Ralph Segreti On Abstraction, Politics and Responsibility in His Collection
Andrea Emelife talks to patron Ralph Segreti about the artists he champions, including Theaster Gates
Andrea Emelife talks to patron Ralph Segreti about the artists he champions, including Theaster Gates
Aindrea Emelife: Something I always like to ask people is about their origin story, and how they got into loving art.
Ralph Segreti: I do not come from a collecting family. I come from a standard American, lower middle-class family. I’m from Chicago and, growing up, we used to do school trips to the Art Institute, which to me is one of the best museums in the world. Going there was really impactful on me. I studied business, but I did my junior year abroad, studying art and archaeology in Greece. I knew I was going into a business career and collecting was one way to keep my hand in the art world. I always wanted to live with art. I started collecting vintage posters (which a lot of people have told me is a gateway drug for art collectors) and, from there, it moved into prints, then into ‘real’ art. I’m drawn to simplicity, and there was already a seed of conceptualism and minimalism in my tastes. I found, over time, figurative works just don’t speak to me in the same way as Rashid Johnson’s or Theaster Gates’s works do.
AE: How did your connection with Johnson start?
RS: Because I’m from Chicago, I have a loyalty to artists with a Chicago connection. Rashid grew up in Evanston and went to the Art Institute, so owning something by him was always an aspiration. I was lucky to get one of his ‘Anxious Men’ series (2015–ongoing) fairly early. I was doing a studio visit with Angel Otero and he walked me over to Rashid’s studio, and there it was: a work that just floored me. As we went through the Trump era and then through the pandemic, I thought that the ‘Anxious Men’ really, really spoke to the times – almost more than any other work. I just think Rashid’s probably one of the most significant voices of his time.
AE: I’ve been thinking about Romare Bearden 1946 essay ‘The Negro Artist’s Dilemma’ and the tendency to locate works by Black artists in sociological terms, rather than sheer merit, and how that can make Black abstraction so fascinating. It was great to see the Kevin Beasley you have [Elevation III, 2020], with its thick reds trapping the cotton and soil and sticks from Virginia, and the Jennie C. Jones, which moves the collection towards a greater minimalism. It would be too simple to conjecture that your collection focuses on ‘the African American experience’, or minimalism, but I’d love to hear how you would categorize the works you collect.
RS: I didn’t start out intentionally collecting African American artists by any stretch. I’d say I started collecting artists of my generation who have strong voices. I have a preference for work centred around Chicago, and work centred around social justice, and that naturally lends itself to African American artists, and to some queer artists. I have an affinity for work that is heavily moored in texture, Black artists have often drawn from a prior generation that worked with found materials. White artists, on the other hand, have been drawing on the Agnes Martins of the world, artists who had access to ample amounts of material and paints. As a result, many Black artists working today use a great amount of texture and generate meaning from that. I learned that from the curator Mark Godfrey; he came around once for a collection visit and it was a real lightbulb moment for me. Because I am drawn to these textural elements, I have wall pieces, and sculptures and works that are using unorthodox materials like tar and wood, and fire hoses. But I have very little in the way of painting.
AE: I’d love to know the story of your fire hose piece by Theaster Gates [A Stormy Sky with Hail Withheld for the Birth of Daughters, 2013]. Is that a cornerstone within your collection?
RS: It is, with the Kara Walker [Untitled, 2002–5] and a large red ‘Anxious Man’ piece by Rashid [Anxious Red Painting October 30th, 2020]. Those are seminal pieces within the collection. It was pure serendipity that I was able to get it. I had been collecting Theaster’s work for a while, including some smaller fire hose pieces but, when I had access to the works, I didn’t have the budget; when I had the budget, I didn’t necessarily have access to the right works. A friend who was a dealer moved to a new role, and she asked what was on my wish list and I told her: a fire hose piece by Theaster. At that point, they were mostly destined for institutions only, but she came back with an opportunity to get one on the secondary market. It happened to be a very special piece, in a very special format. I’ve talked with Theaster about it subsequently, and he said it’s a format that he holds very dear to himself and will keep fairly rare. They have a similar one in the Art Institute, which is one of the only ones that I’ve seen like this. They go back to riots in Chicago, where the police turned fire hoses on protestors. I feel lucky to be the caretaker of this work.
AE: I was also really drawn to the Gates shoe shine piece [Mr. Cole, 2010]. It’s quite a statement. What made you take on such a daring work?
RS: That was the first piece of conceptual art I ever bought. Probably about ten years ago, I was at an art fair in Chicago, and there were about nine of those works at Kavi Gupta’s stand. At the time Theaster was working with a number of different mediums and exploring new ones. In Theaster’s 2009 show at the MCA Chicago he showed shoeshine chairs, which he activated by shining people’s shoes on them for five dollars. I think it was about the empowering nature of work and drawing people up. It was really something. I contemplated the chair for a while. It was a big leap. I was at my father’s 80th birthday party in Chicago, when Kavi called me to find out what my final decision was, and I took it. I remember thinking how I couldn’t go back in and tell my dad that I had just bought a shoeshine chair. He’d think I was nuts. But it’s such a strong work; it has so much meaning behind it. It’s not the easiest work to display but we have it in the library, and it’s a great focal point down there.
AE: Your library is a great place to touch on as well. I loved the works there by Samuel Levi Jones, these skinned books, arranged into grid-like compositions [Guise, 2018]. To me, they’re about questioning assumed truths.
RS: I’m in a newbuild apartment and when we decided we were going to have a small library, there was no question that Sam’s work was going to be the focal point. We actually commissioned him to make that work. It’s made of criminal law books, and I believe his thought was that, although there are these notions such as freedom and justice for all, that’s a guise: laws can be interpreted in a way to subjugate certain people, and there isn’t necessarily equality under the law.
AE: Social justice is something that I’ve been focusing on in my curatorial practice and in my writing. In general, I’ve been calling out to the art world – to artists, to collectors – to step up more for social issues. I’m wondering what you thought about how a collecting practice could be seen as radical in a sense, or as a kind of activism?
RS: We are more and more starting to see institutions recognise injustice, whether it’s with regard to the opioid crisis, or Black Lives Matter. That’s really invigorating to see, but I don’t think of my collection as radical. I think collections can break barriers and promote artists who can be radical. But as a collector and a protector of these works, I don’t necessarily view myself as radical. I do think one of the reasons it’s important to collect art of our era is because the artists themselves have a potentially transformative impact on society. I think that that’s where the radical element can come in, if that makes sense.
AE: Lauren Halsey seems a great example of this. I love the brick work by her you have [Untitled, 2020] with the incising of ‘black owned’, ‘black pride’, ‘Bloods and Crips’ into white wood.
RS: Lauren is a fascinating artist and it would be a glaring hole not to have her represented in a I first met her at David Kordansky Gallery in LA, when she had her show there in early 2020. I don’t have the space for some of the more traditional sculptural work that she does, but these amazing wall pieces are very impactful. And what I really liked about this one is it goes back to the 1992 riots in LA, in the wake of the police beating of Rodney King, which has a real dialogue with other works that we have just discussed: the Theaster fire hose, which goes back to the riots in Chicago, or Sam’s work, which goes back to criminal justice work. There’s a real common thread there. So, I was really happy that we were able to get access to this piece. I’m not going to lie: I do feel a bit self-conscious owning a work that says ‘black owned’ on it. But it’s been a really meaningful addition to the collection. We’ve also supported Lauren’s community work. She’s not the only artist that does community work: Theaster does too, of course. I think that’s really important and if you can help empower artists to do that, it’s really worthwhile collection like mine.
AE: If not having a work by Halsey would’ve been a hole in your collection, which artists do you feel are still missing and you’d love to add in the future?
RS: I would put them in two categories: those works that are missing that I’ll never have a chance to get, and then works that I still could hope to. There’s someone like Mark Bradford, absolutely a seminal artist of our time and who, from the perspective of abstraction and community engagement, would fit perfectly but I don’t know I’ll have the opportunity. Then there’s someone like Glenn Ligon, also seminal, where I really think at some point there will be an opportunity for me to get the right piece. That might not be one of the large black-on-black ‘Stranger’ paintings [1996–ongoing] that I might want, but something. I regret passing on a Simone Leigh when I had the chance, so I’d like to get something from her. And I really want one of the works by Prem Sahib he calls ‘sweat panels’. Prem’s practice is something I’d like to explore a lot more, he is just an incredibly talented and under-appreciated artist. His panels are minimalist works, but he’s very much engaged in the making of them. They’re very personal, which is why there aren’t that many of them. That’s very much on the wish list, when the time is right.
AE: Who are some artists you’re most excited about right now?
RS: The Jennifer Packer show at the Serpentine floored me. It really did. I’ve kind of given up on trying to acquire her work, but I want to follow where her practice goes because she’s just so remarkably talented. I’ve been exploring Aria Dean and Caroline Kent, both really interesting emerging artists. I’m hoping that I’ll get a piece by Aria this coming Frieze London, if Chateau Shatto are bringing her work. She is very conceptual, very intelligent. I have to mention Christina Quarles, Rachel Jones and Vaughn Spann. And then Harold Mendez, I just got a piece from him that I am lending to a show at the ICA Miami. I haven’t seen it yet, as it’s been lent out to three museum shows. You know, I tend to be as excited about the artists I have and where their practice goes as discovering new ones.
AE: Lastly, on Theaster Gates, what does it feel like as a supporter of him to see so many exhibitions of his work happening in this city?
RS: I’m really excited about the multitude of Theaster shows that we’re going to be getting here. They’re ceramic focused, which is a part of his practice I’ve never really explored in depth. Art has become so international, and the level of global support that he’s gotten, and the fact that he can take these resources and channel them back into Chicago, into a community that’s really important to me: it’s just really special.
“Theaster Gates: A Clay Sermon” on view at Whitechapel Gallery, London, until 9 January 2022.
This article first appeared in Frieze Week, October 2021 under the headline 'A Tale of Two Cities'