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With modest means, social worker amasses local art collection

Tuesday, February 25, 2003

By Caroline Abels, Post-Gazette Cultural Arts Writer

Nathan Nissim was worried.

Because he owns so many pieces of contemporary art, he was concerned that people reading this article would think he's a snob.

Nathan Nissim doesn't earn much as a social worker for Allegheny County, but he has built one of the largest collections of work by contemporary Pittsburgh artists. This oil pastel, which hangs in his North Side living room, was painted by the late Slippery Rock University faculty member Michael Changnon. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette photos)

"I have a fear of being pretentious," he admitted, looking shyly at the floor of his North Side kitchen.

He was therefore reluctant to elaborate about his impressive art collection, thought to be one of the largest compilations of work by contemporary Pittsburgh artists.

"I was even wondering if I had anything interesting to tell you," he said nervously, cutting the pineapple upside-down cake he'd bought especially for the interview.

Despite his modesty, Nissim, a diminutive 56-year-old social worker who works for the Allegheny County Department of Aging, is known in local art circles for his good eye. His collection of about 50 local artworks and hundreds of antiques and found objects is so unique it is envied by gallery owners and museum curators alike.

Yet all Nissim says when asked why he bought a certain piece is, "I don't know, I just had to have it."

And that's about it.

"That's Nathan," said James Church, owner of Penn Gallery in Lawrenceville. "He's just a very humble person."

Given that humility is rare among art collectors, and that many local collectors don't show a great interest in Pittsburgh-made art, Nissim has won the hearts of gallery owners. He doesn't attend their wine-and-cheese openings or drop thousands of dollars in a single visit but drops in on Saturdays and consistently buys small pieces that, though relatively inexpensive, support the local artists whom galleries are trying to promote.

"If we had a hundred Nathan Nissims in this city, we could all function," said Kathleen Zimbicki, owner of Studio Z Gallery on the South Side, one of the many gallery owners charmed by Nissim's eccentric but kind nature -- part Woody Allen, part Art Garfunkel.

Nissim's apartment, which takes up two floors in a row house on the Mexican War Streets, is peppered with paintings, collages, watercolors, assemblages, sculptures, relics, minerals, marbles, carnival masks, antique books and architectural odds and ends, all of which have little in common except that Nathan Nissim likes them.

He is drawn to the abstract. Spheres, too. And assemblages in particular -- he's even made a few himself because, he says, "I can't draw."

"I don't think his collection is for everybody," Church said, "but he knows what he's looking for, and he finds beauty where others fail to look."

In his hallway: a giant photo of toy soldiers by Corey Lachat; a flat latex work by Adrienne Heinrich; a life-size cardboard cutout by Karl Mullen; a gaming wheel from a Polish social hall; and other small works hidden above transoms and beneath light switches.

In his living room: an oil pastel of a battleship by the late Michael Changnon; a Leonard Leibowitz print on which the artist etched Nissim's initials; a work by David Pohl featuring a Buddha head painted on a banjo; and a half-dozen tables covered with marbles and minerals.

In his bathroom: a 5-foot-high metal assemblage by Robert Villamagna displaying the word "Anger" in large letters; a child's drawing of two ghost-like figures that reminds Nissim of work by Edvard Munch; and an antique 12-shot pistol with a rusted pinfire. ("It was found in an outhouse, which is why it's in the bathroom.")

Graham Shearing, a local critic and collector, notes that when you walk through Nissim's apartment, "you see valuable things next to things of no worth. He has, in essence, two collections -- the found objects and the art objects -- but in terms of how he values them, there's no difference."

Michael Olijnyk, curator of exhibitions at the Mattress Factory, appreciates how Nissim has placed his objects next to each other with great thought, "almost like a narrative."

One of Nathan Nissim's favorite finds is this magic-marker drawing made by a former resident of Mayview State Hospital. He keeps it in a closet because magic marker fades easily in light.

"It's not the Warhol above the mantle or the Lichtenstein about the credenza in the dining room -- it's everywhere," Olijnyk says. "Someone didn't make those decisions for him'; they're a mirror of him."

Unlike Pittsburgh's wealthy art collectors, Nissim doesn't own anything that's guaranteed to appreciate in value -- no Warhols, no Pollocks, no Rauschenbergs. He maintains he couldn't own something as an investment if he didn't like to look at it.

"If I had a Faberge egg, I'd probably sell it," he said. "It's too polished. I like iron and broken things ... although I don't know what that says about me psychoanalytically."

Even if he wanted expensive, coveted pieces, "it would be a question of funds."

"I don't make that much. Because I'm a social worker, anything over $1,500 would be absurd."

Nissim is frequently compared to Herbert and Dorothy Vogel -- the unassuming New York couple who quietly purchased early works by the 20th century's best artists while earning a living as a postal clerk and librarian, respectively. Although their collection is now in the National Gallery of Art, the Vogels, like Nissim, never wanted to sell their pieces because they were so attached to them.

Nissim, who emigrated here from Greece when he was 6 years old, says he's really not sure how he developed his eye for art, having studied history and teaching at Youngstown State and Duquesne University.

But the books stacked next to his bed show a mind in training -- books on Paul Klee, gemstones, antique marbles and the tribal arts of Africa, Oceania and Southeast Asia.

Last year, Shearing included Nissim in a show he helped curate at the Mattress Factory. Called "Gestures," it was a collection of work owned or made by people who work in different disciplines. To that show, Nissim contributed 54 pieces of ephemera -- his snow globes, African relics, iron objects.

"I hope you aren't a collector yourself because it's terrible -- seeing things, wanting things," Nissim said as he pointed out the treasures around his apartment. Because he falls in love with objects so easily, he is grateful to live in Pittsburgh, where art is less expensive than in larger cities.

But what if he were rich?

He'd buy a painting by Paul Klee, he said. And he'd travel anywhere to buy art -- "except maybe New Jersey."

Caroline Abels can be reached at cabels@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2614.

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