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The Panza Collection

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Editorial Review

The Count Of Cool
An Italian Collector Followed His Head, to the Hirshhorn's Benefit

By Paul Richard
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, November 4, 2008

One good conceptual way to enter the conceptual art in "The Panza Collection" at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden is through a photograph in the catalogue, which shows the man himself, Count Giuseppe Panza di Biumo, surrounded by an aura of geometrical excellence and cerebral precision.

The count, now 85, is standing on the grounds of his stately home in Italy, the Villa Menafoglio Litta Panza in Varese, built in 1751, whose tall and airy halls -- in 20 years of buying, and 20 years of thinking -- he famously and finely filled with brave new art.

The photograph is formal. Order rules his garden. The box bushes are spherical, the hedges rectilinear, the colonnades and arches recede to the vanishing point in obedience to the laws of single-point perspective. At the center of the scene is the silver-haired collector. Beside him stands his countess, Giovanna. He seems to carry with him, as does his exhibition, an above-the-fray distinction, a disdain for the topical, a preference for the clear.

Last year he sold the Hirshhorn a coherent piece of his collection, open in its mood and subdued in its colors. The museum wisely chose an important early drawing by Sol LeWitt (the artist conceived hundreds; Panza's is the third), two also important, also early aerated Robert Irwins (one, a painted canvas, seems to show a glowing fog of bright dissolving dots) and exemplary pieces by Larry Bell and Richard Long, On Karawa, Joseph Kosuth -- 39 things in all, by 16 different artists. A good buy. Panza's finest pieces carry a stately, cool austerity. They re-balance the collection of the museum on the Mall.

Its founder, Joseph H. Hirshhorn, who filled it with art, was a playful little man who wore long chinchilla overcoats and loud bow ties and kept toys on his desktop. He wasn't really into cool austerity. Nor was James T. Demetrion, who, in his 17 strong years as director of the Hirshhorn, often focused its attentions on expressive, sometimes anguished postwar figuration, exploring, as he did so, realms of recent art that other institutions tended to ignore.

Panza started buying art in 1956. He had, he noted later, "a house without paintings, with empty walls." He might have hung them with baroque mirrors or Renaissance madonnas; they'd have fit in. The count chose another path.

His first acquisition, a black-and-white Franz Kline, cost him $500, and though he stayed with abstract expressionism just long enough to get a good set of Mark Rothkos, his taste was moving fast. In 1959 he bought his first Robert Rauschenberg, for $750. From Rauschenberg he turned to purer forms of pop. In 1962 he got seven Roy Lichtensteins, for $600 each.

That seems ridiculously little now. It didn't then. Much to the distress of his brother and his sister, who saw his mission as a crime, the count by now was selling off bits of his inheritance to get the funds he needed for works of art that seemed to be more and more abstruse, and less and less salable -- minimalist constructions, say, or site-specific installations (which, once built into his villa, could not be sold again), or conceptualist presentations that were, when you got down to it, merely typed instructions. By 1969, he owned 34 Donald Judds and 40 Bruce Naumans.

The count had picked his artists early, and therefore bought them inexpensively. He'd been daring, and astute. For 20 years he'd honed his gift for collecting advanced art. Then, suddenly he stopped, not entirely, but almost.

"I stopped for economical reasons," he explained in an oral history in English fluent but imperfect. "I run out of cash."

* * *

One virtue of the Hirshhorn's Panza acquisition is how tellingly it maps that key mid-'60s moment when conceptualism and minimalism joined.

Neither was new. Minimalism's roots stretched far into the past, back through Barnett Newman's empty fields and Piet Mondrian's grids, back to the black squares, and also to the white ones, that Kasimir Malevich had painted half a century before. Conceptualism wasn't new either. The great Marcel Duchamp, father of that mode, had been exploring it for decades. But Duchamp was no minimalist. Instead, he liked to turn his fresh idea-fueled art toward women without clothes, chess pieces and bottle racks, and similar surprises. All at once, however, the two styles seemed to merge.

Look, for instance, at the five glass cubes that Joseph Kosuth presented in 1965. All are much the same, and all are the same size (40 inches on a side), and all are made of greenish plate glass so that one looks both at and through them. Five primary structures lined up in a row -- what could be more minimalist? But the artist doesn't stop there. Instead, forging on, he adds block letters to each one. The first cube says "Box," the second says "Cube," the third "Empty," the fourth "Clear," the fifth "Glass."

Those five forms look the same, and are, which, of course, we see -- until our thoughts pull them apart.

On Karawa's "One Million Years" looks, at first glance, similarly severe, rectilinear and reductionist. Ten black, tall loose-leaf binders are lined up on a shelf. Each holds plastic sleeves, and each sleeve paper pages, and each page is gray with numbers running in strict sequence, 10 columns to a page -- 1 for the year 1, 2 for the next year, 3 for the third, and onward to 1,000,000. While the eye sees little more than bookish regularity, the mind is being opened to an immense stretch of time.

Richard Long's "Carrara Line" from 1985 is the latest work of art on view, as well as the longest. Many rough rocks of white marble placed upon the floor have been shoved together to form a rectangle 7 feet wide and 47 feet long. Is Long's piece minimalist? Well, sort of -- except it also calls to mind Michelangelo's quarry, and working generations covered with white dust, and geological eras, and a whole lot more besides.

Similarly poetic, and nearly as long (it's just five inches shorter), is a row of wall-hung photographs taken out the window in which, as you walk by, a busy winter day in Holland dawns, and flares, then dies. The piece is by Jan Dibbets. It's called "The Shortest Day of 1970 Photographed in My House Every 6 Minutes From Sunrise til Sunset."

Much of Panza's art is crisp and fine, but not all of it. What dims his exhibition, at least for me, is its excessive wordiness. Half its works of art depend -- this long has been a drag on conceptualism's ambitions -- on words we're meant to read. Lawrence Weiner's art, for instance, offers little else. His "REDUCED" (1970) is just that single word painted on the wall. Its color and its size (here it's red, and floor-to-ceiling) do not seem to matter, and have not been prescribed. Thinking about Weiner's art -- and you have to comprehend English to begin -- seems scarcely worth the effort. All it does for me is lead my thoughts to mush.

The Panza Collection, at the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Independence Avenue and Seventh Street SW. The works were selected by the museum's Kerry Brougher and the Italian collector together. Also on view is Ways of Seeing: Giuseppe and Giovanna Panza, a smaller show of objects chosen from the Hirshhorn's permanent collection by the collector and his wife.