Count Giuseppe Panza di Biumo, an Italian collector of American art whose cache of paintings and sculptures by Mark Rothko, Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein and others legitimized the fledgling Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, has died. He was 87.
Panza died Friday night in Milan, said MOCA spokeswoman Lyn Winter. No cause was announced.
Panza became the first European collector of postwar American art. He was able to connect the dots in a new American aesthetic, playing a large role in promoting Abstract Expressionism, Pop, Minimalism and Conceptual art, as well as catapulting Los Angeles artists to international credibility.
“Given the impact he’s had on individual artists and institutions, given the impact he’s had on collectors, I think it’s inconceivable as to what Los Angeles would look like without his vision and his legacy,” said Paul Schimmel, chief curator of MOCA.
In 1984, Panza and his wife, Giovanna, sold 80 abstract Expressionist and pop works to the Museum of Contemporary Art, at which he served as a trustee. The works were acquired for $11 million and formed the core of the museum’s permanent collection.
“Having his collection helped us get other works of great quality that we otherwise may not have gotten,” said philanthropist Eli Broad, a founding member of MOCA. “I think because of his collection, we were not viewed as another provincial museum but a world-class institution.”
Panza also brought great international attention to many Los Angeles artists, such as “light and space” artists Robert Irwin, Doug Wheeler and James Turrell. “Those artists had in him a patron and an advocate that really brought their vision to the world,” Schimmel said, “more than any institution could.”
Because of the artists, Panza told The Times in 1985, “history will regard Los Angeles as a great center of the art of this century.”
Panza was born March 23, 1923 in Milan. His father was a wine dealer and successful real estate businessman. His mother painted recreationally and brought her children to museums and exhibitions.
Panza was self-taught in art history. His first study was as a 14-year-old stricken with scarlet fever: Forced to stay quarantined in his room for 40 days, he passed the time meticulously examining works of art in Italian encyclopedias. By the time he regained his health, he was able to identify the painter, school and time period of such works, he recounted to the Times’ Christopher Knight in a 1985 interview in the Archives of American Art.
Panza eventually inherited his family’s real estate and distilling businesses, along with a substantial amount of money. He began collecting art.
In 1956, he noticed a piece by Franz Kline in a steel-and-art magazine. He wrote to the gallery owner and selected an oil-on-canvas painting by Kline called “Buttress.” Panza bought it — after bargaining the price down to $500.
At the time, few European collectors were interested in new American art. Panza and his wife began making regular art-buying trips to New York and Los Angeles, where they became interested in the work of Irwin and other artists who were creating art from light and space.
Panza was initially attracted to Los Angeles because it was “a new city where artists were making something different,” he told the Times in 1994. He would visit Los Angeles twice a year for weeks a time, conducting thorough research, visiting studios and establishing long-term relationships with artists.
In the next decade, he acquired Abstract Expressionist canvases by Rothko and Kline, hybrid painting-sculptures by Rauschenberg and Pop works by Lichtenstein and Claes Oldenburg. These works became part of the collection sold to MOCA in 1984.
In 1994, Panza donated 70 items to MOCA by 10 young, local artists, including major sculptures by internationally known artist Robert Therrien.
“I know of no other collector who has made this kind of commitment to the work of artists from this part of the country,” Richard Koshalek, then-director of MOCA, said to the Times in 1994. “Artists from Southern California have found two individuals who are willing to support their work and support it in depth, and that’s what an artist needs.”
About 300 pieces in Panza’s collection of light-and-space, Conceptual and Minimalist works went to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York in 1991 as a combination gift and purchase.
This month the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art acquired 25 works of Conceptual and Minimalist art from Panza’s collection.
Along with his wife, Panza’s survivors include their five children.