to each other.”

Navarra is survived by his companion, fashion stylist Laurence Poggi, with whom he recently formed a fashion label, and three children: Aurelia, from a relationship with Christine Schreyer, and Doriano and Chiara, from a relationship with Sophie Guillet.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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