Mapping the Studio & In-finitum: Fortuny & Pinault Collections


Lucio Fontana, Concetto Spaziale, Fine di Dio, 1963: Mixed media, 178x123 cm Private collection Photo: Jean-Pierre GabrielLucio Fontana, Concetto Spaziale, Fine di Dio, 1963: Mixed media, 178x123 cm. Private collection. Photo: Jean-Pierre Gabriel

By York Lethbridge

Mapping the Studio
François Pinault Collection
Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana
June 6, 2009 – June 6, 2010


Fortuny Collection
Palazzo Fortuny
June 6 – November 15, 2009

It often goes without saying that collectors play an integral role in the international contemporary art scene. So, it was interesting that two of the most talked about collateral events of the 53rd Venice Biennale were projects by private collectors – French luxury goods billionaire François Pinault’s Mapping the Studio: Artists from the François Pinault Collection, curated by Francesco Bonami and Alison Gingeras at the Punta della Dogana and Palazzo Grassi; and dealer/decorator Axel Vervoordt’s latest curatorial project for the Palazzo Fortuny, In-finitum.

Every two years, the art world descends on the Venice Biennale, a grand exercise in artistic prestige. Although the Biennale is the principal attraction, including the events and parties hosted throughout the city, there is a great deal of art business conducted behind the scenes with dealers, institutional power players, high-profile curators, and major collectors oiling the machinery and setting the stage. During the vernissage, it is hard to ignore the floating palaces of the super-rich anchored amidst Venice’s sinking palazzos before they sail on to ArtBasel, the commercial fair in Switzerland. The market is part of the art system, and the Biennale plays to the commerce of artistic and social ambition in equal measure. Wealth and the right connections allow collectors of Pinault’s and Vervoordt’s status parts in the act.

The Punta della Dogana, renovated to stunning effect by architect Tadao Ando, is the newest annex to Pinault’s massive collecting enterprise that debuted in the Palazzo Grassi in 2007. Ando’s considerate concrete and glass additions to the triangular 17th-century brick and beam building seem to cradle even the largest works, taking advantage of soaring ceiling heights while carving out intimate spaces in some two-tiered galleries. Mapping the Studio, spanning both the Dogana and the Grassi, profits by this symbolic new home for iconic statements by leading contemporary artists.

Marlène Dumas, Shame, 2008: Oil on canvas, 40x49,5 cm. Courtesy of Zeno X, Antwerp.Marlène Dumas, Shame, 2008: Oil on canvas, 40x49,5 cm. Courtesy of Zeno X, Antwerp.Entering through Felix Gonzales-Torres’s beaded curtain (Blood, 1992), visitors are greeted by Rachel Whiteread’s candy-coloured resin casts of the undersides of chairs and tables. Maurizio Cattelan’s stuffed horse (2007) hangs by the neck from one wall, flanked by a Richard Prince joke painting (2007). Two sky-lit bays are reserved for Rudolf Stingel’s silver chain-link paintings (2008) and Sigmar Polke’s Axial suite (2005-2007), once Robert Storr’s centerpiece for the Italian pavilion at the 52nd Biennale. A second floor opens to Jake & Dinos Chapman’s Fucking Hell (2008) that consists of nine glass cases filled with Hitler clones and zombies of the Third Reich doing innumerable and indescribable horrors to one another. A full room of Cindy Scherman’s self-portraits as ageing society ladies (2007-2008) courts Jeff Koon’s Bourgeois BustJeff and Ilona (1991).

Although deadpan humour underlies much of the installations, the exhibition has some beautifully moving works – Cattelan’s veiled corpses carved from gray marble (All, 2008) share a room with Hiroshi Sugimoto’s black and white photographs of featureless mannequins dressed in haute couture fashions. Tucked into a darkened chamber, Mike Kelley’s islands of bottled glass cities are aglow in Kandors Full Set (2005-2009). In another room overlooking the Grand Canal, Fischli & Weiss’s Sonne, Mond und Sterne (2007-2008) explores the universal language of print advertising spread out over dozens of narrow white tables. Matthew Day Jackson’s futuristic anthropoid sculptures feel like stand-ins for Damien Hirst’s pickled fauna. The list of iconic works continues with spaces dedicated to Robert Gober, Takashi Murakami, Marlene Dumas, Luc Tuymans, David Hammons, Cy Twombly, Thomas Schütte and many more.

Despite the curators’ ambition to show something of the curator’s and collector’s roles in the creative process, the works on show draw the public closer to the studio without opening the door. The installations in the Punta della Dogana subscribe to an international standard of monolithic displays, and the parade of “greatest hits” of early 21st century art leaves little room for pause, but leaves visitors in awe.

In contrast to Pinault’s glossy show, In-finitum – the last in a trilogy of exhibitions including Artempo: Where Time Becomes Art (Venice, 2007) and Academia: Qui es-tu? (Paris, 2008) – imagines the Palazzo Fortuny as a giant wunderkammer. Organized by the Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia, the exhibition throws together contemporary art, Modernism, Asian pottery, Neolithic sculpture, ancient Egyptian carvings, and other centuries-old objects spanning four millennia, all lit and staged to great dramatic effect.

Ignoring the hyperbole of the curatorial text, the exhibition is an affective essay on human boundaries, using both art and its environment to raise potent questions on perception, belief, death, the cosmos and the supernatural, sometimes coaxing visitors beyond their comfort zones to indulge in sensual experience. Vervoordt’s diverse selections of art and objects display a richness reminiscent of great family treasures amassed over centuries set against a backdrop of the palazzo’s crumbling frescoed walls. He lays out an emotional territory that embraces the context of the exhibition, respecting histories and weaving them into the fold.

Works range from Eugène Delacroix oil studies to Marlene Dumas’s Shame – An Unfinished Work (2008), and connections between objects that may seem tenuous at first are galvanized when seen in person. The ground floor includes Lucio Fontana’s series of bronze orbs in Concetto Spaziale, Natura (1959-1960) that look like spent meteorites, paying complement to Diana Thater’s video installation Blue Cyan Green Suns (2000); a space-bending sculpture by Anish Kapoor invites close inspection while Gilberto Zorio’s terrifying Tesla Star (2007) repels with its high-voltage electric shocks. In a small passage, Angel Vergara’s playful Journey into Infinity (2009) follows the Artist’s hand madly tracing out the phenomena of the universe. A highlight within the maze is Grazia Toderi’s Red (2007) that layers surveillance video of nighttime cityscapes into stars set afloat on a pink sea of sodium-light haze.

Ground floor - Photo of exhibition layout: Photo: Jean-Pierre GabrielGround floor installation view: In-finitum, Fortuny Collection, Palazzo Fortuny: Photo: Jean-Pierre GabrielMoving between floors is a gradual climb from darkness into light. Each level is a labyrinth containing a number of conceptual constellations that engage the senses in evocative ways. The piano nobile in particular, where art is layered amidst elaborately printed Fortuny fabrics, chocolate velvet sofas, and machine-age lighting, privileges the curious visitor by providing a private realm in which to explore and contemplate, with many enticing distractions. An installation by Berlinde De Bruyckere of biomorphic wax forms under bell jars and atop faded silk pillows (2004-2009) recalls a macabre fascination with natural aberrations from a time before modern science. The light but skillful rendering of Michael Borremans’s Ghost II (2008) echoes the compositional second-thoughts of Francesco Hayez’s portrait of the penitent Magdalen (1833), now afflicted with the scars of pentimenti. Looking at the unfinished works, it is easy to imagine the infinite resides in the incomplete because it is a state where multiple possibilities exist. This theme of infinity continues with Roman Opalka’s 1965/1-infinity (Detail 5226271-5240851), only a fragment of the artist’s perpetual record of sequential numbers. The precision of Hans Op de Beeck’s panoramic constructions (2008) shares in the obsessive with Giambattista Piranesi’s drawings of imaginary prisons (c. 1745-1761), which Vik Muniz revisits using cotton thread in his photographic drawings. This line continues with Piero Manzoni’s Linee finite (1959-1960) neatly packaged in six cardboard cylinders.

The apogee is perhaps James Turell’s seductive Red Shift (1995) recreated at the Palazzo Fortuny in 2007. Turell’s disorienting space, where depth, surface, colour and brightness are homogenous, is an illusion of ultraviolet light that when entered elicits a range of emotions from delirium to spiritual awakening. Magic has never felt so close.

The quality of experience in seeing In-finitum is a reminder that encounters with art can be powerful and deeply personal. Although both In-finitum and Mapping the Studio play a name game of international contemporary art, Vervoordt’s project does more to re-energize historical and Modern works that may appear stale to contemporary eyes; however, Pinault’s collection will help cement the touchstones and celebrated artists of the near future. Both are welcome glimpses at the shape of things to come.

  • Click here to visit the official site for In-finitum, The Fortuny Collection at the Palazzo Fortuny

    Click here to visit the official site for Mapping the Studio: The François Pinault Collection at the Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana.

York LethbridgeYork Lethbridge is an independent curator, writer and artist living in Toronto. He holds a BFA from Queen's University and an MA in Art History from York University. Between desk jobs at the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Ontario College of Art & Design's Professional Gallery, he has coordinated the curatorial projects Connecting with Collections 2: Destinations at Gallery Lambton, Sarnia (until Oct. 21, 2009) and Abject Nature at the Union Gallery in Kingston (until Oct. 8, 2009).