Friday, June 18th, 2010

The Minimalist Medici: Count Giuseppe Panza di Biumo, 1923-2010

Count Giuseppe Panza di Biumo, 1923-2010

Ruth Ann Fredenthal Panza Collection
Installation View of Salotto - Villa Panza Museum, Varese, Italy, from left to right: Untitled 130 (1987-1988), Multilayered oil on Oyster linen, 60'' x 60"; Untitled 121 (1984-1985), Multilayered oil on Oyster linen, 66" x 60", The Panza Collection (Photo: David Sotnik)

Most people who have any interest in Post-War American art, whether Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Minimalism,  Environmental Art, Conceptualism or Monochromism have heard of the great Italian art collector, Count Giuseppe Panza di Biumo.  In many ways a modern day Medici, Count Panza passed away at age 87 in Milan on April 24, 2010.

Together with his wife, Giovanna, and with enormous love, courage, forsight and brilliance, the Panzas amassed three distinct collections totaling 2500 works from the mid -1950’s to the present, mostly of American art.  They mostly liked to acquire in depth from mature artists who were as yet not well known but would later be recognized as the major artists of their era.  These included such figures as Franz Kline, Mark Rothko, Robert Rauschenberg, Claes Oldenburg, James Rosenquist, Roy Lichtenstein, Carl Andre, Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, Robert Irwin, Brice Marden, Richard Serra, Dan Flavin, Robert Ryman, Joseph Kosuth, Robert Morris, Bruce Nauman, Cy Twombly, Richard Long, Lawrence Weiner, James Turrell, Roni Horn, Martin Puryear, Lawrence Carroll and many many others. The Panzas were, in fact, the first major collectors of these artists and signaled to others that these artists were important.  Their vast acquisitions influenced American and world art history and art markets profoundly, as well as enhancing the collections of several American museums such as the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, The Albright-Knox Art Gallery, The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Hirshorn.

In 1996, the Panzas made a gift of their 18th century home, Villa Menafoglio Litta Panza, and its grounds in Varese where they had lived surrounded by works from each collection as they acquired them, to Fondo Ambiente Italiano. It is now, since being renovated and reopened in 2000, the Villa Panza Museum and holds 150 works in perpetuity, drawn mostly from the third of their collections, put together in the 1980’s and 1990’s.  Proudly, I have the great fortune to be one of the artists they chose for this third collection and have three rooms in the villa, two of which had been Rothko’s rooms in their first collection and Robert Mangold’s and Alan Charlton’s in their second.

My life as an artist was certainly changed, as was that of all the artists who preceded me, when the Panzas came to my studio, then on top of PS122 in downtown New York, accompanied by gallerist Eric Stark, in the winter of 1992.  I had known about the Panzas and their collection. At the time, I was respected as a painter’s painter in some quarters, but wasn’t yet part of the official “art world”. The Panzas had never heard of me and weren’t interested in where I had shown or such career concerns. They just wanted to see my paintings. They sat very close to each other, and when I put up the first painting, they held hands, and Mrs. Panza said in Italian, “What beauty!”  They were also able to detect that the painting wasn’t a monochrome, that there were pure color areas within the overall very complex color. Only one other person has ever been able to do that at first sight!  I showed them about 15 paintings. They asked me how long I had worked this way which was about 18 years, and they beamed at the answer.  They were amazed by the size of my body of works. Then they asked what artists I admired in history, and I answered that I was part of the classical line of painting and listed great artists from Piero della Francesca, Raphael and Poussin, a great favorite, to Cézanne, Matisse, Malevich and Mondrian, at which point Mrs. Panza interrupted me to say “and Ruth Ann Fredenthal.”   Well, you can imagine how an artist would feel to hear such words from the leading collector of one’s kind of art after years of being neglected in official quarters.  It was truly a blissful experience!  At the end of about 2 hours, Eric said “We have to go to the next studio, but we can come back.”  They said, “Oh, we have to come back.”  Eric said “Is there any particular painting you’d like to see again before we go,”  And they said “All of them.”  They quickly bought about 19 paintings after that visit and acquired through the next few years a total of 41 large paintings, spanning a period of 20 years, plus a few little ones.  I was lucky to see these wonderful, warm, generous people  fairly often  as I was included in many Panza exhibitions and long term loans from them to other insitutions, mostly in Italy, but also in the USA.

The last time I saw Giuseppe was with Giovanna in November of 2008. They came to my studio, as they did twice every year, now on West 37th Street, to look at paintings for an hour and a half.  On this occasion they bought a small painting as a Christmas gift for their son-in-law.  Then they took me to a delicious, leisurely lunch at Da Silvano on lower 6th Avenue.  Dr. Panza was saying that he was so happy just to still be alive and with Giovanna after 50 years.  Giovanna called him by her pet name for him, Beppino, and stroked the back of his head and neck.  I congratulated them on their fifty years together during which they created five wonderful children and one of the greatest collections of all time. They held hands as they often did and smiled lovingly at each other. Then they brought me home in a cab and continued on to their hotel.