Soon after the Guggenheim Museum in New York announced in 1990 that it planned to acquire more than 300 works of Minimal, Postminimal, and Conceptual art from the famed collector Count Giuseppe Panza di Biumo for $30 million, controversies began to emerge. For one, critics questioned the museum’s decision to sell paintings by Kandinsky, Modigliani, and Chagall to finance the purchase, which included many unrealized artworks that existed only as certificates or contracts. What, many wondered, was the museum actually buying?
Before long Donald Judd joined the fray, declaring pieces that Panza had made without his approval were not valid works. “The ones that Panza had made without consulting me are fakes,” Judd told the New York Times, adding that “the ones that still exist only on paper will be fakes too when they are executed, since I won't build them for the Guggenheim.” Nevertheless, the museum proceeded with the acquisition, adding the disputed Judds and certificate-based works by other artists to its collections.
“The issue wasn’t addressed at the time,” Carol Stringari, deputy director and chief conservator at the Guggenheim, said in a telephone interview, when asked about Judd’s complaint. “The opportunity to have this amazing collection presented itself, and the museum made the wonderful decision to take it in. To be frank, we all knew that there had been an ongoing, very public disagreement between Panza and Judd.”
Twenty years later, though, and less than a month after the death of Panza, the museum announced that it has secured a $1.23 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to study those potentially thorny issues raised by the ephemeral and conceptual work in the collection and hired scholar Jeffrey Weiss, who will work, as curator of the Panza Collection, with Stringari and Nancy Spector, the museum’s deputy director and chief curator. Weiss served as curator for modern and contemporary art at the National Gallery of Art from 2000 to 2007 before a short stint as director of the Dia Art Foundation, which owns many works that are similar to those in the Panza Collection.
“There are a series of open questions that need to be addressed,” Weiss said in a separate telephone interview. He and his team plan to begin that task by investigating the work of Bruce Nauman, Lawrence Weiner, Dan Flavin, and, yes, Donald Judd, which all present “a separate but related case study in the issues and problems pertaining to the preservation and perpetuation of work from that generation.” Weiss and his team plan to invite scholars, artists, representatives of estates, gallerists, conservators, and other specialists to hash out the issues that have placed some of their works — like those Judd sculptures — in a state of art-world limbo.
Because of unresolved issues surrounding the artists’ legal rights and intentions, “there are certain works we are not showing right now,” Stringari explained. “There may be some things that we have that are not fabricated correctly.” Could the research committee authorize the production of new work? “Some old works will be newly produced,” Weiss said. “Exactly how that’s going to go happen remains to be seen.” In building works from existing schema, the committee will be testing Sol LeWitts 1967 proclamation: “In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work.”
Various art-world powers — with vastly different agendas — have, of course, attempted to address these issues but often reached incredibly different conclusions. For instance: “People have done all kinds of things with Flavins,” Stringari said of the different approaches that have been taken to conserving and maintaining the artist’s fluorescent-light sculptures. For example, when the lights burn out, some collectors have hired electricians to replace the interior filaments, while others have purchased replacement bulbs from the foundation, which has stockpiled the specific appliance that Flavin favored. Recently-passed EU government regulations on the sale of fluorescent lights could present new problems. Stringari said, "We have a lot of Europeans that are going to be at this table so it’ll be interesting to see what happens."
The opportunity to help search for a consensus on these issues convinced Weiss to join the project, he said, adding, “The opportunity to study a body of work without any other expectations is rare. There will be shows, there will be publicity, and there will be other public manifestations of what we’re studying, but those things will come later.”
Remarkably, these issues have remained unresolved for sometimes three or four decades and date back to a time when the works in question were viewed far differently by their makers and collectors. “The artists sold these works when they were very, very young and weren’t making any money from them,” Stringari said. “They were happy to sell them as certificates, but it’s not unusual for an artist to come back twenty years later and say, ‘I wouldn’t have done it that way today.’ It happens all the time.” Stringari continued, “many of these artists have become American masters. We need to put them into historical perspective now.”
Given the value of many of these works, and the continuing market for them, the ensuing discussions through the Guggenheim may parallel the ongoing dialogue that has taken place recently over the commodification of performance art, which has been the subject of a series of panel discussions at the Museum of Modern Art. “There has been debate and controversy, which I find healthy and great,” Weiss said of the prospect of rancor at discussions the Guggenheim plans to hold on the Panza collection. “This is a great moment for the museum community. We’ll make the best of it.”
Stringari, though, emphasized that they were not planning to court controversy. “We are trying to build consensus as opposed to raising issues that we can’t resolve,” she said. “It may seem like museums, commercial galleries, and estates are at cross-purposes, but we really all have the same goal in the end, which is the integrity of the work.” While the decisions that the committee makes could impact the way business is conducted, Weiss said that they “may reach more of a framework that helps reach decisions on a case-by-case basis rather than specific guidelines. The idea is to make a record of what is discussed, what we discover, and preserve that process for history.”
That record is vital, Stringari said, because opinion about preservation and restoration of Panza's works could change over time, as it has for more traditional art mediums, like painting and sculpture. “It could be that, twenty years from now, people come to the table again and say, ‘Well, what they did twenty years ago doesn’t apply.’ This is just one moment in time.”
Scholars, after all, have debated for centuries about the proper degree to which to clean paintings, with opinion swinging between the use of dramatic alterations that attempt to capture the original look of a work and a more hands-off, laissez-faire approach. However alien it may appear now, conceptual, ephemeral art may inspire similar, ongoing debates. “In this case, we’re lucky because many of these things exist as certificates,” Stringari said, comparing the options available to her team with those of her colleagues who work with more traditional art. "No matter what happens,” she said, “we won’t have done anything we can’t reverse.”