Exhibitions Museums USA

Guggenheim tackles Panza problem

Conceptual pieces could be fabricated for the first time and the fate of disavowed works decided

The collector who made Donald Judd mad as hell: Giuseppe Panza. Photo: Ricardo Gutierrez

The Guggenheim in New York has received a second grant of $1.25m from the Andrew Mellon Foundation to study fabricating or remaking conceptual works of art in the Panza Collection. The museum’s decision to realise or recreate the works raises questions about collecting and exhibiting conceptual art. More than a dozen were disavowed by the artists or exist only as certificates or sets of instructions. The legal, ethical and art-historical complexities surrounding the works mean that some have not been seen by the public for more than 20 years.

Concerns about the works’ authenticity first gained wide attention in 1989, when Donald Judd published a manifesto titled Una stanza per Panza. In it, the artist disparaged the collector for fabricating works from certificates incorrectly and without Judd’s permission. When the museum acquired part of the Panza Collection, Judd reiterated his position, telling the New York Times in 1990: “As far as I’m concerned, the Guggenheim has bought a pig in a poke.”

In 2010, the Guggenheim’s chief curator, Nancy Spector, and the museum’s chief conservator, Carol Stringari, secured a $1.23m grant from the Mellon foundation to examine the work of five artists in the collection: Bruce Nauman, Dan Flavin, Robert Morris, Lawrence Weiner and Judd. The first phase of the project, which was strictly research and was led by the curator Jeffrey Weiss and the conservator Francesca Esmay, was completed this summer.

Researchers interviewed the artists or their surviving studio assistants and examined the works’ original purchase contracts. A panel of experts, including lawyers, scholars and members of the artists’ estates, met at the end of each case study to discuss the findings.

The second grant, finalised in March, will finance two additional case studies. More importantly, it will potentially help to fund the fabrication of unrealised works, as well as the disposal of objects deemed unfit for exhibition, according to sources familiar with the committee’s activities. The Guggenheim declined to comment on the details of the project.

The problems posed by the collection illustrate the complexities of art from the 1960s and 1970s. “During this period, you have a shift from the notion of the art object to the art work—something that could take different forms,” says the art historian Alexander Alberro.

In some cases, the museum found itself with multiple versions of the same work, as was the case with an early sculpture by Flavin that was temporarily lost and refabricated later. In the second phase of the project, researchers will consider what to do with recreated and disavowed works that the institution will not display.

“Copyright cannot always adequately deal with all these issues,” says the art lawyer Virginia Rutledge, who gave advice to the project. “There must be other mechanisms in place if artists want to have some control. Perhaps another way to look at this is to ask, how do you establish social and industry understandings that might do a better job than a legal document would?”

Such questions “have yet to be properly dealt with”, Alberro says, “and will have a broader impact on the field” of conceptual art. “Some of the conclusions, if they are put into practice, will have a ripple effect,” he says.

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