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Guggenheim Deal Leaves Panza's California Art in Play

February 22, 1990|WILLIAM WILSON | TIMES ART CRITIC

New York's Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation may have acquired the lion's share of Italian Count Giuseppe Panza di Biumo's contemporary American art collection last weekend, but very little of his coveted California art was included in the arrangement, the count revealed in an interview this week.

"I retain ownership of the largest part of the California art, about 80 works of Light and Space art plus some new work I acquired in the past two years," the indefatigable 67-year-old collector said from his New York hotel. "I have always been interested in having the part of my collection that includes California artists in California. I hope this will become true one day, but it is a question of finding the right sponsor.

"If a sponsor will pay for a building, I will make a gift for such a project to keep the works all together and have them in California."

Former hopefuls who thought the Guggenheim purchase had made them also-rans brightened when apprised of this new twist. "I would never foreclose on such an idea," said County Art Museum Director Earl A. (Rusty) Powell. "I'm glad the door is still open."

Museum of Contemporary Art Director Richard Koshalek said that if the California works remain available, he would like to "explore and discuss" their acquisition. In 1983, Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art purchased Panza's 80-work Abstract Expressionist and classic Pop compendium for $11 million to form the core of its permanent collection.

For the last decade, Powell, Koshalek and virtually every other museum director in California hoped to obtain Panza's collection of several hundred works of Minimalist and Conceptual art of the '60s and '70s. Widely praised as the finest private holding of its type, it was particularly attractive here because of heavy representation of so-called California Light and Space art. The style is regarded as among the most original in contemporary art and involved the talents of such innovators as Robert Irwin, James Turrell, Doug Wheeler, Eric Orr and Maria Nordman.

"I have always personally regretted that this amazing holding has not found a home here," said Henry Hopkins, director of the Frederick R. Weisman Collection and former director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Hopkins thought he detected a shift in Panza's conditions. "He seems to have moved from a previous position where he wanted first a long-term loan followed by a purchase, to a new posture, where he is willing to make a gift in exchange for a building. I would still hope we could affect this as a possibility. The art program of the Santa Monica Art Commission or the expanded Newport Harbor Art Museum seem like possibilities."

Henry Korn, who heads the Santa Monica Art Commission, confirmed that "during the past year or so," he and Panza discussed the possibility of installing the California works in a hangar-like building that would be constructed at the Santa Monica airport but termed the negotiations "speculative and inconclusive."

Panza has held an extraordinarily large number of such discussions with museum professionals throughout Europe and America, displaying great zeal and idealism in regard to his collections. However, only one deal was actually cut prior to the Guggenheim arrangement, the sale to MOCA. According to one expert, those works are worth as much as $100 million today and are unavailable at any price.

A consistent Panza profile emerges from accounts given by art administrators who have dealt with him. Ever polite, attentive and interested, he pursues negotiations to the point of practical action and then "it all just sort of evaporates," said one frustrated suitor who asked not to be named. "It's like punching taffy."

Panza became a player on the Los Angeles scene when artist Robert Irwin introduced him to MOCA in 1981. Panza approached the county museum's receptive Powell in 1985. Talks snagged on Panza's insistence that his room-filling installation works be kept together and on view.

Powell, realizing this was a physical impossibility for his museum, then put together an informal consortium of MOCA Director Richard Koshalek, Hugh Davies of the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art and Hopkins, who then directed the San Francisco museum. The idea was to forge an arrangement whereby Panza's works would rotate among the four museums with some prominently on view in each place. The proposal was never accepted or rejected by Panza.

The Guggenheim agreement includes more than 300 works. About half the art, by such key figures as Brice Marden, Robert Ryman, Donald Judd and Richard Serra, will be purchased by the institution over six years for an unrevealed price believed to be in the tens of millions of dollars.

Works that are physically movable will come to rest in the Guggenheim's spiraling Frank Lloyd Wright building on Fifth Avenue, but insiders are wondering how the museum will pay for the purchase and where it will house the work. Guggenheim Foundation director Thomas Krens did not return calls from The Times.

The balance of the acquisition will be a gift to the museum from Panza and will include the buildings and land of his estate in Varese, outside Milan. It houses many space-gobbling installations by the Californians and such other luminaries as Dan Flavin, Sol LeWitt and Walter de Maria. The estate will become a public museum operated through an endowment from the local Italian government and administered by the Guggenheim.

The foundation, which is known to have a longstanding interest in increasing its presence in Europe, has a museum in Venice, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection.

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