The Panza Collection: An Experience of Color and Light
The Albright Knox Art Gallery
1285 Elmwood Avenue
Buffalo, New York
716 882 8700
November 16, 2007 – February 24, 2008
There are two stories in this Albright-Knox exhibit. The first is Giuseppe Panza’s inspiring quest to use collecting to realize Keats’ ideal world where “truth is beauty, beauty truth”. The second is the magnificent installation of these 70 works by 16 artists orchestrated by Dr. Panza (over three years of planning) and expertly implemented by a wide range of people at the Albright-Knox, including most prominently, the director Louis Grachos and the senior curator, Douglas Dreishpoon. The result is that they have created a series of rooms—each a kind of Rothko Chapel containing the work of only one artist. Indeed, the result is an overall impression of light, color and joy whose only potential downside is that whole threatens to upstage the parts; the individual artists become role players in the Albright-Knox/Panza production.
In an age of cynicism and appropriation, how can one sustain our “truth and beauty”
framing of the Panza exhibition? By truth we refer to the relentless use of painting as a form of experimentation, the outstanding modernist example being Cézanne. Truth-seeking here becomes a way of constantly posing problems to oneself regarding the act of seeing. With regard to beauty, our model is Monet’s exploration of light and color which eventually teetered on the edge of abstraction. Using this framework, we first focus on the monochrome painters in this exhibition. We suggest three visually striking examples in the Monet tradition. Anne Appleby’s sensitive abstract oil and wax paintings of greens, rusts and creams evoke both the majesty and mystery of Nature’s march across the seasons. Alfonso Fratteggiani Bianchi’s intense pure pigment paintings on porous Italian limestone create a riveting visual experience that is both timeless and contemporary. David Simpson’s metallic interference paint creates romantic symphonies of lustrous color that constantly change with the movements of the viewer. The result is sublime eye candy.
In the Cézanne tradition are the artists who achieve their visual seduction by building up an underlying structure that supports a layering of color. These include Phil Sims with his Cézanne-like organization of brush strokes and Ruth Ann Fredenthal with her all-but-invisible, yet strong, underlying organization of regions of different colors that function as a foundation for building subsequent layerings of color mixtures that somehow create the illusion of a single overall color. Fredenthal’s serene paintings are sensuous and contemplative; they give us chamber music for the eye. Sims uses scale to make an architectural statement—his paintings capture color and light, functioning like stained glass windows that, depending on their color, texture and scale, are either introverted or extroverted. If Sims and Fredenthal achieve their effects “bottom up, Winston Roeth and Timothy Litzmann work “top down”. Roeth, in the tradition of Albers, plays with often unlikely combinations of color involving both a framing edge and an interior space. His tempera paint on fiberglass and other materials creates surfaces that are both immaculate and sensuous, alternately cool and warm. Litzmann, using either unnamable or delicious colors, paints on the back of very thin translucent cast acrylic structures. By painting the side edges with a contrasting color, he literally traps the light inside these stunning paintings, thereby extending the American Luminist tradition.
Other artists in the exhibition literally created objects of color as opposed to colored objects. Examples of this strategy are the tiny wall-mounted painted wood and steel cubes of Stuart Arends and the just larger than human scale standing columns of color constructed by Ann Truitt, both of which operate between painting and sculpture. Arends oil and wax painted cubes have a rubbed surface that speaks to the effects of time and memory. Truitt’s painted wooden columns with their thin contrasting edges on the bottom or sides can be seen as relating to the explorations of color framing effects by Roeth and Litzmann.
The simply complex character of much of this exhibition is well personified by Max Cole, who uses a rigorous interplay of dense small vertical strokes and complementary horizontal chords to create abstract paintings that hover between musical notation and elaborate weavings. Cole’s restless visual exploration has a kind of austere beauty that is reminiscent of Agnes Martin’s grid paintings of the early 1980s. Cole’s largely black, grey and beige paintings, like Seurat’s drawings, manage to derive the kind of color that exists when the first rays of light appear at dawn and the last ray of light disappears at dusk. Her horizontal bands, reminiscent of the endless horizons of the great plains, are composed of hundreds of vertical lines that silently pulsate giving some of them an almost optical effect. We also suggest that although Cole, Roeth, and Fredenthal differ in many ways, their paintings share in common the ability to slow the viewer down and reveal themselves quietly over time, requiring an observer who is almost as dedicated and obsessive as their creators.
If it appears from this description that Cole doesn’t fit the monochrome theme, it should be noted that she is not the only exception. As if to remind us that Dr. Panza can never be pigeon-holed, we find other non-monochromatic art that plays with light and color. These include Kosuths’ enigmatic phrases as embodied in neon light of red, yellow, and green and Bruce Nauman’s two rooms of bright yellow fluorescent lights that perform a kind of architectural Albers. In one room, both the bright red wall and the viewer’s skin color becomes greenish brown when bathed in intense yellow light. There is also a classic white cast and coated acrylic disc by Robert Irwin projecting from the wall with a thin rectangular band across its center. Four lamps strategically placed on the ceiling and floor create overlapping mysterious shadows that cohabit with the white disc to induce a Zen-like meditative mood. Dan Flavin casts a misty, almost sexy, red light with four groups of red and white fluorescent bulbs placed low on the long wall of a large dark room. Near the exhibition’s egress, we pass a wonderfully subtle penciled wall drawing by Sol Lewitt, so ineffable that we walked by it several times before noticing it. Robert Therrein’s four whimsical bronze sculptures of a hat, a pitcher, and snowmen are sometimes oversized and sometimes undersized. Despite their beautiful surfaces, they seem out of place, a bit too playful for this exhibition—more entertaining than contemplative.
In sum, this celebration of light and color could not have come at a better time. As the skies become grey, the sunlight becomes scarce, and the air becomes frigid, we find in snowy Buffalo at the Albright-Knox, a respite for all of this, an oasis of color and light that nourishes the soul, soothes the eye, and stimulates the mind. We are transported into a special place where Keats’ world of Beauty and Truth comes to life.
Finally, while there is really little substitute for seeing this show first hand, there is for those who can’t visit the Albright Knox or make a trip to Dr. Panza’s villa in Varese, Italy, a beautiful catalogue with images of every work. It also includes a sensitive historical essay by David Bonetti and excerpts from the videotaped interview with Dr. Panza that plays continuously at the show’s entrance under a majestic orange Phil Sims.