Guggenheim
Belts | Richard Serra | Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa

The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao presents Changing Perceptions: The Panza Collection at the Guggenheim Museum. This unprecedented exhibition includes works from one of the most preeminent collections of art of the 1960s and 1970s, including some works that have not been on public view in over a decade. The scope of the exhibition requires a staggered installation, with the first and third floors opening on October 10, and the remaining galleries opening on November 18. Filling the entire museum with over a hundred works by twenty-two artists from the collection, Changing Perceptions shares with an international audience the Panza’s prescient vision as collectors and the innovative work of a generation of artists who changed the direction of Modern art.

Dr. Giuseppe Panza di Biumo and his wife, Giovanna, began acquiring art in 1956; today, together with private holdings, the Panza collection includes over 2,500 works. Between 1966 and 1975 the Panzas amassed one of the most ambitious collections of Minimal, Conceptual, Postminimal, and environmental art. This landmark exhibition is the fruitful result of an ongoing relationship between the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation and the Panzas that began a decade ago. In 1991 and 1992, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, was fortunate to acquire through purchase and gift over 350 works from this unparalleled collection, and the Panzas have also placed an additional 335 works on extended loan to the museum.

The collection is both a mirror of the Panzas and the time in which they live. Through art, they have found a means of expressing simple truths about culture and existence. A student of philosophy, Dr. Panza considers the work he collects as part of a larger theoretical and spiritual inquiry, an integral aspect of a personal search for meaning. Abstract painting and sculpture characterized by essential, geometric forms and a monochromatic palette have been of particular interest to the Panzas. The first works to capture their attention were by the Spanish painter Antoni Tàpies and French artist Jean Fautrier. These paintings reflect Europe’s postwar struggles with the weight of history, as well as the uncertainties of the future. In 1957 Panza discovered the work of the American painter Franz Kline in a magazine article; he immediately responded to the raw energy he sensed in these canvases. For the next several years, he focused on the work of American Abstract Expressionists and Pop artists who represented an optimism and experimentation particular to the United States. It was 1966 when he first became interested in Minimalist Art, having seen a reproduction of a piece by Robert Morris, whose straightforward sculptures made of ordinary materials appealed to Panza’s contemporary spirit and his interest in reduced, simple forms.

The collection is emblematic of a provocative and groundbreaking era in the history of art. The artists whose work will be on view are among the most influential of our time: Carl Andre, Larry Bell, Hanne Darboven, Jan Dibbets, Dan Flavin, Hamish Fulton, Robert Irwin, Donald Judd, Joseph Kosuth, Sol LeWitt, Richard Long, Brice Marden, Robert Mangold, Morris, Bruce Nauman, Richard Nonas, Robert Ryman, Richard Serra, Joel Shapiro, James Turrell, Lawrence Weiner, and Doug Wheeler. Eschewing conventional distinctions between painting and sculpture, art and idea, object and environment, this generation of artists has redefined our expectations and continues to challenge our perceptions of what art could be. With few exceptions each gallery in the museum is dedicated to one of these artists. While in some instances a single work might inhabit a space, many of the galleries include several pieces, reflecting Panza’s philosophy of collecting an artist’s work in depth. This is not an encyclopedic collection, but rather one that includes concentrated studies of a particular period in an artist’s oeuvre. By focusing on one artist at a time, the viewer is better able to understand the concerns that each addresses repeatedly in a series or through a variety of approaches. Likewise, the collection as a whole allows us to understand the shared motivations of these artists and witness the ways in which each grappled with similar issues through different media or materials.

In a 1966 quip that has become an axiom for Minimalism, painter Frank Stella declared, “What you see is what you see,” when referring to his works. The complexity of Stella’s statement about the Minimalist work of art lies in the fact that within the apparently straightforward objects to which it applies there exist multiple levels of experience. In the late 1960s, traditional expectations of artistic mediums were being challenged and reconsdiered. The paintings of Robert Mangold, for example, such as 1/3 Gray-Green Curved Area (1967), blur the distinctions between the once-discreet disciplines of painting and sculpture. While both figurative and abstract painting have traditionally denied the medium’s nature as two-dimensional by creating the illusion of depth, Mangold’s paintings draw attention to and thus questions that illusion. Using shaped canvases, the artist refutes a reading of the canvas support as “window” and focuses on the sculptural qualities of the stretched cloth, revealing it as an object. Mangold draws attention to viewers’ natural tendency to see more the object before them. As the title implies, 1/3 Gray-Green Curved Area is just a portion of a whole circle that we complete in our mind’s eye.

Carl Andre and Donald Judd also rejected illusionism and adopted a more literal approach to art making by locating the meaning of a work in its actual material qualities. Color was no longer just applied, for example, but was an inherent characteristic of the material itself, as in the rich copper of Andre’s 10 x 10 Altstadt Copper Square (1967), or the azure blue Plexiglas of Judd’s Untitled (1973). What a work truly is may not be discernable without a peripatetic investigation; one must walk around these sculptures to fully comprehend them. Having no discernible “front” or “back” a work may appear to be a square from one vantage point or as a rectangle from another. Where once a passive act of looking took place, the advent of Minimalism motivated confrontation and interaction. Placed directly on the floor without pedestals, both of these sculptures represent the Minimalist effort to bring art into the actual space of the viewer; thus, the role of the viewer takes on new significance and the relationship between object, spectator, and the surrounding space is heightened. Andre’s sculptures may be understood both visually and viscerally—museum visitors are invited to actually walk on them. An awareness of one’s own physicality is apparent in relation to the Judd as well. While traditional sculpture maintains a vertical axis, often imparting a sense of monumentality, Judd’s work can be seen from all sides and even from above. These sculptures contain no referents or hidden meanings, and their horizontal emphasis limits any anthropomorphic reading.

The use of interchangeable industrially produced materials that characterizes many of the works in the Panza collection is evident in Morris’s Untitled (5 steel plate piece) of 1969. Made of industrial steel plates held together with brackets, this work is indicative of his generation’s response to the romantic associations assigned to the recognition and evidence of the artist’s hand and the aura of an original work of art. Dan Flavin also embraced prefabricated materials, creating his light sculptures solely from fluorescent light fixtures. The importance of the artist’s role as craftsman began to be superceded by his or her conceptual acumen. Conceptual artists, including Joseph Kosuth and Lawrence Weiner, further questioned the value of the discrete art object. They began making works that emphasized the idea over the physical product. Language became both content and material. The idea was emphasized over the artifact and the physical manifestation of a work was considered simply a byproduct of the cerebral creative process or idea. Conceptual works are often ephemeral or can be remade repeatedly, just as words can be used again and again. Kosuth’s 'Titled (Art as Idea as Idea) [Idea]' (1967), consists of a photograph of a dictionary definition of the word “idea” rendered in a simple typeface and mounted on board. This work and others by Kosuth play on the notion of ideas as both the form and content of a work of art. The words we see are both the visual component of the piece but also impart information and meaning.

Many of the artists represented in Changing Perceptions share an interest in the relationship of art and environment and in extending the experience of the work to include the surrounding space. Perceptual and environmental artists have created works that challenge and expand the viewer’s aesthetic experience. Their works draw attention to spatial and sensory stimuli by emphasizing light effects and how these effects impact the surrounding space. This can be achieved through large site-specific installations, such as those by James Turrell and Doug Wheeler, or on a smaller scale, in a work like Robert Irwin’s Disc Colored Pale Grey Green Pink Violet (1966–67). Irwin’s slightly convex steel disc appears to hover in the gallery space. Four incandescent lamps create shadows on the disc and on the wall behind it, obfuscating the edge between object and environment as well as material and light. The viewer’s perception of this phenomenon is an integral component of the work. Likewise, Bruce Nauman’s Green Light Corridor (1970), focuses on the viewer and his or her reactions and behavior. Creating a narrow corridor with two freestanding walls, Nauman invites the viewer to interact with the sculpture. As one walks through the constructed space the green fluorescent light produces a discomforting sensation and the unusual length of the corridor and its cramped dimensions emphasize the influence that architecture and environmental stimuli wield on corporeal, physical, and behavioral responses. While Nauman’s environment demands audience participation it also predicts and controls the participants’ reactions.

In collecting this challenging work, the Panzas have been as innovative and forward thinking as the artists they champion, supporting them when they were virtually unknown. Undaunted by complex art that resists standard modes of commodification and exhibition, Panza has collected many works before their construction, when they existed only as ideas or plans on paper. Many depended on a specific site to be envisioned and built. In the early 1970s Panza commissioned several of these types of environments for his private home, the Villa Menafoglio Litta Panza in Varese, Italy, inviting Flavin, Irwin, Maria Nordman, and Turrell to create permanent installations for the space. The villa is now overseen by the Fondo per l’Ambiente Italiano (the Italian historic preservation society) and opened to the public in September 2000. A concurrent exhibition of the works from the Guggenheim Panza Collection at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice examines the work of seven artists from Southern California in the collection, many of whom are shown here in Bilbao as well. This trio of exhibitions honors the Panzas, their vision and generosity, as well as the contribution they have made to the understanding and appreciation of the works in their collection.

 

Richard Serra
Belts, 1966–67
Vulcanized rubber and neon
182.9 x 762 x 50.8 cm
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Panza Collection 91.3863