Private corner, public gaze

Days before the 54th Venice Biennale opened last Saturday, Sir Elton John bought a sculpture from Victor Pinchuk’s show at the Palazzo Papadopoli, Puma chairman Jochen Zeitz acquired Nicholas Hlobo’s vampish dragon “Limpundulu Zonke Ziyandilandela” from the Arsenale international exhibition, François Pinault showed the Polkes he had bought from the last-but-one Biennale, and the best lunch in town was hosted by BMW on the roof of the Guggenheim museum. The pretence of any difference between a biennale and an art fair dedicated to sales and sponsorship disappeared.

Venice fixes the world’s gaze because it embodies global trends: this year, how fast distinctions are collapsing between museum and gallery, public and commercial exhibitions, and the roles of dealer, curator and collector. So it is a lovely twist in this marketplace delirium that the stillest, most thoughtful exhibition takes place at a new private museum launched by a fashion house: the Prada Foundation’s Ca’ Corner della Regina, an imposing Grand Canal palazzo with a façade of Istrian stone, frescoes lining a stunning piano nobile and untreated earth floors and open brickwork that set off modern art perfectly – especially the 1950s-60s Italian works at the intellectual core of Miuccia Prada’s collection.

I have never seen a more persuasive, moving presentation of arte povera than at this inaugural show. Prada’s interest reflects her background in political science and former membership of the Communist party, and she has assembled the very finest examples: Alberto Burri’s works in sackcloth and plastic, including the iconic ragged “Sacco” (Sack) and “Rosso Plastica” (Red Plastic); Lucio Fontana’s ochre-and- pink oval series “Concetto spaziale. La fine di Dio” (Spatial Concept. The End of God), punctured, cut and glitter-sprinkled; Piero Manzoni’s emptied-out kaolin and wrinkled “Achrome” canvases.

Together, they dramatise how the aperture and the slash became the most potent visual emblem in postwar Italy, referencing a rejection of fascism, economic deprivation and the bitter struggle between communism and catholicism. Burri, a doctor in wartime, evokes Franciscan sackcloth, ashes and stigmata, for example, as well as the ripped, wounded skin he treated.

In a superb catalogue essay, curator Nicholas Cullinan – imported from Tate – suggests that this art of negation and in-determinacy challenged the rhetoric of progress of the US-sponsored miracolo italiano, then transforming the country from an agrarian to an industrial nation. In his burnt white plastic works such as “Grande plastica LA” (Big Plastic LA), Burri used a blowtorch to distort the utilitarian material into mounds of melted, blackened matter, degrading a modern substance as a symbol of regression and questioning the mass manufacturing and urbanisation of modern Italy. Just as violent, Fontana’s slashed surfaces attacked the flatness of the picture plane advocated by modernist theorist Clement Greenberg, thus undermining American cultural hegemony.

This is a brilliant, relevant exhibition about global and local artistic identities. It positions arte povera, with its breakdown of boundaries between sculpture and painting, as a key modern movement, and explores its impact in some major contemporary works.

Anish Kapoor’s “Void Field” – sandstone blocks each punctured by a hole coated in velvety black pigment, suggesting weight and weightlessness, or night overcoming the earth – is a magnificent opening on the canal front. Maurizio Cattelan’s playful taxidermied ostrich alludes to the stubborn distinctiveness of Italian modernism. “Cell (Clothes)”, by Louise Bourgeois, turns on broken fabrics and hangings. In the courtyard Michael Heizer’s concrete-steel “Perforated Object #18” references Fontana. As significantly, Prada’s post-pop holdings – notably Jeff Koons’s high chromium stainless steel “Tulips” – mark the American celebratory pop-consumer aesthetic against which arte povera positioned itself.

Best of all, this show gains intense meaning from its setting. Ca’ Corner’s formal interiors of columns and balconies emphasise by contrast the informal poor materials of arte povera, but the palazzo’s baroque energy and grace also reinforce the kitsch and dynamism – Fontana’s sugar-pink hues and glitter, Mario Schifano’s rich red Mediterranean monochrome “Isola di Capri”, Manzoni’s synthetic white hair fluffing off a canvas like a carnival costume – by which these artists resonate too with Italian history.

“Italy owns history,” says Rem Koolhaas, the architect who has restored Ca’ Corner with sensitivity and restraint, adding in a catalogue interview that Italian modernism “has only become stronger in retrospect, and ... right now has a kind of intellectual rigour that is at once very abstract and very sensuous. Nobody can doubt Prada’s internationalism, so I think the Fondazione should stay very Italian.”

Koolhaas’s models for Largo Isarco – the Prada Foundation’s Milan museum, located in a former factory divided into numerous flexible spaces, due to open in 2013 and operate in tandem with Venice – form a fascinating micro-exhibition. They are also a coda: if arte povera rejected industry, art is now swallowing it up as “larger and larger sections of the industrial world are transferred to the art industries”, Koolhaas says. “The crucial prototype is the Tate [Modern] turbine hall: a hugely impressive space that has forced art to be equally impressive. I feel the scale it demands is unsustainable. It would be exciting to introduce smallness now.”

Is this what human-scale Venice offers? An individual collector’s sensibility is a key attraction of Prada’s venture; intriguingly, this is mirrored in Ileana Sonnabend: An Italian Portrait, a new show of Italian and American postwar art at the Guggenheim devoted to the legendary Romanian-American dealer who died in 2007.

Sonnabend’s flair was for the experimental – she opened her New York space in 1971 with Gilbert and George as the singing sculptures performing “Underneath the Arches” – which does not translate neatly into a historic exhibition. The Guggenheim nonetheless catches her pioneering spirit – from young Rauschenberg to early Koons – and mounts in the process a smart American riposte to Prada. For although Fontana, Manzoni and Schifano are here, they are overwhelmed by the force and colour of American pop, albeit in pieces wittily chosen for their Italian evocations – James Rosenquist’s billboard-style depiction of a piece of mortadella, “Sliced Bologna”; Jim Dine’s sly aluminium-and-rope urinal on canvas, “Four Designs for a Fountain in Honor of the Painter Balla”; the unnatural pink-and-purple all-over surfaces of Andy Warhol’s portrait of Ileana.

Sonnabend’s quirky, slightly melancholic taste emerges, chiming with the tone of this museum’s top-class permanent collection – abstract expressionism, European surrealism – assembled by another ferociously independent dealer, Peggy Guggenheim. Venice thus boasts three showcases of powerful female collectors in domestic-scaled settings, alongside François Pinault’s personal collection at Palazzo Grassi, which I saluted last week. All refract one another: a microcosm of the global convergence of public and private, and an assertion of Venice’s growing status as Italy’s contemporary art capital, in and beyond the Biennale.

Fondazione Prada, Venice, to October 2, ‘Ileana Sonnabend: An Italian Portrait’, Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, to October 2,

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