Graham Steele's collection

Graham Steele's collection

From a 15th Century Jesus sculpture in the playroom to dick pics in the guest bed, artworld icon, Graham Steele, shows us his collection. The former partner at Hauser and Wirth lives in Los Angeles with his husband, Ulysses de Santi, and their daughter, Asher. Graham and Ulysses are both private dealers and advisers, balancing business with their own collecting obsession.

5 min read

Graham Steele Collection

"By surrounding myself with queer expression, queerness ceased to be an abstract concept and became something lived, personal and yet still open."

Avant Arte: What was the first work of art you were obsessed with?

Graham Steele: It was this monoprint of a pig on Japanese rice paper I bought when I was seven. Maybe it was the Vermont farm boy in me, but I just loved this pig. It wasn't a choice. It was impulsive – love at first sight. It was a ‘how do I make this work?’ kind of a situation. That’s been the case with so many artworks since then “I can't actually afford this, or, I don't even know how I'm going to pay for this but we'll figure something out.”

I used some of my allowance and borrowed money from my mother to make up the $50. It hung above my bed at home next to a Magritte poster (the reality vs the dream) until I moved out for college.

Avant: What is the most unexpected item you own?

GS: I’m not religious in any way, but I have a 1520 sculpture of Jesus by Benedetto Buglioni. It’s so current it reminds me of a Jeff Koons.

Jesus by Benedetto Buglioni

Avant: What’s something you’d love to add to your collection?

GS: A Sérgio de Carmago from between 1962 and 1968. All white. I can picture it in our Sao Paulo apartment which is mostly monochrome.

Avant: How do you find a balance between preserving these precious objects and living with them at home? 

GS: On the furniture side, everyone always goes “Oh, we can't possibly eat at this table” and Ulysses always responds “it's furniture!” These are things that were made to be used. These are things that are made to be loved as part of the home. I love watching my daughter play with blocks next to a painting by our friend Ryan Sullivan – he loved the idea that it was in a nursery. Plus it's polyurethane paint, it's very durable. It's not that we're precious about things, or in any way reckless, but we live with these objects and they're a part of our lives.

Graham Steele Collection Dining Table

Oscar Niemeyer Chaise

Jorge Zalszupin Bar Cart

Avant: How has collecting changed how you view art? 

GS: I wrote my master’s thesis on Tom of Finland and Jean Cocteau when the idea of owning these things was not even on the horizon. When I reread what I had written, I see that my perspective was very much of a man coming to terms with his own sexuality. I’m from a generation where there was a deep rooted feeling of gay shame.

By surrounding myself with queer expression, queerness ceased to be an abstract concept and became something lived, personal and yet still open. It started out as an innocent way of expressing my own pride and it evolved alongside my relationship with my sexuality, visibility, and understanding my own place of privilege and desire

Avant: Tell us more about this queer erotic art collection…

GS: It's not a sex dungeon (if it was I would celebrate that too). It expresses queer desire and celebrates the queer body. There are about 300-350 pieces. Some things are incredibly explicit. Some things are made by straight artists. Some things are made by women looking at gay men. Some things are just women looking at women. There is an openness to the collection, which is what I really enjoy.

Framed Tom of Finland artwork

En Plain Air by Krzysztof Strzelecki

Avant: What do you mean by explicit? Is anything off limits?

GS: There’s an image from Robert Mapplethorpe’s Black Book. I bought it with the knowledge that it is a deeply problematic objectification of the Black male body. I didn’t feel comfortable hanging it. So I went to Paul Sepuya (a queer photographer based here in Los Angeles) and asked him to respond to the Mapplethorpe. He gave me two images from his archive of him naked holding the camera – taking back the agency of the Black body. I hung those images next to each other. 

Avant: You’ve come a long way since the monoprint of the pig, what are your current favourites?

GS: I think my favourite is Cadmus's painting of his lover from 1941. He uses this unbelievable ancient technique of egg tempura but he makes it so beautifully modern. I’ll also answer on behalf of Ulysses, as we have different tastes – he’s painfully chic. His favourite is a Manoucher Yektai from 1961. It’s an amazing abstract piece that is verging towards the figurative.

Andre Delfau

Avant: Any advice for new collectors?

GS: Showing up is half the battle, that’s what my grandfather always said. Take advantage of websites and Instagram, but don’t be afraid to reach out to people and tell them about yourself. No matter where you are in the world, there'll be local galleries that can introduce you to fantastic local talent.

Above all, It's not that serious. If you love something and then you're deeply embarrassed by it 10 years later – who cares? We all grow, we all do things and we all start somewhere.

Graham Steele hallway collection

Avant: Why do you think people collect?

GS: I think that collecting is more of an addiction than taught or heredity, but in the best possible way. What we are doing is surrounding ourselves with things that propel us into a way of living that makes us happy and hopefully makes us better humans.

Avant: Do you think your daughter will collect?

GS: Asher is already collecting her small figures, be they guanacos or Cocomelon figurines so I think the apple has not fallen too far from the tree!

Graham, Ulysses & Asher

We're interested in collections of all kinds. Have one to share? Get in touch.



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