Thu, May 04, 2006 - Page 15 News List

Francois Pinault is the art merchant of Venice

Fashion mogul Francois Pinault turned his nose up at France and is showing a selection of his vast art collection at the Palazzo Grassi in Venice

By Alan Riding  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , VENICE, ITALY

Francois Pinault's decision to exhibit part of his collection in Venice was a major snub to art lovers in Paris.

PHOTOS: AGENCIES

For a billionaire looking for somewhere special to display his contemporary-art collection, the venerable Palazzo Grassi on Venice's Grand Canal is not bad for a second best.

True, Francois Pinault, the French owner of a myriad department stores as well as Christie's, Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent, had originally planned to build his own US$195 million museum, designed by Tadao Ando, on an island in the Seine southwest of Paris. But, last May, after five years of wrestling with red tape, he abandoned the project in frustration.

"Eternity is for art, not for projects that aim to serve it," he noted at the time.

So it is in Venice that the publicity-shy mogul is showing part of his vast art collection for the first time. And up to now, even few people in the art world knew what the collection included.

For this first exhibition of some 200 of his 2,500 artworks, the likes of Picasso, Miro and Picabia have been omitted. Instead, Pinault has chosen to focus on crucial artists of the last half-century, from Mark Rothko, Donald Judd, Gerhard Richter and Lucio Fontana to Richard Serra, Bruce Nauman, Cindy Sherman, Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst.

Few museums could offer such an overview. And, inevitably, the show has whetted the appetite of contem-porary-art lovers to discover the rest of his collection.

For Venice, it is no less a coup. This city may be better known for its Titians and Tintorettos, but it is also home to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection of modern art and the high-profile Venice Biennale of contemporary art. In fact, Mayor Massimo Cacciari would dearly like to see the entire Pinault collection installed here permanently.

Pinault, 69, has other plans. After collecting art for the last 30 years, he noted in the show's catalog, "the desire to possess -- born at the moment I first came in contact with art -- has been transformed into a profound need to share." Thus, his current idea is to hold exhibitions of different facets of his collection at a "network" of sites around Europe.

Still, the 18th-century Palazzo Grassi is a good place to start. Over the last two decades, under Fiat's ownership, it has won plaudits for organizing major exhibitions, in many cases tackling broad artistic and historical themes like the Celts, the Etruscans, the Maya and the Greeks. Visitors to Venice have come to expect quality shows here.

After Pinault acquired the building last year, he asked Ando to renovate it. Jean-Jacques Aillagon, a former French culture minister who earlier headed the Georges Pompidou Center, is now director of the palazzo. And Alison Gingeras, a young adjunct curator at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, has organized the first show, Where Are We Going?, which runs through Oct. 1.

Already from the Grand Canal, change is announced by Your Wave Is, an illuminated filigree by Olafur Eliasson that covers the facade of the palace. Also outside are Koons' Balloon Dog (Magenta) and two bizarre figures by Takashi Murakami. And visible through the building's main doors is Koons' large Hanging Heart, a newly completed red heart with golden bows that weighs no less than 2 tons.

Two other unusual works complete the introduction to the show. Carl Andre's 37th Piece of Work covers the courtyard with 1,296 metal plates of different colors and materials, while Piotr Uklanski's Untitled (Monsieur Francois Pinault) comprises a color photograph of a scanned image of the collector's head, in effect a skull to which the artist has added crossbones.

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