Inside Venice’s hallowed 17th–century Baroque church, Santa Maria della Salute, tourists snapped photos of Titian paintings yesterday afternoon. Just outside, in the hot sun, French billionaire François Pinault was leaving the neighboring Punta della Dogana, a former customs house and one of two Venetian showcases for his sprawling contemporary art collection. Accompanied by fellow French billionaire collector Nicholas Berggruen, the pair headed for the canal and a motorboat.
As the international art party comes to Venice this week for the biennale’s 54th edition, Pinault’s museums–the Dogana and Palazzo Grassi–were among the first venues to open. Two new shows were mounted by the fashion magnate’s curator Caroline Bourgeois. “I wanted to create nets between the works,” the Paris-based Bourgeois said in an interview with A.i.A. “The big challenge is to allow for audiences including art professionals, as well as people who are encountering contemporary art for the first time.”
The latest show, titled “In Praise of Doubt,” draws exclusively from the François Pinault Collection and contains many large-scale works recognizable from recent exhibitions at galleries and other venues. Bourgeois said she scouts the work, but Pinault, whose holdings include luxury goods companies such as Gucci, vineyards and auctioneer Christie’s, ultimately decides what to buy. While the shows might be more compelling with some riskier choices, there is still plenty to see.
“In Praise of Doubt” is only the second show at the Dogana. The works date from the 1960s to the present. The show is ostensibly a meditation on doubt but the broad theme operates more like possible prism for interpretation, not an obvious thread.
The sprawling triangular building, renovated in 2008-09 by Japanese architect Tadao Ando at a cost of about $30 million, offers spaces dedicated to single artists. There are just 19 included in the show and most are given a wide berth. The Dogana focuses on the more established figures in the collection including Paul McCarthy, Bruce Nauman, Sigmar Polke and Edward Kienholz, represented by Roxys, a musty and evocative 1960-61 whorehouse installation, recently exhibited at David Zwirner in New York. Just four women made the cut: Julie Mehretu, Roni Horn, Sturtevant and Tatiana Trouvé.
The entrance sets a grand stage as Donald Judd’s crisp boxes in stainless steel and wood play off the industrial brick walls and thick wooden beams-the sort of space Judd himself would have admired. Among the most successful rooms is a large square space with two newly commissioned Julie Mehretu ink and acrylic drawings, hung on concrete walls. Both pair a bottom layer of classical architectural forms, seemingly plucked from a draftsman’s textbook, overlaid with swoops and staccato marks.
Also striking is Roni Horn’s Well and Truly (2009-10), a series of round colored glass forms in shades of blue and white. Placed on the ground, they appear transparent and liquidy when viewed from the top. Three raw, white plasterlike sculptures by Thomas Houseago, including a brooding owl, form a seductive grouping, as do marble sculptures simulating corpses beneath white sheets laid out in a row, the 2008 All by Maurizio Cattelan, (Cattelan is among the many artists in Venice this week. He is hosting a party for the latest edition of his magazine titled Toilet Paper.) And for weary art fans, benches are positioned in front of large windows overlooking a lineup of yachts.
While Ando has transformed the Dogana into a pristine art box, Pinault’s other show across the canal at Palazzo Grassi takes on a more eccentric locale, a palace laden with Baroque flourishes that sometimes enhance and other times detract from the art. The Grassi show of 40 artists includes some of Pinault’s younger picks, as well as a more global mix.
Among the least successful is Farhad Moshiri’s wildly obvious contradiction, a set of knives impaled in a wall, spelling out “Life is Beautiful,” and paintings of figures in abstract interiors by Adrian Ghenie. The exhibition, titled “The World is Yours,” gains force as one ascends.
Among the best installations are the rooms in which the reach of Pinault’s Empire is most felt, and the transformation most dramatic. Giuseppe Penone has created a dark fragrant cave, covering the walls with dried tea leaves. Loris Gréaud’s installation, the 2008 Gunpowder Forest Bubble, evokes a Broadway stage-set conjuring a haunted forest, the silhouettes of trees illuminated by a large moon. Another winner is a room hung with three 2010 gold-hued paintings by Rudolf Stingel, beautiful riffs on the pattern from a Persian rug. The Stingels seem right at home against the shimmering canal, and an echo of the gaudy silk fabrics lining hotel rooms all over town.