Inside the Art Collection of Le Sirenuse, Antonio Sersale’s Legendary Positano Hotel

Art Market

Osman Can Yerebakan

Aug 9, 2023 8:08PM

Caragh Thuring, installation view of Eruzione del 2020, 2020. Photo by Brechenmacher & Baumann. Courtesy of Le Sirenuse.

Portrait of Antonio Sersale by Weston Wells. Courtesy of Le Sirenuse.

Traditional and contemporary touches mingle in the architecture of Le Sirenuse, the beloved hotel that Antonio Sersale runs with his wife Carla and two sons in Positano, Italy, on the Amalfi Coast, a 40-minute ferry ride south of Naples. A similar medley has also characterized the Neapolitan collector’s particular eye for art, which continues across the hotel and his family apartment in Rome.

Artists have long felt energized by the coastline outside of Naples. Sol LeWitt lived in Praiano where his wife Carol’s ancestors were from—their 1700s villa still houses a few murals by the artist—and today, the painter Francesco Clemente has a house in Amalfi where his wife Alba is from. The Amalfi Coast itself is also a favorite destination for the art world during the summer.

“This area has always accommodated artists,” said Sersale. Art, he knew from the start, could not just be simply placed around the hotel’s bougainvillea vines and lemon trees. In 2016, the hotelier tapped the British curator Silka Rittson-Thomas to oversee an art program that would stem from visiting artists’ creative responses to Positano as well as the hotel’s effortless embodiment of la dolce vita. “Together, we crafted the idea of the ‘Artists at Le Sirenuse’ program to install permanent site-specific artworks based on each artist’s stay here for a few days,” Sersale explained.

Stanley Whitney, installation view of Untitled (160049), 2016. Photo by Brechenmacher & Baumann. Courtesy of Le Sirenuse.

Matt Connors, installation view of Continuous Color Circuits (Columns), for Positano, 2018. Photo by Roberto Salomone. Courtesy of Le Sirenuse.

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After growing up with his late father Franco’s classics-driven aesthetic across the hotel and their homes in Naples and Rome, it was a bold decision to interject works by contemporary artists into the patriarch’s vision. “My father was an aesthete, a man of incredible taste, so he was responsible for all the decoration and art around the hotel,” he told Artsy. “But he had no interest in today’s art—he in a way disliked it.”

When the British artist Martin Creed stepped into Le Sirenuse to inaugurate the program in 2016, Franco was still alive and even met the British artist in his own stomping ground. “He looked at Martin with a realization that times were changing and he had to accept the beginning of a new chapter,” his son recalled. Veering away from his father’s aesthetic philosophy was “stressful,” he said, but synthesizing tradition with the new direction became a fitting start of a new chapter for the Pompeii red hotel.

For Sersale, Creed’s work, fittingly titled DON’T WORRY (2016), is a reminder to ease his concerns about his own path. With each letter in a different color, the neon text work is suspended from the ceiling at a hotel bar. The invitation for optimism beams day and night, whether the sharp Positano sun fills the bar or the candles at the hotel’s adjacent restaurant La Sponda provide the only light. The bar’s crowning with the artwork’s name was due to the work’s popularity, affirming Antonio’s decision to introduce a new accent to his father’s legacy.

Martin Creed, installation view of Don’t Worry, 2016. Photo by Brechenmacher & Baumann. Courtesy of Le Sirenuse.

The initial project’s success also encouraged Sersale to acquire works for his own collection. A work by Tracey Emin was followed by a work by William Nelson Copley. “We for a while wanted a neon by Emin but soon we fell in love with her paintings,” he said, “and Copley’s colorful universe in painting reflects his character.” Later came a work by David Novros, a contemporary and friend of Donald Judd who also had an exhibition last year at the Judd Foundation’s space in New York.

After Creed, the hotel’s residency program has continued to flourish, with visits from the likes of Stanley Whitney, Rita Ackermann, Alex Israel, Matt Connors, Lucy Stein, and Caragh Thuring, who each left their artistic mark. Whitney’s lushly colored abstraction The Jitterbug Waltz (2017) echoes the color palette in the vicinity: A blue as bright as the sea and a bold-hued red like a glass of wine sit on a grid in the New York–based artist’s signature fashion. The painting hides behind the plants on a lounge corner, not too far from the artist’s similarly colored drawings on two opposite walls.

Ackermann’s two pastel-colored paintings of mermaid-like young women crown another seating arrangement near the hotel bar Aldo’s, waiting to be discovered during idyllic lemon spritz–soaked afternoons. Israel’s mural is harder to miss: Covering a large wall by the staircase that leads to the same bar, the artist’s large-scale drawings of bird of paradise plants mirror the fauna that adorns Positano’s steep and narrow cobblestone streets. If all the roads lead to the sea in this town, Israel’s mural leads to sunset feasts at the oyster bar below.

Rita Ackermann, installation view of Le Sirenuse, 2019. Photo by Brechenmacher & Baumann. Courtesy of Le Sirenuse.

Sersale determines each work’s location at the hotel with the artist during their sojourn. “It is fascinating to see the world through their sensitive perceptions,” he said, on the relationships he has built with guest artists. “The natural light and the surrounding colors have been their strongest inspirations.” Connors’s fascination for these effects, for example, led to his covering two columns—one at the lobby and the other at the restaurant—with metal laminate panels in hues that capture the local environment.

Art spills out a few steps outside the hotel where the azure-hued Franco’s Bar hosts a large-scale, yellow-glazed terracotta fountain by Giuseppe Ducrot. The bright, dramatic sculpture rises like the sun amid the bar’s aquatic ambiance. “Giuseppe’s father was a friend of my dad, so having his work at the bar we named after him is a special homage,” Sersale said. Those who look away from the bar’s spectacular view catch Karl Holmqvist’s poetry painting on the mirrored wall, including the chorus line from the Eurythmics hit “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This).”

Giuseppe Ducrot, installation view of The Fountain, 2015. Photo by Brechenmacher & Baumann. Courtesy of Le Sirenuse.

Subtlety is key in the art’s penetration into the hospitality experience: Chance encounters contribute to a dialogue between the guests and the works, but Sersale is not interested in a dictated orchestration. “If you look for the art, it’s there, but you don’t have to interact with any of it either,” he said. “We are not trying to show off or impose any awareness of what is on view—the beauty is in the fact that the works’ harmony puts you at ease.”

Unlike museums where art is displayed in a designated and static setting, a hospitality space in constant transformation provides an effortless backdrop to art created with a similar serenity. “I am not a believer in collecting to put everything in a warehouse,” Sersale added. The new Milan home that he and his wife are putting the final touches on will be the next space to host their personal collection, which also includes works by Leon Polk Smith and Betty Woodman. They are still trying to find the right spot for their new Laure Prouvost sculpture: a duck and turtle hybrid in handblown Murano glass, which was Antonio’s gift for Carla’s 60th birthday.

He sees a specific visionary trait in Italian contemporary art collectors. “Some of the greatest collections of early works by established artists can be found in Italy,” Sersale said. He noted that many artists like Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat had their early career shows with Italian gallerists. “You will see many dentists or lawyers with incredible collections—they are not moguls who buy when artists are in high demand,” he underlined. “They spot the talent and collect them early on.”

Alex Israel, installation view of Amalfi Dr., 2017. Photo by Roberto Salomone. Courtesy of Le Sirenuse.

Staying in touch with the local community has been another key in Sersale’s merger of art with hospitality. Letting hotel guests who often happen to be collectors experience art in a lived-in setting rather than a “white cube” gallery space helps them to contextualize an artist in an environment similar to their own home.

“One of the great aspects of the art program has been seeing some of the artists being collected by guests,” he said. For example, Christian Louboutin commissioned a work by Ducrot for his new hotel in Portugal after staying at Le Sirenuse, and a collector who learned about Whitney’s work at the hotel later acquired one of his paintings.

In these cases, art gently penetrates the Italian pace of living, but also follows those who experience it as a memory, obsession, or curiosity.

Osman Can Yerebakan

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