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The Panza Collection

Giuseppe Panza di Biumo (1923–2010) is widely recognized as one of the most important collectors of postwar American art. The son of a successful real estate investor and wine distributor—his father Ernesto was made a count by King Vittorio Emanuele III, although noble titles in Italy were subsequently abolished after World War II—Panza initially studied law before joining the family business. His passion, however, was soon channeled toward art, an area in which he was self-taught. Panza began collecting with his wife Giovanna in 1956. Initially, he acquired paintings by European Art Informel artists Jean Fautrier and Antoni Tàpies, and American Abstract Expressionists Franz Kline and Mark Rothko. Panza was also one of the earliest patrons of Pop art: he purchased a large group of Robert Rauschenberg’s proto-Pop Combines of the mid-1950s, sixteen works from Claes Oldenburg’s The Store (1961), and paintings by Roy Lichtenstein and James Rosenquist. In 1984, the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), Los Angeles acquired this first part of Panza’s collection, some eighty works in all.

In 1966, upon resuming collecting after a brief hiatus, Panza turned his attention to Minimalism, beginning with Robert Morris’s plywood, fiberglass, and metal sculptures and Dan Flavin’s fluorescent light “propositions” and continuing with the work of Carl Andre and Donald Judd. He also acquired numerous works by Robert Mangold, Brice Marden, and Robert Ryman—artists whose reductive paintings were frequently associated with Minimalism. From the late 1960s, in addition to regular visits to New York, Panza began traveling to Los Angeles, where he developed an interest in artists of the so-called Light and Space movement, including Robert Irwin, James Turrell, and Doug Wheeler. Additionally, Panza amassed a large collection of Post-Minimal works by Bruce Nauman and Richard Serra, and Conceptual works by a range of artists, including Douglas Huebler, Joseph Kosuth, Sol LeWitt, and Lawrence Weiner.

The collection Panza formed between 1966 and 1976 (the year he ceased collecting, only to resume in the late 1980s) soon became internationally recognized as one of the most significant single concentrations of American art of the 1960s and 1970s. The acquisitions Panza made during this decade reveal remarkable foresight, having occurred at a time when the market for such advanced art within the United States was quite small. Panza’s selections were guided by a distinct philosophical bent, as he articulated in a number of texts and interviews; the elementary shapes of Minimalist sculpture, for example, appealed to him as a search for the eternal and absolute. His collecting was distinguished by the purchase of certain artists in depth; relying on an international network of dealers, including Leo Castelli, Virginia Dwan, John Weber, and Nicholas Wilder in the United States, and Konrad Fischer, Heiner Friedrich, Ileanna Sonnabend, and Gian Enzo Sperone in Europe, Panza typically amassed work in groups, sometimes buying out the entire contents of gallery exhibitions. In many cases, Panza acquired works in the form of certificates or agreements for their realization at a later date, an arrangement that reflected the radical nature of much of the new art (and one which led to later disputes with several artists who were displeased with Panza’s fabrications or installations of their work).

Beginning in the 1960s, Panza converted the Villa Menafoglio Litta, Varese—an 18th-century palazzo, one hour outside of Milan, which his family had acquired in the early 1930s—into a showcase for his rapidly growing collection. Around 1970, he began repurposing the villa’s wing of renovated stables into galleries for larger sculptures, and in the mid-1970s he commissioned artists such as Flavin, Irwin, Nordman, and Turrell to produce site-specific installations there. (The villa is now operated as a public museum, managed by the Italian national trust the Fondo per l’Ambiente Italiano.) As he ran out of space at Varese, Panza became increasingly preoccupied with finding a permanent home for this part of his collection. He looked to various historic buildings in Italy, Switzerland, and elsewhere, which he hoped to develop into spaces for his large sculptures and installations (including works that yet remained unrealized). His plans for an “Environmental Art Museum” in Europe, however, were ultimately unsuccessful.

In 1990–92, wishing to keep this part of his collection largely intact, and attracted by the Guggenheim’s history as a collection with a specialized focus—one which he cited as model for his own collecting—Panza sold and gifted over 350 Minimalist, Post-Minimalist, and Conceptual artworks to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. (Other groups of work have since been acquired by the Hirshhorn Museum, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.) Spearheaded by former Guggenheim Director Thomas Krens, who had been in discussion with Panza even before coming to the museum in 1988, the Panza Collection acquisition transformed the Guggenheim into a leading center for the exhibition, preservation, and study of American art of the 1960s and 1970s and gave the museum depth and quality in its postwar holdings to match the strength of its prewar collection.

The acquisition of the Panza Collection may be seen as an outgrowth of the Guggenheim’s founding mission to collect and promote abstract art—albeit a very different type of abstraction than the type of utopian or spiritually inflected nonobjective painting prized by Solomon R. Guggenheim and Hilla Rebay. At the same time, the acquisition enabled the Guggenheim to present a historical context for its contemporary collection. Minimalism has been interpreted as a pivotal turning-point in the history of 20th-century art, representing both the culmination of Modernism and, simultaneously—in its contingency and the new relationship it established with the viewer—a rift that paved the way for what was to follow. With its stellar representation of seminal Minimalist artworks, as well as Post-Minimalist and Conceptual artworks of the later 1960s and 1970s, the Panza Collection has enabled the Guggenheim to represent the most immediate historical roots of the expanded and pluralistic field of post-1960s art.

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