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An appreciation: Giuseppe Panza di Biumo

April 25, 2010 |  3:00 pm
Giuseppe Panza Di Biumo 2 On each of three consecutive days in early April 1985, I spent three intense hours holed up in a Sunset Strip hotel suite overlooking the hazy Los Angeles basin with a tape recorder, a stack of blank cassettes, a sheaf of notes and questions scrawled on a yellow legal pad for Giuseppe Panza di Biumo, the Milanese businessman who was the first great international collector of postwar American art. My task was to conduct a nine-hour oral history for the Smithsonian's Archives of American Art on Panza's life as a collector of some of the most significant art produced since the mid-1950s.

Panza, who died Friday night in Milan at 87, was a legend. I had been to his villa in the foothills of Varese, about an hour northwest of the city, and, like everyone who made the pilgrimage, had been taken aback by what I saw. Among many other works, geometric wall drawings in graphite and pale-colored pencil by Sol LeWitt seemed as sensible for the graceful 18th-century house as any flight of celestial fantasy by Tiepolo might have been. (Or, for that matter, by Tiepolo's lesser-known contemporary, Pietro Antonio Magatti, whose frescoes do adorn other parts of the villa.) LeWitt's radical contemporary brilliance suddenly glowed with added historical power.

Over the previous 30 years Panza had acquired nearly 600 paintings, sculptures, installations and mixed-media works by Mark Rothko, Robert Rauschenberg, Bruce Nauman, Robert Irwin, Maria Nordman, Dan Flavin, Richard Serra, Hanne Darboven and about 60 more -- a few European, but mostly American Abstract Expressionist, Pop, Minimal and Conceptual art. It was like the reverse of French Impressionism a century before -- widely shunned at home, but greeted enthusiastically across the Atlantic.

Rothko 2 Allen J. Schaben LAT Many were bought before the artist had yet been established, and often on the advice (and always with the concurrence) of his wife, Giovanna. And many of the artists worked in Los Angeles -- Irwin, Nauman, Nordman, Larry Bell, Douglas Huebler, James Turrell, Doug Wheeler and more. The public profile for these artists was limited in New York; but Panza, who first visited L.A. after college in 1954, gave them prominence in the lovely and practical galleries he converted from the villa's stables, service quarters and other rooms.

In 1984 he sold 80 Abstract Expressionist and Pop works to L.A.'s fledgling Museum of Contemporary Art, where he was a trustee, including the finest group of paintings by Rothko (7) and Franz Kline (12) and mixed-media sculptures by Rauschenberg (11) in any museum, then or now. The numbers represented his commitment to collecting an artist's best work in depth, in order to fully understand the achievement.

MOCA's stunning coup created an international commotion. Although some squawked that a trustee selling to his museum raised ethical concerns, the far-below-market price ($11 million) and favorable terms (five years to pay, with no interest) made clear that the deal was partly a gift. Panza believed in MOCA -- the acquisition instantly changed it from fledgling museum to international player -- and in L.A. as a cultural center. Appropriately, his papers are now housed in the Getty Research Institute.

I felt vaguely overwhelmed by the impending interview.

One particular concern was just technical. What if the tape recorder didn't work? What if I got home and turned on the machine and the tapes were blank?

The fear was a bit of misplaced déjà vu. By sheerest coincidence, as a student in Paris in 1972 I had been hired to transcribe a taped conversation between Panza and art critic Bruce Kurtz, which would be the first published interview with the collector. (It appeared in Arts Magazine that March.) But the batteries in the tape recorder were dying when the recording was made, and as the fascinating chat progressed, the pace on the playback got steadily slower, the voices ever deeper and Panza's accent intermittently incomprehensible.

Rauschenberg Untitled (Man with white shoes) 1955 Kurtz laughed out loud when, after several days holed up in a residence hotel significantly less flashy than anything on the Sunset Strip (no longer in existence but, with a certain Gallic wit, called the Hotel Novelty), I submitted a transcript that included the pair's insightful commentary on Roberta Maurice, the influential Minimalist sculptor. Due to audio difficulties, Robert Morris had changed gender and nationality in my portable Smith Corona typewriter.

I was slightly discombobulated, too. I had spent the day before beginning the intensive Panza interview with Andy Warhol on the inspiring set of "The Love Boat." The silver-wigged Pop artist was in town to do a TV guest shot with Gopher, Julie and Capt. Stubing.

With a twinge of regret, Warhol told me he had already been down to the Temporary Contemporary, MOCA's renovated warehouse in Little Tokyo, to see the inaugural exhibition of the Panza acquisition -- the first Panza holdings to enter any museum collection. (New York's Guggenheim, Washington's Hirshhorn and, earlier this month, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art made later acquisitions, while the villa in Varese was turned into a national museum in 1996.)  The 1960s Pop works included 28 paintings and sculptures by Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg and James Rosenquist, but nothing by Warhol.

I knew Panza had gone to Warhol's studio in 1962, the year of the Campbell's soup cans, Elvises, Marilyns and many other now-iconic works of the period. When I asked Panza about the omission, he replied with a characteristic frankness that I quickly came to admire: "I believed that Lichtenstein was better, and in 1962 Warhol looks to me close to Lichtenstein but not so good as Lichtenstein. But it was a mistake, because it was not true."

It was a mistake. He repeated the phrase several times in different contexts during the nine-hour interview, a sign that his relationship to new art was one of on-going discovery, not egotistical trophy hunting. Win some, lose some, but always grow.

RoyLichtenstein Man with Folded Arms 1962 And the interview is fascinating because his quirky, thoughtful take on art is deeply personal. Ask about the white paintings of Robert Ryman and he begins by discussing the brushwork in a Raphael. Understanding the conceptual connections in Marcel Duchamp's sly Dada objects changed his youthful low-regard for Italian Mannerist art. Conversation about the language-based Conceptual art of Lawrence Weiner begins with a rumination on the 15th-century philosophical ideas of Piero della Francesca.

The last time I saw Dr. Panza was in December 2008, a chance encounter in the lobby of New York's Museum of Modern Art. (Most Americans called him Count Panza, incidentally, though I've never been quite sure whether that was correct, and I neglected to inquire during the 1985 interview. Victor Emmanuel III bestowed the noble title on his father in 1940 and titles often fall to the eldest son, but Panza was the third of four. If inaccurate, he was shrewd enough never to correct awed Americans.) Frail and walking with a cane, he seemed buffeted by the tourist whirlwind that MOMA has become.

Still, it seemed fitting -- the great European collector of new American art inside the great American museum of once-new European art. A circle had closed, and Panza was instrumental in making it happen.

-- Christopher Knight

Follow Times art critic Christopher Knight on Twitter: @KnightLAT

Photos, from top: Giuseppe Panza di Biumo at MOCA in 1985. Credit: Los Angeles Times; Mark Rothko paintings at MOCA. Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times; Robert Rauschenberg, "Untitled (Man with White Shoes)," 1955, and Roy Lichtenstein, "Man with Folded Arms," 1962. Credit: MOCA

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