The eclectic collection of Italy’s ‘Peggy Guggenheim’

CNN  — 

As names go, it’s quite a mouthful – Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo. But it’s one that everybody in the world of contemporary art knows.

The diminutive art collector and patron from Turin has been described as “Italy’s Peggy Guggenheim,” and Sandretto Re Rebaudengo seems to like the comparison. The legendary American art collector, who died 40 years ago, is a heroine of hers and, indeed “much more than an icon.” Patrizia has read everything there is to read about Guggenheim.

Perfectly coiffured, immaculately and classically dressed, everything offset by a chunky necklace of vintage American costume jewelry, Sandretto Re Rebaundgo is ready for our morning interview.

She shakes my hand. “Patrizia,” she says with a warm smile. Between the occasional sip of cappuccino, what follows is what you might call a “torrente” of words. In an hour and a half, I manage just a dozen or so questions.

Previous interviewers have seemed a little gushing about the Italian collector, referring to her “kinetic energy,” her “daunting work ethic,” her dedication “to discovering and nurturing new talent.”

My time with her suggests that they are, in fact, absolutely right.

She begins by admitting that collecting was always in her DNA. As a child, it was pillboxes. As a young woman, in the 1980s, it was vintage costume jewelry. She has over 1,000 pieces of the latter, including notable examples from 1940s movies made by famed jeweler, Joseff of Hollywood.

Inside Sandretto Re Rebaudengo's home.  An artwork by Barbara Kruger titled "Talk is Cheap."

She seems to have discovered contemporary art almost by chance. In May 1992, at the age of 32 she was invited by a fellow Turin resident and art collector, Rosangela Cochrane, to accompany her to London to visit commercial art galleries and meet artists.

They met a few dealers, including Nicholas Logsdail at the Lisson Gallery and Jay Jopling at White Cube. Logsdail advised her to take her time and simply “buy what you like.”

Sandretto Re Rebaudengo vividly remembers “a very cold rainy day, entering a huge loft and spread out on the floor” were a series of powdery, “yellow, red and blue” balls – a 1983 work titled “1000 Names” by British sculptor Anish Kapoor.

“Something happened in myself,” she says, pausing and gesturing towards her heart. Kapoor was very friendly and they talked. It was beginning of a long buying spree.

Love affair with art

On that first trip, which lasted just four or five days, she bought work by Kapoor and two other British artists, Julian Opie and Tony Cragg. How did her husband react? “Brava,” she replies. “He wasn’t surprised.”

Her husband Agostino, who she married in the 1980s, comes from a wealthy northern Italian aristocratic family, though she, as the daughter of a major Turin plastic manufacturer, seems to have had independent means.

In 1995, she established an art foundation, the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, in an old tire factory in Turin. Then, in 1997, she set up an exhibition space in the halls of her husband’s ancestral home, the 18th-century Palazzo Re Rebaudengo in Guarene d’Alba, southeast of Turin.

Italy may have provided a base, but it was London that informed her early collection. “Turner guided me,” she says, referring to the annual Turner Prize that celebrates the evolution of British art.

A work by Sharon Lockhart is part of Sandretto Re Rebaudengo's extensive collection.

Sandretto Re Rebaudengo’s collection includes works by an esteemed list of past winners: Kapoor (1991), Grenville Davey (1992), Rachel Whiteread (1993), Damien Hirst (1995) and Gillian Wearing (1997), and a number of nominees too. Hardly a year seems to have gone by when she hasn’t bought something related to Turner, which she evidently considers a barometer for contemporary art.

“London was always very important,” she says of the city she regards as “a second home.”

At the time of our interview, she had already spent a full day at the annual Frieze Art Fair in London’s Regent Park and was about to embark on another, in sensible flat shoes. She hasn’t missed an opportunity to mingle at the fair since it launched in 2003.

Her consistent aim has been to befriend artists. “In my case, it’s really important to have a relationship with the artist,” she says. “It’s my life to know the artists, to be involved.”

She counts herself very lucky; she regularly invites artists and their families to stay at her home in Turin.

The rules

Sandretto Re Rebaudengo has a number of rules for acquiring art. She habitually buys from galleries, very rarely at auction. “It is not important to buy the name but to buy the work. It has to speak to me. Yes! Si!’” she declares. She tries to discover the artist before “they become common language.”

And the work can’t just be “aesthetic,” she says, it must “talk about the moment we live” – it must provoke, “make me think.”

Her collection now amounts to some 1,500 pieces. She also owns an archive of 3,000 historic photographs, as well as work by contemporary German photographers like Andreas Gursky and Thomas Struth.

Sandretto Re Rebaudengo has collected a number of leading American artists, including Cindy Sherman, Charles Ray, Paul McCarthy and Matthew Barney. And she has made a special effort to support Italian artists and women (female artists make up “over half the collection,” she says).

One of her favorite artists is the Italian provocateur and contemporary, Maurizio Cattelan. She has “about 10 pieces” by him and likes him because “he talks about the political situation.”

Cattelan has made work that references the mafia and the Red Brigades militant group that terrorized Italy in the 1970s and early ’80s. He’s also famous for creating the 18-carat-gold toilet that was recently stolen from Blenheim Palace.

He likes to satirize, to unsettle.

Maurizio Cattelan's gold toilet, "America" (2016), seen at its former location at New York's Guggenheim Museum.

The first Cattelan work Sandretto Re Rebaudengo ever bought was found in London – a 1996 installation of a stuffed squirrel, its head slumped on a miniature formica kitchen table, a handgun lying at its feet. It’s entitled “Bidibidobidiboo,” a lyric borrowed from Disney’s “Cinderella.”

During the Venice Biennale in 2001, Sandretto Re Rebaudengo and Cattelan flew 150 guests south to Palermo to see another of his installations – a perfect replica of the famous Hollywood sign on top of a municipal garbage dump.

Sandretto Re Rebaudengo says that “for me, an interesting work of art captures the present, anticipates the future, and in the future will tell a story of the past.”

To that end, she is now focused on collecting work by younger artists, aged 25 to 35, who are “not yet fully established but attached to a gallery.”

An eye for emerging artists

Sandretto Re Rebaudengo also acknowledges a certain shift in her interests. She’s become more committed to commissioning new work. There have been over 100 commissions so far.

In partnership with the Philadelphia Museum, she’s funding a new installation by the African American artist, Martine Syms, who’s in her early 30s. It will go on show at the collector’s Turin Foundation in spring 2020. Another American artist, Rachel Rose, also in her early 30s, was commissioned to make a piece that was unveiled in 2018.

Of Syms, Sandretto Re Rebaudengo says, excitedly, “We think that she’s working in a new way, talking with artificial intelligence.” Sandretto Re Rebaudengo has also been learning about the artistic possibilities of CGI (computer generated imagery) from another young New York artist, Josh Kline.

Vases by the artist Alessandro Ciffo are part of Sandretto Re Rebaudengo's collection.

The collector and patron uses words like ” journey,” “adventure,” and “a vocation” to describe her 28-year engagement with the contemporary art world.

She mutes her phone half a dozen times during our interview and continues talking breathlessly as she and her assistant show me pieces from her collection on their screens. There is so much to say, so many projects and artists to talk about.

A little overwhelmed with the volume of information and imagery, I briefly interject, mildly astonished: “You must never stop.” It’s both an observation and a question. “No,” she says firmly and smiles. And with that, she’s off, telling her assistant to call an Uber to take them back to Frieze.

This article has been updated with details about works commissioned by Sandretto Re Rebaudengo