Future Past

Linda Yablonsky at the opening of the Prada Foundation and around Venice

Left: Artist Peter Fischli and Moderna Museet director Daniel Birnbaum. Right: Art producer Asad Raza and collector Maja Hoffman.

ANY GHOSTS FLOATING AROUND contemporary art have a fabulous new piece of real estate to spook. Dubbed the Haunted House by its owners, who sheathed its five stories in twenty-four-karat gold leaf, it’s one of ten buildings on the grounds of a former distillery in Milan that now make up the Prada Foundation. (A new nine-story tower that will house a restaurant and eight floors of exhibition space is still under construction.)

As the first institution dedicated to contemporary art in the city of La Scala and The Last Supper, it’s a game changer. As the fruit of designer-collector Miuccia Prada’s collaboration with architect Rem Koolhaas and OMA, it may be the most elegant private museum in the world—certainly the best that money can buy.

Left: Prada Foundation director of programs Astrid Welter. Right: Graphic designer Michael Rock and Prada Foundation publications and research chief Mario Mainetti.

Last weekend, Mrs. Prada and her spouse, Patrizio Bertelli, welcomed the president of Italy, billionaire collectors, jet-setting museum directors, the writer Umberto Eco, and artists including Damien Hirst, Wade Guyton, Andreas Gursky, and Goshka Macuga to dinner above the museum’s Wes Anderson–designed café and bar. This party was too exclusive even for me, so all I can talk about is the place.

Tricked out in 1950s-style décor, Anderson’s Bar Luce looks just like a film set, but that may be because the whole two-hundred-thousand-square-foot campus feels just like a movie studio.

Left: Dealer Massimo De Carlo. Right: Vogue Italia editor in chief Franca Sozzani.

Roman Polanski selected the films unspooling in the museum’s plush two-hundred-seat cinema with a documentary about him. Mrs. Prada personally and permanently installed several works by Robert Gober with two by Louise Bourgeois in the Haunted House, which looks like a mirage above the bleak, industrial landscape outside the compound walls.

“The gold was a way to give value to the mundane,” Koolhaas noted during a May 2 press conference in the cinema. “I also discovered that gold is a very cheap cladding material,” he added with a grin. “And the light on gold changes the whole environment.” Another discovery was what he called “the efficiency of fashion. In eight hours you can make something sublime. For architects to reach the sublime takes eight years.”

Left: Artist Carsten Höller. Right: Collector Richard Chang.

Unusual even for Koolhaas, two opposite walls of the cinema are mirrored on the outside and open like drawbridges to form stages for concerts and other live performances on the outdoor plazas.

“This is the finest cinema in Europe, or maybe anywhere, ” Mrs. Prada whispered to National Portrait Gallery director Nicholas Cullinan, one member of her museum’s five-person Thought Council, an advisory curatorial board. Cullinan made the picks for “In Part,” an exhibition of works from the Prada collection that focuses on close-ups, cropped images, and body parts by artists who include Lucio Fontana, Maurizio Cattelan, Richard Serra, William Copley, and John Baldessari—a disproportionately male lineup barely relieved by the presence of an Eva Hesse and the Bourgeois on view in other buildings.

Left: Sandretto Re Rebaudengo Foundation curator Irene Calderoni. Right: LACMA director Michael Govan with Prada Foundation artistic director Germano Celant and Katharine Ross.

“In Part” complements “Serial Classic,” an exhibition of reproduced classical statuary that imagine how the lost originals might have looked. Salvatore Settis, Italy’s leading expert on antiquities, did the research and got the loans from such places as the Vatican Museum and the archeological museum in Athens. A contemporary art museum seems an odd place for ancient Greek and Roman statuary, even if they are imitations—until you see how far back the idea of repetition and appropriation in art actually goes. (A companion exhibition of similar copies but in miniature, “Portable Classic,” is on view in the foundation’s outpost in Venice.)

“The show,” Settis said, “is here for one purpose: to make people think.” I hate to dispel that lovely notion, but it actually makes people gawk—mostly at Koolhaas’s exhibition design and the severely modern two-story concrete and glass pavilion housing it. Travertine floors, aluminum foam walls, arched doorways, and abundant daylight give the building classical overtones that struck at least one museum director from New York as “fascistic.” But it’s beautiful, so that’s OK. Macuga has the next show in this space. It should be interesting to see what she makes of it.

Left: Serpentine Gallery’s Julia Peyton-Jones and Hans Ulrich Obrist. Right: National Portrait Gallery director Nicholas Cullinan.

Behind the cinema, where Thomas Demand’s permanently installed Grotto looks right at home in the underground lair beneath it, is the barrel-shaped building of the old distillery. Collectively curated by the current Thought Council—Shumon Basar, Cédric Libert, and Cullinan—its three giant, concrete exhibition rooms have a stunning distillation of another sort, with just one work by Hirst, Pino Pascali, and Hesse in each.

Left: Curator Eugenio Re Rebaudengo. Right: Tate director Sir Nicholas Serota.

“Introduction” is a very personalized, rhythmically sequenced collection sampler by Germano Celant, the foundation’s longtime director—now its “superintendent of art and science”—and Prada. It embraces the minimal and the magnificent from twenty-five years of collecting, and it reflects Prada’s inimitable design style, which often combines seemingly incompatible elements to perfection.

Left: Lisson Gallery’s Nicholas Logsdail. Right: Sprüth Magers's Monika Sprüth.

Take Barnett Newman’s Onement I—inaccessibly hung on the wall of a roped-off staircase to nowhere on patterned wallpaper of Prada’s own design. The show also includes a fifteenth-century de Medici Studiolo, a Kienholz installation with junked but working radios, and a room with a crazy-quilt salon hang of more than fifty paintings from the 1980s forward. The show ends by opening out to a hangar-like garage with several cars modified by artists such as Elmgreen & Dragset, Sarah Lucas, and Walter de Maria. (Apparently, Prada has been collecting cars for years.)

“I like the free flow of ideas,” the beaming designer said as she toured the show, fussing with this and that as she went. I couldn’t help but ask what would come next. “I’m already thinking,” she said.

Left: Tate Modern director Chris Dercon. Right: Jewish Museum director Claudia Gould.

Saturday night brought a caravan of collectors and dealers to Turin, where collector Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo was celebrating her foundation’s twentieth anniversary by honoring Her Excellency Al Mayassa bint Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani, the spendthrift director of the Qatar Museums, with the StellaRe Prize. The award acknowledges women whose cultural, political, or economic activities make a difference to contemporary society.

When questioned, Re Rebaudengo defended her choice of awardee by expressing admiration for the Sheikha’s efforts to extend her cultural and educational activities to poor migrant workers in Qatar, despite her family’s suspected support of terrorists. Nonetheless, many in the crowd were uncomfortable, no matter what. Someday, the world will have to come to terms with all of the dirty blood money in the global art market.

Left: Archaeologist Salvatore Settis. Right: Art adviser Lisa Schiff.

People complained privately, because no one wanted to offend the super-generous Re Rabaudengo, all listened in silence to the odd lineup of speakers: Tate director Nicholas Serota, Italian Vogue editor Franca Sozzani, and Francesco Vezzoli, an artist whose work is yet to appear in the foundation’s collection. He spoke to Sheikha Mayassi’s accomplishments by limning those of the sexually deviant seventeenth-century Queen Christina of Sweden, though the reference might have been too subtle for the audience to catch.

Left: Head of publications at Mousse Stefano Cernuschi and artists Christian Holstaad, Michael Elmgreen, and Ingar Dragset. Right: Sheikha Al-Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani and collector Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo.

When it was her turn, the personable Sheikha, who was educated at Duke and Harvard, gave a boosterish presentation of her efforts to help migrant Asian laborers—slaves, as many have it—in oil-rich Qatar. She wound it up by claiming that “Women in Qatar have equal status to men.” I found that an extraordinary statement, given that in her next breath, she credited her father, her brother, and her husband for her success.

Next day, back in Milan, where Expo Italia was underway, Massimo De Carlo opened a show of large hand-blown Murano glass vases by Elmgreen & Dragset. They contained beautiful pastel pigments that turned out to be the exact colors of the toxic chemicals in HIV drugs. That set us up for Okwui Enwezor’s politically charged, morally uncompromised, and often unforgiving “All the World’s Futures,” his exhibition for the Fifty-Sixth Venice Biennale, which requires some getting used to. Not everyone attending previews this week had the patience.

Left: Fiorucci Art Trust curator Milovan Farronato. Right: Collectors Martin Hatebur and Thea Westreich with artist Philippe Parreno and collector Peter Handschin.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. On Monday, May 4, the night before the Biennale’s first preview, a huge crowd of new arrivals in Venice came to Palazzetto Tito for a show of new paintings by Peter Doig. It included Theaster Gates and Isaac Julien, artists whom Enwezor has included in the Biennale. “I love looking at other people’s paintings,” Gates said. “And this guy is a real painter.”

Everyone liked the show, organized by Fiorucci Art Trust curator Milovan Farronato, and everyone jammed the narrow quay by the canal outside to board waiting water taxis taking them to dinner at Vecchie Carampane. “It’s Venice,” observed former Biennale director Bice Curiger, as she pushed through the crowd. “The ambulatory cocktail party.”

Left: Artists Luigi Ontani and Koo Jeong A with Serpentine Gallery cocurator Hans Ulrich Obrist. Right: Artists Carsten Höller and Rirkrit Tiravanija.

Dealer Pilar Corrias provided an alternative with a dinner for Philippe Parreno—another artist in the Biennale—at the gracious Palazzo Persico, the San Polo home of collectors Barbara and Gaetano Maccaferri. I knew on first bite that this was going to be the most delicious meal I would have all week.

Though it seemed that half the art world had gone to the Doig dinner, the company here was primo too, and equally underscored the international character of the Biennale experience. Gathered around the buffet table were Moderna Museet director Daniel Birnbaum; artists Rirkrit Tiravanija, Luigi Ontani, Koo Jeong A, and Carsten Höller; collectors Maja Hoffman, Ethan Wagner and Thea Westreich; the ubiquitous Serpentine Gallery cocurators Julia Peyton-Jones and Hans Ulrich Obrist; and Pinault Collection curator Caroline Bourgeois.

Left: Collectors Carey Fouks and Stacey Horton. Right: Collector Bob Rennie.

Bourgeois was riding high on “Slip of the Tongue,” the group exhibition she has done with artist Danh Vo at the Punta della Dogana—the best that venue has ever seen, and one that counters Enwezor’s more morbid show with sensitivity and much needed sensuality.

After all, Venice is a romantic city, a labyrinth where getting lost is an exercise of the spirit. There’s no better, or more conflicted, place for art, its national politics, and its driving principles, all of which this Biennale is bringing to the surface. As MoMA director Glenn Lowry said of the Dogana show, “It’s complicated.”

Left: Tate Modern director Chris Dercon with Ullens Center director Phillip Tinari and Samdani Art Foundation artistic director Diana Campbell Betancourt. Right: Pinault Collection curator Caroline Bourgeois and Bard CCS director Tom Eccles.

Left: New Museum curator Gary Carrion-Muryarai and Artissima director Sarah Cosulich Canarutto. Right: Dealer Pilar Corrias.

Left: Dealer Gió Marconi. Right: Collector Jose Noe Suro.

Left: Curator Juan Gaitán. Right: PIN-UP magazine editor Felix Burrichter.

Left: Artist Robert Gober and dealer Matthew Marks. Right: Artist Lara Favoretto.

Left: Artist Jon Kessler and author Asti Hustvedt. Right: Curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev.

Left: Artist Wade Guyton with Prada CEO and Prada Foundation cofounder Patrizio Bertelli. Right: Artist Thomas Demand

Left: Collector Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo and artist Francesco Vezzoli. Right: Dealers Ludovica Barbieri and Flavio del Monte.

Left: Bass Museum of Art’s executive director and chief curator Silvia Karman Cubiñá. Right: Art historian, director, and chief curator of Nova Southeastern University’s Museum of Art Bonnie Clearwater.

Left: Rem Koolhaas and Miuccia Prada. Right: The Prada Foundation in Milan.

Left: Miuccia Prada. Right: Artist Wangechi Mutu, dealer Bruna Aickelin, and dealer Suzanne Vielmetter.

Left: Artist Theaster Gates. Right: Artist Isaac Julien and Fiorucci Art Trust founder Nicoletta Fiorucci.