For a man who makes an impression of quiet, Count Giuseppe Panza di Biumo finally has a lot to say. For a man of philosophical bent, the fabulous Italian collector of contemporary American art creates a surprising amount of art-world news--so much, in fact, that a recent morning interviewer had a little trouble deciding which is more important, the present news or the new news, especially when both bode well.
In a nutshell, the present good news is that an impressive cache of paintings, sculpture and constructions, acquired last year from Panza’s fabled contemporary collections, is here and being readied to go on view at Temporary Contemporary next Wednesday. Purchased last year by the Museum of Contemporary Art for about $11 million, the 80-work trove focuses on nine stellar artists in the period 1956-62. In itself, the acquisition goes a long way to legitimize the fledgling institution.
Newer news is that this trove may be just the beginning of a local influx of Panza’s acquisitions that could turn Southern California into the world’s mecca for such artworks.
Panza went from early involvement with Abstract Expressionist and Pop-related art to become virtually without rival as a collector of large-scale Minimalist and Conceptual art of the 1970s. He holds about 600 works, many of room-size dimensions, that completely occupy his large home near Milan. Artists range from such Minimalist masters as Carl Andre and Richard Serra to a large contingent of Los Angeles’ so-called “light and space” artists such as Robert Irwin, Doug Wheeler and James Turrell, whom Panza regards as “the greatest modern masters combining art, philosophy and science. Because of them, history will regard Los Angeles as a great center of the art of this century.”
He had planned to finally house his largely American collection in two castles near Turin. Plans to convert them into public museums fell through when the Italian government, which owns the buildings, backed out, reportedly due to opposition from local artists. Panza then let it be known that the collections were for sale and that he hoped the Museum of Contemporary Art or another Southland museum would acquire them.
The latest development in that scenario unfolded when Panza materialized, accompanied by his wife, Giovanna. He was dapper and gray, with large, gold-rimmed glasses and a thoughtful nose. She was brighter, in a golden fur and orange scarf, but much quieter.
“I want to now delay any consideration of selling the collections until 1990,” he said. “In the meantime, I would like to find an institution outside Italy where they can be placed on long-term loan.”
He said that museums from Paris to Hamburg, Geneva and Seoul were negotiating for the collection but that he would prefer that it come to Southern California. He favors this location because of the obvious L.A. emphasis in the art and, like most collectors, he would like all his legacy in one place.
“I don’t know if it will happen. It’s very tentative. I have to meet (County Museum of Art director) Dr. Powell and the new director of the La Jolla Museum (of Contemporary Art, Hugh Davies) to see if they have space.
“This is a beautiful space,” he murmured, looking wistfully around the cavernous TC. “Space is hard to find for such large works as I have--but not as hard to find as the art. Americans don’t have major collections of Minimalist art. I hope a way can be found to bring it back here.”
With that, the count’s attention turned affectionately to the art being installed.
“This may be the most beautiful event of my life, seeing all these works I bought 30 years ago here together again as I wished. I have helped design the installation so that there are bare, white walls in front of the art, so that it can be illuminated by reflection so there will be soft light. This is very important, especially for the Klines and Rothkos. It is important to have all the works by one artist together in a room; in this way, they have a powerful cumulative effect. It is important for the public. It feels good to know I was right all those years ago.”
He points to a Franz Kline in a room devoted to a dozen big works by the Abstract Expressionist. “That was the first painting I ever bought. In 1956 it cost $500. Over there are the Robert Rauschenbergs. In 1959 I saw them all together in a storeroom. One could have an excellent selection because nobody wanted them. My first was the one there, called ‘Kick Back.’ It cost $700. Today I believe it is worth $700,000.”
Panza seems more preoccupied with artistic meaning than with money. He strolls past a group of 1962 Claes Oldenburgs from the Pop innovator’s “Store” project. He explains Oldenburg and Roy Lichtenstein as reacting against the smug materialism of the ‘50s by making monuments out of “the things of everyday life.”
For him, the somewhat downbeat works of Europeans Jean Fautrier and Antonio Tapies represent the philosophical hopelessness felt abroad after World War II. “Ever since the Renaissance, European man had relied on reason to create civilization and control nature, and in the war, reason failed them.”
He wanders on, visiting old friends--from George Segal’s “Sunbathers on a Rooftop” to a brace of James Rosenquist’s billboard-like paintings, which Panza finds “metaphysical.”
He settles into a large room of Rothko’s color-and-light abstractions. “He painted an endless world that opens one state of mind after another. He hovered between hope and despair, but I think there is more hope. He was always so kind to me because he understood that I was, you know, engaged .”