After spending a dozen years in London—working as a Sotheby’s specialist then a director at White Cube where he opened the gallery’s Hong Kong outpost; helped relaunch the career of Larry Bell; organized major museum shows for Anselm Kiefer and Mona Hatoum; assisted Damien Hirst in the creation of his diamond skull fantasy, For the Love of God; and pushed for funding of Christian Marclay’s epic film project, The Clock—Graham Steele was ready for a long overdue break.
So the morning after Bell opened his 2014 solo show at White Cube São Paulo, Steele officially took a sabbatical. “We opened on a Saturday, Larry and I had brunch at 11 on Sunday, and I met Ulysses at 10,” says Steele of the Brazilian actor Ulysses de Santi, whom he encountered less than 12 hours into his break—and just married in Rio atop Sugarloaf Mountain. “This is like a symbolic rebirth, like Graham 2.0.”
By this, Steele is not simply referring to his meteoric career trajectory or his recent nuptials, but the new lives he and de Santi have created in West Hollywood, where they moved into a glass-boxed townhouse after Steele became the senior director of Hauser Wirth & Schimmel two years ago.
“I’d have to say that Los Angeles was totally the wrong place for me in my mind until I couldn’t do the art world in the destructive way I had been doing,” says Steele, who would come to the city to recharge—with In ‘N’ Out Burgers, cleansing hikes, or the occasional screenwriting course—over the years when his chronic art fairtigue got the best of him. “It was this place I was afraid of making me soft but would always come back to visit—then I got seduced.”
For de Santi, the move opened up the possibility of pursuing his lifelong passion for Brazilian Modernist design while he waited in work visa limbo. With some logistical help from Steele, de Santi and his old friend/current business partner, the former Mendes Wood gallery director Cecilia Tanure, opened a furniture pop-up called Studio 55 on Melrose Avenue this winter. Filled with prime vintage examples from mid-century modernist icons like Sérgio Rodrigues, Geraldo de Barros, Jorge Zalszupin, Joaquim Tenreiro and Carlo Hauner and Martin Eisler’s Forma, the shop nearly sold out of all its offerings and a second iteration will open this March in Hong Kong during the run-up to Art Basel. While Steele is currently supplying the clients, de Santi is considering fairs like Design Miami and Zona Maco to broaden Studio 55’s base.
“We love that all his clients love the work and the overlap is amazing,” says de Santi. “But we want to do our own thing.”
Of course, one place the couple hopes to continue their overlap is in the budding art and furniture collection they have staged throughout their West Hollywood digs. In the first floor dining room, visitors are met with a bold red holographic Church Study painting by Larry Bell, the couple’s “spiritual godfather,” which sits above a selection of Czech glass from the 1930s and a limited edition Roy Lichtenstein work on paper. Around the Zalszupin dining table and Rodrigues chairs are two examples of Steele’s tenacious collecting habits: the first edition of Mona Hatoum’s + and −, a rake-equipped record player that essentially builds and erases a zen garden, and a mixed-media Bell canvas from 1989, which Steele found in an Australian auction of objects from a decommissioned Carnival cruise ship.
“See how horrible this frame is?” Steele says with a laugh, pointing to a hole in the canvas patched with duct tape. “They didn’t know how to make a condition report because it was an auction house used to selling old crap, but I bought it sight unseen because Larry laughed when I told him the ship was being taken apart. He’s going to add areas and play around with it.”
Another work in progress is a functional bar: below the stairs to the second floor sits a Zalszupin bar cart, which holds a set of Pae White popcorn sculptures and a 1930s Batik chop, a design fetish Steele adopted from his grandmother. “We don’t use it as a bar cart so we actually might use this one,” says de Santi, pointing to a copper-lined jacaranda Paulo Alves curio cabinet. De Santi’s flourishes are subtler than Steele’s, but poignant. Above the Zalszupin cart he installed a tiny 18th-century Cusco-style Madonna and Child portrait beside a Gerhard Richter edition of the same size.
“I would never have thought to put these together, but they’re the perfect size and the perfect dialogue—contemporary and traditional icons,” says Steele, remarking that the Richter falls within the “Ulysses-friendly” spectrum of works that complement his love for Brazilian modernism and geometric abstraction. A Josef Albers print in the bathroom—Steele’s first gift to de Santi—provides balance in the wallpapered space that also plays home to a Roman funerary urn, a Tom of Finland sketch, and one of three spin paintings Hirst gave the couple as housewarming gifts. As you might have guessed, gobsmacking gifts—mostly commemorating Steele’s birthdays—abound in the three-story space. Highlights include a painted photograph from Kiefer, part of an ongoing series with imagery from an iconic sculpture the artist figured into his Barjac installation site in the south of France, above the double height fireplace, and two statues in the kitchen by Raqib Shaw that drop the rape of the Sabine women into an art history blender and mix it up with various mythologies and S&M sex. Shaw also made the couple a “crazy portrait of the two of us as love monkeys,” says Steele, joking, “one is holding a whip and one is chained. I’m assuming the one with the whip/power is Ulysses.”
Like the couple itself, the collection is a half-whimsical, half-serious mix of mid-century Brazilian furniture gems from de Santi’s sourcing missions (on which he always picks up new glass works from Rio artist Jacqueline Terpins, because he says, “I’m obsessed with her”); antiques and objects from any number of Steele’s adventures over the past two decades (from a thumb-sized 18th century Italian edition of Dante’s Paradiso to 17th-century French crowns atop a 1520 statue of a famous Christ figure by Benedetto Buglioni that Steele says, “is one of our treasures as my mother’s family is from Tuscany”); and iconic artworks—from tiny Kusama pumpkins to Christian Marclay cyanotypes and a 1965 Larry Bell cube—that demonstrate their devotion to collecting, supporting, and living with the artists they love. “For us, it’s all about mixing,” says Steele, pointing to a sculpture by his grandfather. “His motto: Live what you love.”
The best example of that, believe it or not, resides in the basement-level guest room where Steele keeps the first Mule painting by Carroll Dunham. It was the only work Steele couldn’t sell from Dunham’s final show at White Cube in 2006 and when he finally had the money to buy it eight years later, he tracked it down at the artist’s studio via the art dealer Barbara Gladstone.
“This to me was about leaving White Cube and everything coming full circle and me being gay and this whole weird attack on the American male,” says Steele of the massive canvas featuring “a father figure transformed by a vaginal opening” adorned with trash from the artist’s studio. “There was so much in this painting I thought was amazing and Ulysses was like, ‘I don’t get it.’ But he appreciates the fact that it means something to me.”
Sounds like a recipe for a great collection—and marriage.