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Italy tries something new

The art-rich nation lacks a major contemporary museum, but that issue soon may be history.

July 15, 2007|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

Venice, Italy — TECHNIQUES of industrial fabrication and the appropriation of existing images have had a deep impact on artistic practice over the last 50 years. Take Laura Owens' big, lush, chromatically orgiastic painting of figures in a swirling landscape. It's one of seven works by the Los Angeles artist in a new exhibition at the Palazzo Grassi here.

In a glance your mind automatically riffles through a clotted image library -- a jumble of Manet, Matisse, children's books, Edward Hicks' "Peaceable Kingdom," Hallmark greeting cards, Cezanne, textile designs, Mrs. Adams' third-grade art class and more. What you see is what you've already seen, reconfigured in surprising ways.

The inescapable tension between hand-crafted uniqueness and machine-made repetition is one current that buzzes through all 34 rooms of the provocative show. Another is more peripheral, but just as significant. Italy, it seems, is getting its first major museum of contemporary art.

England has Tate Modern, France has the Pompidou Center. In the Netherlands there's the Stedelijk, in Denmark the Louisiana. In Sweden it's the Modern Museum.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday July 17, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
Palazzo Grassi: An article in Sunday's Calendar section about plans for a contemporary art museum in Venice, Italy, said the building is at the tip of the Giudecca. The building is at the tip of Dorsoduro, at the Giudecca Canal.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday July 22, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
Palazzo Grassi: An article in the July 15 Calendar section about plans for a contemporary art museum in Venice, Italy, said the building was at the tip of the Giudecca. The building is at the tip of Dorsoduro, at the Giudecca Canal.

Germany can claim several important museums that do a good job with contemporary art, including the Ludwig Museum in Cologne. Spain wriggled out of Franco's dark ages with a growing commitment to new art that, in 1992, was institutionalized as the Reina Sofia Art Center.

Western Europe is home to a remarkably large number of important museums focused on the art of the past 50 to 100 years. They actively collect and they mount significant shows. In fact, there are more such museums there than in any region of comparable size anywhere in the world.

Given such abundance, overlooking the national slacker in the bunch has been easy. But everybody knows that Italy has dawdled.

Yes, there are fine if comparatively modest outposts, such as Turin's Rivoli Castle. Nearly a decade after an international competition, Rome is finally building MAXXI, Zaha Hadid's slippery design for a 21st century museum (hence the MAXXI acronym, appending Roman numerals to museo dell'arte). The Venice Biennale, offering extravagant global displays of new art since its founding in 1895, is a dowager empress of temporary international surveys.

And of course the entire country is practically one gigantic live-in museum, groaning under the historical weight of ancient, medieval, Renaissance and Baroque art. Those fields offer more satisfactions than anyone could experience in a lifetime.

So one might even wonder whether contemporary art needs a major permanent home in a place otherwise that loaded.

Wonder no more. Visit the handsomely renovated Ca' Pesaro, Venice's official Modern art museum, where the ragtag collection is mostly a sign of what might have been. Among the few notable works is a gilded, aromatic 1909 Gustav Klimt panel showing either Judith with Holofernes' severed head, or Salome with John the Baptist's. (No one's quite sure which.) The painting, acquired from an early Biennale when that show functioned as an international salon, shows the Viennese artist's affinity for Italian Byzantine mosaics, while nicely reflecting Venice's own overwhelming aura of luxurious decay. It feels like a remnant of a once lively intersection between art and life.

The absence of a high-profile contemporary art museum has been keenly felt, not least of all by Italian artists. As one just emerging into prominence said to me, without a major contemporary art museum, Italian artists suffer the lack of a window on the larger world and a mirror of their own engagement with it. Both are essential to any nation's healthy cultural life.

Now, the wait might be over.

In the spring, the city of Venice entered into a renewable 30-year agreement with Francois Pinault, 70, one of Europe's most active art collectors. Owner of Christie's auction house and majority shareholder of luxury goods group PPR, whose brands include Gucci, Balenciaga and Stella McCartney, the high school dropout is ranked by Forbes as France's third-wealthiest citizen, with $14.5 billion in assets. The city will give him control of the Dogana di Mare, an extraordinary Renaissance-era customs warehouse.

The location is a jaw-dropper. At the tip of the Giudecca, a few hundred yards across the Grand Canal from glittery Piazza San Marco, it stands adjacent to the iconic church, Santa Maria della Salute, the ultimate masterpiece of Venetian Baroque architecture.

In return, Pinault has engaged Japanese minimalist architect Tadao Ando to renovate the unused, 37,000-square-foot customs house -- suitably topped by a gilded globe that sports a windblown weather vane in the figure of Fortune. Pinault has also pledged a core group of 141 international works for a permanent installation. (His collection numbers more than 2,000 paintings, sculptures, installations, photographs and other works.) Oddly, the identity of those works remains secret.

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