Until recently, Venice’s Punta della Dogana was a derelict building with a storied past. At the tip of Dorsoduro, next to the Baroque church of Santa Maria della Salute and across the Grand Canal from Piazza San Marco, this triangular, formerly bustling customs house dating to the 17th century constituted a perplexing anomaly: a highly visible but disused building in a prime locale. Repeatedly, plans to give it a fresh identity had run aground.
Enter French billionaire François Pinault, who already owned an 80 percent stake in Palazzo Grassi (long an exhibition venue and most recently administered by Fiat), but who wanted yet more room and a greater presence in Venice for his vast collection. In 2007, he competed successfully—prevailing over the Guggenheim Foundation—for the privilege of turning Punta della Dogana into a state-of-the-art space for contemporary art. For the renovation, Pinault enlisted Tadao Ando, who had worked for him on Palazzo Grassi. The cool, minimal, gray cement floors and walls of Ando’s two-story exhibition “pavilion” are in dialogue with the exposed brick and wooden beams of the original structure that surrounds it. Large windows admit copious natural light and allow viewers splendid vistas of Venice. The restored building is impressive, and with his dual, attention-grabbing locations Pinault essentially has one of the world’s foremost private museums, at a time when such institutions are a rising force.
One day before the official opening of the Venice Biennale, a splashy two-part exhibition debuted at both locations, with ultra-exclusive, star-studded festivities. Curated by Alison M. Gingeras and Francesco Bonami, the exhibition is called “Mapping the Studio: Artists from the François Pinault Collection,” a title borrowed from Bruce Nauman’s 2001 video installation Mapping the Studio 1 (Fat Chance John Cage), in which a six-hour-long, eerily greenish surveillance tape of the artist’s unkempt studio at night suggests endless tedium mixed with bursts of inspiration. Nauman, of course, is also representing the U.S. at the Biennale. A version of his nocturnal video is on view at Palazzo Grassi, but appropriating Nauman’s title for the exhibition smacks of blatant one-upmanship: the new kid on the block muscling in on the venerable Biennale.
And that title has little to do with the actual exhibition. The curators make an absurdly inflated claim in their catalogue for the studio as “sacred territory,” as if the exhibition were really about artists’ studios as places for unbridled inquiry and insight. They excitedly assert that curators cross “the studio’s threshold” to bestow, perhaps, “approval” on artists—sensitive, creative and vulnerable in their “sacred territory”—who might also “benefit from constructive critique”; “the collector,” for his part, becomes “immersed in the artist’s private universe,” activating “a new dynamic between the desire of possession and the trauma of dispossession.” Writing about vulnerability and the trauma of dispossession in the context of a collection that prominently features so many artistic and commercial superstars seems quite a stretch. In fact, the whole “mapping the studio” conceit seems intended to deflect attention from the primary motivation for the exhibition: to showcase Pinault’s top acquisitions, which obviously cost a mint, and in the process highlight him as a preeminent collector (while also touting the authority and acumen of both curators).
Punta della Dogana is, by far, the better half of the exhibition. In an inspired decision, the first work on view, David Hammons’s untitled glass basketball backboard and hoop with a crystal net (2000), isn’t readily visible upon entering. It is installed high on the wall above the entranceway, the edges of the backboard strung with twinkling lights. Mixing athleticism and fragility, the hoop dreams of urban black kids (very few of whom make it to the NBA) and the allure of opulence and wealth, Hammons’s work makes familiar athletic equipment and the success it symbolizes seem at once bedazzling and precarious. Its glassy transparency and lights are echoed just beyond, in Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s Untitled (Blood), 1992, a curtain made of red plastic beads, which stretches from wall to wall and serves as a wondrous passage to the rest of the exhibition. The shimmering curtain was perhaps more hard-hitting when it was made, for it refers to blood tests performed at the time on his lover, who was dying of HIV/AIDS (to which the artist also succumbed).
On the other side you encounter another semitranslucent work: Rachel Whiteread’s Untitled (One Hundred Spaces), 1995, consisting of 100 cast resin sculptures, in various muted colors, of the negative spaces beneath chairs, arrayed in a grid on the concrete floor. Nearby, a taxidermied horse by Maurizio Cattelan (2007) juts out from high up on the wall, as if the animal had been catapulted there head first. You have to admire Pinault’s brash commitment: many of the works in the collection are audacious, and were clearly acquired with a museum in mind rather than a private home. With a joke painting by Richard Prince on one wall (2007) and a still life of fruit with a pitcher of water by Luc Tuymans across the way (2002), the works in this opening room look lovely, dynamically interact with the textures and colors of the brick walls, and compare favorably with contemporary works on display anywhere in Venice.
Speaking of brash commitment, the exhibition features a large, darkened room filled with Mike Kelley’s Kandors Full Set (2005-09): 21 fantastical glowing cityscapes made of variously tinted urethane resin, along with large bottles made of hand-colored Pyrex, all set on black plinths. Referring to Superman’s birthplace, Kandor, on the destroyed planet Krypton, the sculptures suggest unreachable utopias and a longing for a past irretrievably lost. While many collectors would covet one or two of Kelley’s sculptures, few would have the means to purchase the whole kit and caboodle, and the space to display it as a single, spectacular installation. Pinault, a contemporary Medici, also commissioned Charles Ray’s cast stainless-steel and acrylic (it mimics marble), 8-foot-tall sculpture of a nude boy clutching a frog, which stands outside the museum at the water’s edge. Boy With Frog (2009) is a modern take on such Italian Renaissance sculptures as Donatello’s David, yet it is also especially American, suggesting Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn. Thoughtful, whimsical, vulnerable and sad, the boy has his treasure, but it’s a mere frog, not Goliath’s severed head.Absent real cohesion to the exhibition, there’s no telling what you’ll find next as you move from room to room. Here there are luscious, silvery abstract paintings (2008) by Rudolf Stingel, which look great in one of Ando’s softly glowing concrete chambers. Over there are familiar anime sculptures (1998) by Takashi Murakami of a young man ejaculating in a wide lasso-like arc and a young woman gleefully squirting milk from her ballooning breasts. In another room hangs Cy Twombly’s Coronation of Sesostris (2000), a 10-panel painting that combines abstraction, hints of representation and scrawled texts. Other than the fact that these are artists whose work Pinault favors, exactly what Twombly’s subtle meditation on longing and loss, eros and mortality, has to do with Stingel or Murakami is anybody’s guess. With its mythical allusions and historical ambitions, however, Twombly’s painting does connect with Jake and Dinos Chapman, who fill big glass and wood cases with tiny figures committing acts of horrific violence in dark landscapes evoking Dante’s Inferno (Fucking Hell, 2008). (This work is a re-creation and extension of Hell, 1999, which was lost in the disastrous 2004 Momart warehouse fire in London.)
With such big names, fame is definitely an operative principle—calling for a little math. Of the 58 artists in both parts of the exhibition, 25 are from the United States, despite the exhibition’s boast of surmounting “national frontiers.” By this show’s standards (again reflecting the market), this is one heck of a time for American art. Most of the remaining artists are big names from Western Europe. In the rare instances the exhibition moves further afield, for instance to Poland (Wilhelm Sasnal and Piotr Uklanski, although Uklanski qualifies as a New Yorker), Japan (Murakami, Yayoi Kusama and Hiroshi Sugimoto), Iceland (Erró, who has been based in Paris for ages), China (Huang Yong Ping) or Africa (Amsterdam-based South African Marlene Dumas and New York-based Algerian Adel Abdessemed), it’s almost always with artists who already enjoy substantial international acclaim. Staggeringly, although also perhaps predictably, there are 50 men in the exhibition and eight women. It is likely that the single greatest development in contemporary art over the past 30 or 40 years has been the worldwide rise of women artists, but here you’d never know it. There are also just two black artists (both male) and one Hispanic (a deceased male). It appears that the “sacred territory” is much more sacred for some than others.
At Palazzo Grassi, curatorial judgment really breaks down in a sometimes astonishing mishmash of works. The biggest and most visible installation is in the lobby: Untitled (Dancing Nazis), 2008, by Uklanski (who happens to be the husband of curator Gingeras), a disco floor with colored lights and pulsating music. Forming a grid on the wall are 200 inkjet prints of film stills of Hollywood actors playing Nazis and World War II German soldiers. Uklanski’s ironic mix of Nazis and disco, violence and entertainment, is among the exhibition’s rare forays into the political. Barbara Kruger’s famous slogans in two paintings, “To buy or not to buy” and “I shop therefore I am,” are particularly apt, and hilarious, in the context of a collection built by profits from Gucci bags, Yves Saint Laurent clothes and Christie’s auctions.
With so few real connections among the works, the show at Palazzo Grassi becomes choppy and unsettled. There is an inspired selection of 1976 black-and-white photographs by Cindy Sherman, featuring the artist in an empty room donning costumes of different stock characters in murder mysteries. This is a great moment: works made at the outset of a singular career, which illuminate the artist’s subsequent endeavors. Yet you wander on to striped paintings by Daniel Buren and floral ones by Murakami; an excellent lightwork by Dan Flavin (Monument V for Tatlin, 1964); and a sculpture of a copulating stuffed bunny and bear (1992) by Paul McCarthy.
Occasionally, the choice in juxtaposition of works can be particularly unfortunate. Among the featured paintings by Martin Kippenberger in one room is a reddish scene of a Paris café. Nearby, a male leg with trousers, sock and shoe, by Robert Gober, juts out from the wall onto the floor. In this pairing, Gober’s enigmatic work is undermined: it looks as if a man, drunk on red wine or absinthe, had slumped to the floor of Kippenberger’s Parisian café. To similarly adverse effect, large, upright drill bits made out of black marble by Abdessemed are arrayed directly in front of a wall-to-wall horizontal mirror with screenprinted vertical black bars, by Michelangelo Pistoletto. The artist’s mirror works are all about revealing both the space itself and the viewer, but this mirror doesn’t do anything of the sort; instead it is entirely filled with the drill bits—and two distinct works by separate artists fuse into a single hybrid concocted by the curators.
Both venues allow the public to experience a wide range of provocative works at a time when many museums are shying away from such displays. Detracting from the experience is the relentless focus on fame, celebrity and brand names. “Mapping the Gallery” might have been a more appropriate title, or perhaps “Mapping the Auction House.” In an anxious era of change and recession, this exhibition seems more like the grand finale to a lengthy binge than a definitive new beginning.
GREGORY VOLK is a New York-based critic and curator, and professor at the School of the Arts, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond.
“Mapping the Studio: Artists from the François Pinault Collection” is on view in Venice at Punta della Dogana and Palazzo Grassi through June 6, 2010.