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Monday, March 4, 2013

Been There, Done That

Owned by French luxury goods billionaire François Pinault, the Palazzo Grassi, a splendid 18th century palace overlooking the Grand Canal, presents major exhibitions, many of which are based in whole or in part on his enormous collection of contemporary art. For overflow, he also has the Punta della Dogana which at one time was the Venetian customs house. It’s a wonderful triangular building at the tip of the island of Dorsoduro next to that magnificent Venetian landmark: il Salute.

The renovation of the Palazzo Grassi (2005) as well as the restoration of Punta della Dogana (2008-2009) were both done by Japanese architect, Tadao Ando. In each, Ando adopted a minimalist approach that allows the original architecture to shine forth while transforming the spaces into appropriate venues to exhibit contemporary art. In the Palazzo Grassi, Ando used free-standing white partitions set slightly in front of the original marble walls to adapt the space and suspended a sheet of transparent fabric underneath the palace’s central atrium’s glass roof to create a modernist look and diffused light effect.

On view when I visited was a selection of videos from the François Pinault Foundation. “A sensory journey that oscillates, through the gaze of the artists, between solemnity, angst, humor, and levity,” is how it’s billed, but for me it was one long slog through. There were a couple of exceptions: Hassan Kahn’s Jewel, which I had seen last spring at the New York's New Museum still moved me and Javier Téllez”s Passion of Joan of Arc with interviews with 12 psychiatric patients was pretty galvanizing.

Over at the Punta della Dogana one encountered the usual suspects: Koons, Cattalan, Judd, Nauman in a show entitled In Praise of Doubt. I did like the Judd and Nauman pieces and work by Tatiana Trouvé who I was unfamiliar with. By and large, the show’s all about what little shock and irony value that can be wrested from objects that clamor for attention either by virtue of size, material, bad taste or just plain yuckiness, but which strike me as ineffably hollow. 

As a child, I was indeed staggered by Edward Kienholz’s installation at the Whitney that could have been Mrs. Bates waiting for her son or Faulkner’s Emily of the rose sitting in their living rooms. That was in the late 1960s. Now, his work just looks painfully hackneyed. And what do I want with a giant plastic caterpillar, a taxidermied horse coming through the wall, or a glitzy heart and ribbon that looks like it’s part of a department store Valentine’s display. Whatever message these works are trying to convey has long since lost its meaning, let alone punch. But it’s all about names, not art in a place like this and why would I expect anything else from a successful businessman whose specialty is promoting merchandize that relies on its name recognition. So it’s a no-brainer that he’d go for brand over originality.