Venice’s Contemporary Masterpiece: Francois Pinault’s Astonishing Art Collection


The knowledge that François Pinault — owner of Christie’s, Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent, Puma, Chateau-Latour, and other major brands — is one of the richest men in the world doesn’t make his art collection any better than the next guy with deep pockets; but the fact that he has impeccable taste in art and design certainly makes his collection, and the buildings that house it, stand out.

Pinault acquired the Palazzo Grassi in May 2005, after its former proprietor, Gianni Agnelli of Fiat, died and the company decided to end its 22-year support of the space as an important Venetian art center. It was renovated Japanese architect Tadao Ando, winner of the 1995 Pritzker Prize, and reopened as an exhibition space to show Pinault’s substantial collection of modern and contemporary art. In July 2006, the city of Venice launched a contest to its cultural institutions for the restoration of the historical Maritime Customs House, which had been abandoned for more than 30 years. Palazzo Grassi barely beat the Guggenheim Museum for the honors.

Ando was again commissioned by Pinault to redesign the interior space of Maritime Customs House and the building was rechristened Punta della Dogana, a name that has historical meaning, related to the site. While only opened to the public since June 6, Punta della Dogana has already received enthusiastic praise, making it one of the most enviable and desirable contemporary-art centers in the world — even without the art.

The first show on view, Mapping the Studio, puts the thought process of making work the primary subject. Titled after a Bruce Nauman video, which has the artist examining his studio at night, it also identifies Pinault’s direct engagement with the artists he collects. Curated by Alison Gingeras, Pinault’s collection manager, and Francesco Bonami, who works with several art institutions and is organizing the next Whitney Biennial in 2010, Mapping the Studio is centered around unusual pairings of artists and is split between both spaces.


One of the most startling juxtapositions of work at is Robert Gober’s Male and Female Genital Wallpaper from 1989 with Lee Lozano’s untitled drawings of mouths and hands from the 1960s. Six recent Cindy Sherman photographs of aging women construct a humorous relationship with Jeff Koons’ marble bust of himself and his former wife, the Italian porn star Cicciolina (Ilona Staller), caught in an amorous embrace. Meanwhile, a room full of Jake & Dinos Chapman’s nightmarish, miniature scenes of crumbling communities, presented in glass vitrines is a good foil for Fischli & Weiss’ multiple tabletop arrangements of banal magazine ad pages.

Over at Palazzo Grassi, Richard Prince takes center stage with a vintage American car — a 1987 Grand National — silkscreened with photos of biker chicks and a group of outrageous, sexually exploitative paintings that reference Willem de Kooning’s famous expressionistic canvases of grinning women. Takashi Murakami rivals Prince’s ability to command a room with a new, multi-panel painting of Buddhas, demons, cartoon characters, and skulls — which also speaks volumes about the potential that painting still holds.

Taken together, the art in two parts make for an entertaining and enlightening look at creative thinking in our time, while the renovated buildings point out the reasons why our past should be put to new use.

Paul Laster was in Venice last week thanks to our friends at The Daily Beast. Click here for more Art Beast scoops from the the 53rd Venice Biennale, Art Basel, and the world’s best museums, galleries, and auction houses.