A palazzo in Venice has been transformed to display the vast art collection of luxury goods magnate François Pinault. Richard Dorment reports
The long-running saga of the François Pinault collection came to its conclusion over the weekend with the gala opening of the newly renovated Palazzo Grassi in Venice.
François Pinault in front of Palazzo Grassi
As Will Bennett reported in these pages last week, Pinault, the luxury goods tycoon who owns Christie's auction house, has one of the most important collections of contemporary art in the world. Venice was not his first choice to house his stupendous holdings of about 2,000 works, amassed over a period of 30 years. Originally he had planned to create a museum in a former Renault car factory on the Ile Séguin, an industrial suburb three miles outside Paris. But, after hiring the great Japanese architect Tadao Ando to design the project, Pinault was then frustrated at every turn by endless delays in securing the necessary planning permissions - a textbook example of the stranglehold petty officialdom has on French life.
Last year, Pinault announced that he was no longer giving his collection to Paris, but had bought an 80 per cent share of the 18th-century Palazzo Grassi, formerly owned by the Fiat motor company and one of Europe's most prestigious exhibition spaces. Once again, he hired Ando as the architect. Over the past six months, Ando installed removable partitions against the walls of the rooms where the artworks were to be displayed. With track lighting running below high and ornate ceilings, the all-white gallery spaces are now ideal for showing contemporary art.
Well, almost ideal. Compared with other contemporary art venues such as Tate Modern or Dia: Beacon in New York, the Palazzo Grassi isn't large. Pinault will be able to display only a fraction of his holdings here at any one time. Imposing as the building is, its rooms are scaled for human habitation. The works of art that look best in them tend to be life-size or smaller. Artists who work on a larger scale, such as Richard Serra, Donald Judd and Damien Hirst, need more space to look their best. Pieces that are either very big or very heavy can only be shown at entrance level under the atrium, or else outside on the terrace.
The drawback of converting an historic building into a museum is its inflexibility. In the Palazzo Grassi the only galleries to get natural light are those looking out over the Grand Canal. This creates subtle distinctions between the favoured artists whose work is displayed in these rooms and those who aren't.
The title of the inaugural exhibition, Where Are We Going?, is taken from a piece by Damien Hirst, which in turn was lifted from Gauguin. This is the first in a series of shows that will gradually reveal the full extent of the Pinault collection. With 200 works, it presents an overview of the painting and sculpture of the past 50 years, although video and photography are excluded and - never forget - it represents the taste of only one man.
A visit to the Pinault collection starts before you set foot in the building. Covering the façade of the Palazzo, Olafur Eliasson's cat's cradle of thin wire and aluminium is almost invisible during the daytime. But take a vaporetto down the Grand Canal at night, and its beauty will melt your heart. By some mysterious process, the wires glow in the dark, so that it looks as though someone has thrown a luminous net of lace over the building.
On a terrace next to the landing stage, Jeff Koons's sculpture of a balloon dog (the kind magicians make at children's parties) stands guard, with a few strategically placed fairy lights making his presence visible at night.
Pinault: 'has chosen pivotal works'
Koons, one of the stars of the Pinault collection, dominates the entrance courtyard with a highly polished red heart of stainless steel. Weighing two tons and suspended from the ceiling by the baroque curves of a golden bow, Hanging Heart purports to be one thing, a symbol of love and warmth, when in fact it embodies the hard, cold, calculating heart of American high culture at the moment. Chilling in its beauty, it has all the sincerity of a Valentine from a Hollywood star.
Beyond Hanging Heart, a glorious floor piece by Carl Andre consisting of 1,296 square plates of aluminium, magnesium, lead, copper, steel and zinc covers the marble floor, a mosaic of light and dark patterns rippling at your feet.
From here you climb a grand staircase festooned with scores of hot pink teardrops made of painted resin, hanging by nylon threads from the ceiling. Well, at first you think of teardrops, but Urs Fischer's title, Vintage Violence, suggests rather tongues of inspirational fire descending from the heavens to give visitors the gift of understanding.
Once upstairs, I decided to start on the second (and top) floor, with its historic display of American and European art from 1960 to 1990. There are few surprises here - it's a classic presentation of the great masters of Arte Povera and Minimalism, shown with varying degrees of success in several small, white-cube galleries. What distinguishes the Pinault collection is the quality of the individual works in it, which in nearly every case are as good as you get. He has chosen pivotal works, the ones that tell you all you need to know about an artist or signal a change in direction.
At the Palazzo Grassi the curator presents these works to show that, far from working in isolation, the artists who made them were in dialogue with one another. And so, Brice Marden's severely classical triptychs of taupe, battleship grey and khaki look like a response to the lush romanticism of Rothko's Whistlerian bands of strong colour in the next-door gallery, while the wonderful Felix Gonzalez-Torres touchingly parodies the fluorescent lights of Dan Flavin in a work called Lovers - Paris - two tangles of light bulbs lying on the floor.
Downstairs, the dialogue continues, but in a totally different language as artists such as Paul McCarthy, Mike Kelley and Cindy Sherman try to outdo each other in the ferocity of their depiction of violence, sexuality, and what American teenagers call gross-out humour. Whereas there is a transparency about the way the Arte Povera or Minimalist artists use their materials, the artists of our own time broke some unwritten pact with the viewer to tell the truth. In the digital age it was no longer safe to believe our own eyes.
And so, in Hirst's Where are we Going? Where do we Come From? Is there a Reason?, four glass and stainless steel vitrines arranged in a star shape are filled with the skeletons of small animals. Some of the skeletons of mice, snakes and birds are probably real, but the more you look at ones that resemble miniature pterodactyls and a tyrannosaurus rex, the more they look like the work of a skilful model-maker. Likewise, the whole point of Paul McCarthy's animatronic pig snoozing contentedly on what looks like a life-support machine is the sheer wonder that anything so fake could be made to look so life-like.
Sure, the installation needs some tweaking and you could argue with a few of Pinault's purchases, but on the whole the show is a triumphant success. Venice has acquired a splendid new museum of modern art, and we all have yet another excuse to go there.