The Weight of Minimalism: Art Patronage in the 20th Century

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It is not easy being an artist, trying to chase ideas all day while your rent isn’t paid.  Paint is expensive, canvases aren’t cheap, and the prospect of receiving money from all that hard work is a shot in the dark at best.  Even when the methods behind your artwork don’t necessarily involve paint or canvases, such as the 20th century minimalist movement, the process of art requires money, not to mention the even higher cost of living.  You can always try selling paintings on the street, but concepts and light or sound may prove more difficult.  Particularly within the minimalist movement, artists relied on the generosity of private patrons and organizations for their work to become fully realized, a paradoxical fact that belies the term “minimalism” and describes the movement mostly in content, not in economy.  Because of the nearly limitless budgets of these patrons and organizations, minimalism was able to happen, in turn shifting the contemporary art world in a new direction.

Born in Milan on March 23, 1923, Panza was the son of a wealthy wine distributor.  He had an interest in art at an early age, studying law at the University of Milan in 1948.  However, he never actually practiced and took over the family business instead.  With that massive inheritance and keen business sense, Panza maintained a comfortable life, one which allowed him to amass one of the world’s largest and most valuable private collections of artwork.  Panza was not merely a tasteless, rich collector however…he had an eye for collecting works of artists in their early years, before any sort of career had shaped them and their ideas were just starting to develop.  An avid supporter of the minimalist wave, Panza collected hundreds of artists’ work, some controversial, included but not limited to Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, Joseph Beuys, James Turrel and Lawrence Weiner.  Instead of collecting artwork for his own monetary gain, Panza also arranged important gift and loan deals that greatly enhanced the collections of several American museums. “The 80 abstract-expressionist and Pop works that he sold to the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art for $11 million gave it instant credibility soon after it opened in 1983. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum filled a yawning gap in its holdings when it acquired, in a combined gift and purchase arrangement, more than 300 Minimalist sculptures and paintings in the 1990s.  In the last five years, the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art all added substantially to their collections through gift and purchase deals with Count Panza” (Grimes 2010, 3). 

The economic disparity between artist and patron is a great one, a fact that Panza was surely aware of.  It is nearly impossible for an artist to subsist on art alone, and while the idea of eating nothing but bread and artwork may be romanticized by some, it is clearly a difficult way to live for an extended period of time.  It is here that the purpose of the patron is realized, a role that Panza inhabited for the entirety of his eighty-seven year old existence.  The idea of a patron is not simply someone who buys paintings, but rather someone who puts faith in the artist’s work and helps make it happen.  As Panza stated in his own words to Sculpture magazine in 2008, “I collect art I love beauty, not to make money.  This relationship to art is a necessity to me because everybody wants to be happy, and I found the best way to be happy” (Grimes 2010, 1).  Although art will exist in all circumstances, materials are expensive and so are ideas, particularly within the Minimalist movement.  Though the name does indeed describe the artwork and concept, the budgets necessary for such works were not always so minimal, and patrons such as Panza were vital for the concepts to become fully realized.

One of Panza’s most beloved artists, Dan Flavin, was an artist who in his later work exclusively used commercially available fluorescent lights.  These minimalist sculptures could take up hundreds of square feet, and were as much based upon their environment as the materials used.  In one of his first installation pieces, greens crossing greens (to Piet Mondrian who lacked green), Flavin uses two sections of fluorescent light to engulf a room with green color, the hue melding into the walls and onto the viewer.  This work, like many other minimalist sculptures, utilized the gallery itself to display their artistic ideas, where previously the gallery was merely a room that housed the artwork.  In this manner, Flavin was enveloping the viewer and forcing them to inactively participate in the artwork, rather than observing it from their own vantage point.  As time progressed however, Flavin’s work required an environment different than that of a gallery setting.  His permanent installations include locations in the Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, Netherlands (1977); Hudson River Museum, Yonkers, New York (1979); United States Courthouse, Anchorage, Alaska (1979–89); the Staatliche Kunsthalle Baden-Baden, Germany (1989); the lobby of the MetroTech Center (with Skidmore Owings & Merrill), Brooklyn, New York (1992); seven lampposts outside the Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich (1994); Hypovereinsbank, Munich (1995); Institut Arbeit und Technik/Wissenschaftspark, Gelsenkirchen, Germany (1996); and the Union Bank of Switzerland, Bern (1996).  Flavin was often involved in the design of the gallery itself, utilizing the museum’s architecture to achieve his artistic purpose.      

Donald Judd, another one of Panza’s favorites, was one of the most influential 20th century artists not only for his work, but also his art criticism and writing.  Although he astutely denied the term minimalism, Judd was commonly associated with the movement, and his sculptures denoted an artist whom was fully aware of the term.  To Judd, “Methods should not matter as long as the results create art,” and he was a proponent of permanent installations, citing that “temporary exhibitions, being designed by curators for the public, placed the art itself in the background, ultimately degrading it due to incompetency or incomprehension.”  With this in mind, Judd’s permanently installed structures incorporated art into the lives of everyone, an idea that belied the precocious restraints of a gallery setting.  Cemented in the firm belief that art should exist for its own sake, without the illusions of representational sculpture, Judd has produced visceral, physical structures that stand for themselves and that alone.  There is a great deal of craftsmanship that is part of Judd’s work, which almost makes the nature of his structures practical.  A remarkably energetic individual, Judd also formed his own foundation, the Chinati Foundation, which houses a number of permanent sculptures.  The emphasis is on works in which art and the surrounding landscape are inextricably linked, and Judd believes that is his mission as an artist to preserve the need for permanent artwork everywhere.

Another early supporter of Judd and the minimalist movement was the Dia Art Foundation.  Established in 1974 as the Lone Star Foundation, it was founded by a woman named Philippa de Menil.  An heiress to the Schlumberger oil fortune, she established the organization with her then husband Heiner Friedrich, an important art dealer and collector of minimal and conceptual art.  With their guidance, not to mention the seemingly endless amounts of money they could put into projects, the Dia Foundation was probably the most significant proponent of minimalism and conceptualism, and often provided permanent homes to artists such as Joseph Beuys, Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, Agnes Martin and Walter de Maria.  What the Dia did, and continues to do to some degree, is provide the monetary backing for ideas to become reality.  To the minimalists, a painting was a mere representation, whereas a concept provided a more truthful and interesting take on reality, not to mention art.  Art was the reality, and as numerous permanent structures in the Dia exemplified, the process of art had moved from various mediums to an autonomous idea.  And while of course, many of the art created by the minimalist wave, some of which can be found in an Asian art collection, were objects or some sort of medium, it was more about the concept and less about the product.  

“The Lightning Field,” by Walter de Maria is a minimalist earth-work commissioned by the Dia in Catron County, New Mexico.  The work consists of 400 stainless steel poles with solid, pointed tips, arranged in a rectangular 1 mile × 1 kilometre grid array.  Upon his first time visiting the site, the Washington Post’s Blake Gopnik provides an accurate depiction.  “A classic patch of sagebrush-covered land, set on an empty plateau 7,200 feet high. A ring of jagged mountains at its edges, out-cliche-ing any Hollywood western. And in the middle, 400 lightning rods, custom-made from stainless steel and laid out in a grid that stretches a mile in one direction and a kilometer in the other. Set 220 feet apart, the rods tower to several times the height of a tall man; whatever kind of mound or furrow they get planted in, their tops all reach to the same table-flat height” (Gopnik 2009, 2).  Only six people a day are allowed to see the work, and only for six months out of the year.  The idea to stick 400 steel poles into a perfectly geometric shape to some may seem odd, but to the members of the Dia foundation and many of the work’s proponents, it is one of the greatest minimalist sculptures existing.  

In addition to funding these works to take place, the Dia supported artists in different ways, “providing them with stipends, studios, assistants and archivists for the individual museums it planned to build for each of them” (Colacello 1996, 1).  The Dia sought to provide permanent homes to conceptual and minimalist artists, and rejected the antiquated notion of temporary gallery exhibitions.  Much like the outspoken Donald Judd, the members of the Dia Foundation believed that art should be present everywhere, not just in the walls of a gallery.  However by 1984, after Philippa de Menil had poured more than $35 million of her inheritance into the foundation, it was “on the verge of financial collapse” (Colacello 1996, 2).  In January 1985, her mother Dominque de Menil stepped in and ousted Heiner Friedrich, made Ashton Hawkins Chairman, and Lois de Menil, Philippa’s sister in-law, vice-chairman.   “Philippa kept her seat on the board, but her remaining assets were put in a trust controlled by her brothers, Georges, the husband of Lois, and François. In the decade that followed, Hawkins and Lois de Menil stabilized the foundation’s finances and transformed it into a much-admired, publicly oriented institution. But some say that the wounds within Dia’s founding family never healed, and that the seeds of the second coup were sown in the first” (Colacello 1996, 2).  Although the cutbacks in funding and ousting of board members in 1996 surely have changed things, the message of the Dia is still to provide permanent homes for art to exist autonomously.   

There are a few things the Dia Foundation and Giuseppe Panza have in common, and those similarities are what separate both of them from other collectors or museums.  The goal of both, it seems, is in the best interest of the artist and their ability to create content.  It is because of patrons like these that art has been able to progress in such a massive direction, and a few questions must be raised.  Does the artwork itself exemplify the paradoxical relationship between wealthy patrons and the content?  What is artistically possible with endless amounts of money?  And how much does money dictate art?  In both of these instances, it is the idea that matters, not how much it costs or how it can fit onto a canvas.  It is a symbiotic, albeit delicate relationship between the wealthy patron and the starving artist, and it’s interesting to think about how that affects the content.  There are many how say “There’s no place for money in art,” but there are a lot of hungry artists who disagree.  It is because of money that art has been able to progress in the direction that it has, and while the quantity of wealth may never make you a quality artist, it is wealth that has enabled a lot of quality artists to make the art they have.  Without the grants, stipends and collections of wealthy oil tycoons and art dealers, artists would not be able to survive, never mind progress artistically.  It is this fragile, paradoxical agreement that the industry of art is built upon, and as contentious as it may be, the relationship between wealthy patrons and artists continues to thrive.   

Bibliography

Bob Colacello, “Remains of The Dia,” Vanity Fair, September 1996, http://www.vanityfair.com/magazine/archive/1996/09/colacello199609

William Grimes, “Giuseppe Panza, Collector of Postwar American Art Dies at 87,” New York Times, May 1, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/02/arts/design/02panza.html?_r=0

Blake Gopnik, “Walter de Maria’s ‘Lightning Field’ Encompasses a Vast New Mexican Vista,” The Washington Post, August 13 2009, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/08/12/AR2009081203304.html