Kerry Brougher, the acting director and chief curator of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, appears to be a happy man. A piece of what he calls “the most important collection of contemporary art in the world” now belongs to the Hirshhorn and has just been put on exhibit.
These 39 cerebral works from the late 1960s and early 1970s were purchased from Italian lawyer and real estate investor Giuseppe Panza di Biumo and his wife Giovanna, and represent only a fraction of their 2,500-piece holdings.
Since the 1950s, the couple have championed the most daring art of our times, from abstract paintings to wall pieces re-created anew every time they are shown. “They have the same collecting habits as [museum founder Joseph] Hirshhorn, buying 10, 20, 30 pieces by the same artist,” says Mr. Brougher.
The Panza Collection certainly rounds out the Hirshhorn’s holdings, but it isn’t the first or the largest sale by the pioneering Italian patrons to an American museum.
In 1984, the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art was the first to buy pieces from the Panzas. These 80 abstract expressionist and pop artworks form the foundation of its collection.
Another 350 works from the Panzas’ holdings are in the Guggenheim Museum in New York and 71 more belong to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, NY.
The Hirshhorn Museum purchased its smaller grouping last year to expand the breadth of its collection. “They are perfect for the museum in representing the very areas we did not have substantial holdings in conceptual, minimalist, light and space works from California,” says Mr. Brougher, who has known the Panzas since 1983 when he worked at the Los Angeles museum.
Diverse in expression, the pieces are similar in their strong reaction against the conventions of time-honored painting and sculpture. They address basic ideas about time, space and existence through austere means, instead of relying on figures and metaphors. “Reduced,” spelled out by artist Lawrence Weiner in big red letters on one gallery wall, summarizes the intent.
Don’t expect much sensory pleasure from this show unless you like meditating on fields of words, numbers and light. Yet, if you stare at these repetitious pieces long enough, their monochromatic expressions start looking romantic, even beautiful in the traditional sense.
That is certainly true of the photographs taken by British artist Hamish Fulton while trekking through the countryside during the 1970s. A dark, moody seascape bracketed by light-filled scenes of the cloudy coasts records his 100-mile, four-day walk in Iceland. On another trip, he snaps views of divergent leafy paths in front and in back of him to recall Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken.”
Dutch artist Jan Dibbets also composes pictures to capture the changing effects of nature in a painterly manner. His 80-photograph sequence, “The Shortest Day of 1970 Photographed in My House Every 6 Minutes from Sunrise to Sunset,” is nearly symmetrical in its shift from artificial to natural light and back again, as recorded through a window.
Randomness has a beauty, too, the exhibit reveals in 10 photos shot by Douglas Huebler at a midtown Manhattan intersection while he shut his eyes. Some of his images of pedestrians look remarkably well-composed.
More ethereal are three untitled works by Long Beach, Calif. artist Robert Irwin. His most interesting piece is a spray-painted disc extended from the wall. It is illuminated by floor lamps to cast shadows resembling the petals of a rosette.
The resulting optical effects are intriguingly contradictory as the projected disc appears to merge with the wall while standing out as a sphere suspended in space.
Another intriguing light and space installation is by Arizona-born artist Doug Wheeler. Its glowing frame surrounds the back wall of a gallery in reflected illumination, inviting the viewer to contemplate the hidden light source as if confronting an uninhabited Baroque painting.
Even the most obsessive piece has an old-fashioned appeal. Polish artist Roman Opalka’s canvas appears to be filled with impressionistic markings until you look closer. It is lined with a consecutive sequence of numbers drawn by the artist in white paint until the brush is depleted of pigment. Counting toward infinity through hand-applied symbols seems particularly quaint from the perspective of the computer age.
Of the 16 artists represented in the exhibit, nine are new to the museum. For the first time, the Hirshhorn owns pieces by Messrs. Dibbets, Fulton, Huebler, Opalka, Weiner and Wheeler, as well as New Yorker Robert Barry, German-born artist Hanna Darboven and Japanese conceptualist On Kawara. Mr. Brouher and his team chose some of the art from the Panzas to complement works already in their collection, including pieces by Joseph Kosuth, Richard Long and Sol LeWitt.
The curators made some last-minute changes from an agreed-upon list with the collectors, once they came face to face with the originals in the Panzas’ warehouse outside Milan. “One Kosuth piece was coveted for the museum but once we saw his beautiful glass cubes, they were substituted for it,” says Mr. Brougher.
He won’t admit how much the group of artworks cost, only to say “considerably less” than experts’ estimates of $5 million to $7 million. “It was a very good deal.”
WHEN YOU GO
WHAT: The Panza Collection
WHERE: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Independence Avenue and Seventh Street Southwest
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily through Jan. 11
WEB SITE: www.hirshhorn.si.eduweb