PRINT September 2021


Giuseppe Panza’s unauthorized and decommissioned 1988 fabrication of Donald Judd’s copper untitled, 1974, Sala Luigi di Pietro, Milan, 1988. © Judd Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS).

IF YOU’VE HEARD ABOUT Giuseppe Panza di Biumo, chances are it’s thanks to Donald Judd. In 1990, the American artist published a four-part diatribe against the Italian art collector, first in the pages of the short-lived, small-circulation German art magazine Kunst Intern, then as a pamphlet circulated at the Venice Biennale. Judd’s charge was incendiary: Working from rudimentary plans acquired years before, Panza had fabricated Judd’s sculptures without the artist’s supervision or permission, using incorrect materials and hardware and without fully compensating the artist. What’s more, Judd reported, the collector believed “he can make it better than I.”

Donald Judd’s advertisement from Art in America, March 1990. © Judd Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS).

Already in March of that year, the artist had taken out an ad in Art in America to publicly disown a Panzaic “Judd.” Resembling a death announcement, it stated in simple black letters on white ground, THE FALL 1989 SHOW OF SCULPTURE AT ACE GALLERY IN LOS ANGELES EXHIBITED AN INSTALLATION WRONGLY ATTRIBUTED TO DONALD JUDD. FABRICATION OF THE PIECE WAS AUTHORIZED BY GIUSEPPE PANZA WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OR PERMISSION OF DONALD JUDD. Other Minimalists likewise repudiated Panza’s doings. In the same issue of Art in America, Carl Andre penned a one-paragraph letter to the editors under the header “Artist Disowns ‘Refabricated’ Work”; in a letter published in the magazine in 1988, Dan Flavin had objected to Panza’s “utter spatial and architectural misinterpretation” of one of his own “barrier” sculptures. To Judd’s discerning eye, “most of the work by other artists looked somewhat wrong” when he visited the collector’s palazzo in Varese, Italy, in 1980.

But Judd’s lines didn’t only take to task the collector; they also spoke to the museum. Earlier that year, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum had announced its decision to acquire from Panza more than two hundred Minimalist and Conceptualist artworks, including several attributed to Judd. (Acquisitions of Panza’s postwar American and European art by other US museums bookended that deal: In 1983, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art had paved the way, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Washington, DC’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden; and Buffalo’s Albright-Knox Art Gallery followed in the Guggenheim’s footsteps in the 2000s and 2010s.) “Panza alone is not worth writing about,” wrote Judd, merely “an instance of many” and a case study: in what Judd saw as a lack of “respect for art, the artists, for the integrity of the activity”; in the reduction of art to an investment in storage; in dealers—he named Leo Castelli and Heiner Friedrich—who exploited emerging artists and put profit first; and in the international legal landscape that facilitated it all.

Giuseppe Panza’s unauthorized and decommissioned 1975–76 fabrication of Donald Judd’s galvanized iron untitled, 1974, Ace Gallery, Los Angeles, 1989–90. © Judd Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS).

Decades of silence ensued. It seemed none of the parties wanted to touch such charged issues with a ten-foot pole. Now the Guggenheim Museum has published Object Lessons: Case Studies in Minimal Art—the Guggenheim Panza Collection Initiative, the public findings of research led by conservator Francesca Esmay and curator Jeffrey Weiss and funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The Panza Collection Initiative, or PCI, studied complicated categories of artworks: Those made without an artist’s supervision if not necessarily without permission; “single works represented by a variety of objects fabricated in authorized ways”; objects containing “an element of contingency or variability” regarding their installation; artworks that are to be remade for each display but have been executed according to changing standards; artworks that exist merely as proposals or drawings; and finally, artworks unrealized or destroyed at the time of the artist’s death.

The PCI’s colossal efforts—more than a decade of studies of dozens of artworks with contested or uncertain identities; archival work across two continents; interviews and correspondence with artists and their associates; five multiday meetings with a top-notch advisory committee—have resulted in a colossal accomplishment. There are case studies of four individual works by Flavin, Judd, Robert Morris, and Lawrence Weiner, each presented with a chronology, an overview, and a technical history by former Guggenheim curator Ted Mann, Weiss, and Esmay, respectively; illustrations including contracts and details of incorrect fabrications; excerpts from correspondence and interviews with artists and others; and a trio of essays by the PCI team, Martha Buskirk, and Virginia Rutledge presenting art-historical and legal perspectives, as well as a new “collection category of decommission” for “nonviable” works.

Donald Judd at the Nebato factory, Bergeijk, the Netherlands, 1969. Photo: Claude Magelhaes.

The transparency and honesty of both initiative and publication are admirable in a contemporary art world infamous for closed-door deals, nondisclosure agreements, and delicate private-professional networks. For instance, the PCI bluntly calls out Panza for “numerous transgressions,” asserting that he “overinterpreted the role of the collector, exercising a significant degree of reckless presumption regarding the way that artworks were acquired, fabricated, and displayed.” This was easier to say following a change of guard at the Guggenheim and after Panza’s passing in 2010, when, certainly not coincidentally, the PCI was launched. The admission is nevertheless noteworthy. Throughout the book, the authors also go out of their way to stress the kinds of uncertainty, inconsistency, and flux that have traditionally been more comfortable in the context of academic scholarship than in museums. It takes some guts to conclude after ten years of study that “no consensus regarding the retention of contested works by Judd has been reached by the museum administration and staff.” (With respect to the 1974 untitled plywood piece that is the subject of the Judd case study, the PCI team itself recommends “disposing of all but a representative sample of Panza’s 1988 fabrication.”)

Emerging artists brimming with youth and trying to make it rarely think too much about their art’s future.

The same goes for the “decommissioning” of fifteen “Judds” and three “Flavins.” Unlike deaccessioning, which definitively removes an artwork from an institutional collection, decommissioning maintains “institutional jurisdiction” and stewardship protocols but prevents the objects in question from being exhibited or fabricated anew. Weiss had used the term in these pages in a review of the Salvage Art Institute’s 2012 exhibition “No Longer Art,” a presentation of artworks declared total losses alongside their insurance paperwork; in fact, it appears SAI’s mind-blowing sheltering of no-longer-art material might have informed the Guggenheim’s unusual collection category. Unlike SAI objects, decommissioned art, as defined by the Guggenheim, may, on further findings, be recommissioned, a possibility echoing conservation standards for “reversibility.” The book features the text of the museum’s policy, which was ratified in 2017, plus a list of the eighteen works decommissioned thus far.

Donald Judd works mid-fabrication, Nebato factory, Bergeijk, the Netherlands, 1969. Photo: Claude Magelhaes.

The PCI’s thorough documentation underscores the overall impression of candor. But given the volume of research, that documentation is inevitably incomplete (no insurance records here), which some may find undermines that very forthrightness. Either way, many readers may also wish for more detailed captions (locations and installation dates are at times missing for historical exhibition views), a glossary (with definitions of terms, such as reconstruction, refabrication, or exhibition copy, whose meanings so far lack expert consensus), and more of the instantly illuminating photographic juxtapositions (comparing details of authorized and unauthorized works). The only partial reproduction of documents makes it impossible to understand crucial nuances, such as the details of the Panza-Judd dispute. According to the PCI’s authors and a prior scholar of the controversy, James Meyer, Judd himself may share some responsibility for Panza’s misperceptions. As it stands, the reproduced records are poised to leave skeptics wondering what’s withheld and what’s mere show.

Absent completely is the voice of Panza. This is especially surprising given the severe charges and the pressing question: Why the hell did he do it? In an essay commissioned by the Guggenheim and published in October just before Panza’s death, Meyer astutely attributed Panza’s actions to his idealist views of the world and of art. The PCI’s readers need this text. But to the Guggenheim’s immense credit, the museum has created a digital archive as part of the project with a select set of primary documents and exhaustive secondary literature, video recordings, and interview transcripts.

Protest at the “Minimal Art” exhibition, Städtische Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, 1969. Photo: Manfred Tischer. © Estate of Manfred Tischer.

The decision to focus on only four artworks was a respectable one, allowing for scholarly detail and nuance. The goal was to find not a one-size-fits-all model but an individual solution for each work. That said, the case-study format means the details can make your head spin—in good ways for this reader—and only gestures toward answering another pressing question: How did such transgressions happen again and again in Panza’s orbit? The authors repeatedly and rightly point to features of Minimalism that render it not only distinct from prior art but vulnerable to misunderstanding and misuse: namely, delegated fabrication and the resulting potential for replication and the separation of “work” from “object.” Yet there are other crucial factors mentioned only in passing, three of which demand further consideration: a transatlantic environment, the artworks’ existence across time, and the plight of the conservation discipline. 

The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum’s 1995 authorized refabrication of Dan Flavin’s untitled (to Henri Matisse), 1964 (left), and Giusseppe Panza’s 1970 refabrication of the same work, in Guggenheim Museum storage, New York.  © Stephen Flavin/Artists Rights Society (ARS).

THE EMERGENCE OF MINIMALISM coincided with the rise of commercial transatlantic travel and trade. By the later 1960s and ’70s, the likes of gallerists Friedrich, Konrad Fischer, and Rudolf Zwirner were saving on overseas shipping costs when exhibiting American sculpture in Europe by outsourcing fabrication to local production facilities. The Dutch Nebato factory in Bergeijk became a go-to place for Andre, Flavin, Judd, Morris, and others. And collectors such as Martin and Mia Visser, Peter Ludwig, and Panza had begun to purchase American art in a decentralized continental art world. But with linguistic and cultural differences, costly phone calls, telegraphic speech, and slow letters, these distances—some four thousand miles from Judd’s Spring Street loft building in New York to Panza’s villa in Varese—were far greater than that between Long Island City, where Bernstein Brothers fabricated Judd’s metal pieces after their move from his neighborhood, and Manhattan, home to Minimalist artists, their gallerists, and their collectors.

While Judd keenly embraced the skills of European fabricators like Nebato or, later, Lehni, he could not have known in the mid-’70s that the plywood he had specified for several pieces that Castelli sold to Panza as “certificates” with minimal descriptions would look so different in Italy (“too fancy”) from the American Douglas fir he had started working with. It wasn’t (yet) the era of homogeneous, globally circulating industrial materials. Then there were the larger unforeseen problems of site and reception. It could be challenging, logistically and aesthetically, to adapt site-shaped or site-shaping art to idiosyncratic, often historic architecture abroad. And none of the politically engaged Minimalist artists ever imagined that their “specific objects” might be targeted by members of the European left protesting US imperialism and the Vietnam War. Such disconnects are but an extreme version of the (alienating) journey any artwork undertakes as it travels from studio to gallery to a private home or museum. 

The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum’s 1995 authorized refabrication of Dan Flavin’s untitled (to Henri Matisse), 1964 (left), and Giusseppe Panza’s 1970 refabrication of the same work, in Guggenheim Museum storage, New York.  © Stephen Flavin/Artists Rights Society (ARS).

But if an artwork’s journey is through space, it is also through time. Is the date of a work its conception or its first realization? In what cases should original dates be updated? How long does an artist retain not only copyright but the right to say what the artwork “is”? Under what conditions, if any, can artists later alter materials, titles, or other aspects of a work, especially after it has already been exhibited or changed ownership? May they correct what were later identified as circumstantial compromises? What state of an artwork should a conservator work toward? Should faulty or nonfunctional but no longer extant industrial materials be replaced with newer variants, custom-made, or surrendered as victims of history? The PCI’s Morris and Flavin studies especially raise these questions, only some of which are related to Panza’s “transgressions.”

Robert Morris’s 1967 fiberglass refabrication of his Untitled (Corner Piece), 1964, for Giuseppe Panza (left) and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum’s artist-supervised (here in-progress) 2013–14 painted plywood refabrication, installed for the Panza Collection Initiative Advisory Committee Meeting, Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2013. © The Estate of Robert Morris/Artists Rights Society (ARS).

Flavin’s signature medium was commercially made fluorescent lighting, readily available in Lower East Side hardware stores when he started working with it in 1963. As the sealed glass tubes became increasingly hard to source, the artist began to work directly with suppliers, later even custom-fabricating the lamps, and many owners were left desperately stockpiling the lights, or scrambling for replacements. The PCI had the good fortune to debate which of two versions of untitled (to Henri Matisse), 1964, to display going forward (apparently not abiding by the estate’s prohibition against “possession of more than one version of any given work”): a 1995 refabrication, made during the artist’s lifetime for a Guggenheim retrospective, or a 1970 object, apparently properly acquired by Panza that year from Flavin’s Milan dealer, Enzo Sperone.

They settled for the 1995 version, privileging the artist’s aesthetic standards during the last twenty years of his life (an “unblemished, pristine paint surface”) over greater historical faithfulness to the earlier lamps (with “union labels” and “scuffs and abrasions,” having been “obtained off-the-shelf”). What, if anything, gets lost? This Flavin fan, who grew up in an attic bedroom illuminated by buzzing fluorescent lights, would say the earlier object expresses a purer sense of the artist’s 1966 aspirations for an “image-object”: that is, the magical if also tense coexistence of utterly trivial ready-made hardware (object) and surrounding colored air (image). That said, that very tension will be inaccessible to twenty-second-century viewers, destined to marvel at the historical obscurity, rather than the contemporary banality, of Flavin’s fixtures. Their “period eye,” as Michael Baxandall termed the historically and culturally conditioned vision of Renaissance Italy, will have moved on.

Panza Collection Initiative Advisory Committee members examining units from a 1993 painted-steel refabrication of Robert Morris’s fiberglass Untitled (Stadium), 1967, Brooklyn Navy Yard, New York, 2012. © The Estate of Robert Morris/Artists Rights Society (ARS).

Morris first made Untitled (Corner Piece), a Minimalist icon, for his solo show at New York’s Green Gallery in December 1964, producing the object from plywood painted a uniform gray. Eventually, after nothing sold, Morris “abandoned” the works, then remade and re-exhibited Untitled (Corner Piece) in May 1966, again in gray-painted plywood (that object was gifted by Judd to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston). Yet a year later he ordered a version fabricated for Panza from smooth gray fiberglass. Material, size, and other construction details continued to shift over the decades; even in the five PCI interviews, conducted between 2011 and 2013, the artist kept changing his mind regarding the right material for the planned Guggenheim fabrication (he eventually settled on painted plywood). In January 1966, Morris described the Green Gallery works as “models,” and for the PCI he referred to an “ontology of newness,” in both instances implying that the work could repeatedly be remade.

Walter De Maria, Silver Portrait of Dorian Gray, 1965, silver, wood, velvet, 41 1⁄8 × 31 1⁄8 × 4 3⁄8". © Estate of Walter De Maria/Gabriele Croppi/SCALA, Florence.

While there’s no record of Morris’s thinking when the Green Gallery show closed on January 9, 1965, he did initially store the “original” work’s panels in his loft. This suggests that the artist did not yet understand his work as a “model” to be made “new” for each exhibition. Conventionally, the “work” is what leaves the studio; conservator Christian Scheidemann has proposed the first official photograph of an artwork—in, say, an exhibition catalogue—as the defining boundary. In his introduction to the book, Weiss relays art historian Maria Gough’s reservations about reconstructions of Aleksandr Rodchenko’s hanging constructions, which were exhibited in 1921 in silver-painted cardboard or plywood and later remade in aluminum or brass, including for the Guggenheim’s 1992 survey “The Great Utopia: The Russian and Soviet Avant-Garde, 1915–1932.” For Gough, these remakes suppress the crucial dialectic of “constructivist fantasy about technological progress” and “constructivist reality of extreme technological impoverishment.” Morris similarly produced Untitled (Corner Piece) under documented constraints—with limited time and materials—and later versions in fiberglass or Cor-Ten steel overwrite this fact, which is relevant, and even essential, to the artwork’s identity and meaning. Here and there, the PCI’s authors acknowledge the challenging time lags, but they tend to defer to artists’ occasionally belated conceptions of their art, which are often informed by different historical contexts and the evolution of their artistic practice.

View of “The Great Utopia: The Russian and Soviet Avant-Garde, 1915–1932,” 1992–93, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Foreground, center, hanging: Two refabricated aluminum Aleksandr Rodchenko constructions, 1920–21. Photo: David Heald.

Emerging artists brimming with youth and trying to make it, like Flavin and Morris in 1964, rarely think too much about their art’s future. Few embrace decay, as Dieter Roth did with his mold and chocolate pieces. Even fewer make art that reflects its own aging, as Walter De Maria, another Panza artist, did with Silver Portrait of Dorian Gray, 1965, which instructs its owner to judge when enough time has passed for the increasingly tarnished silver plate to be cleaned: “The process can then begin anew.” Indeed, conservation and conservation science have long been specialized (if always collaborative), and though these disciplines require a sophisticated historical understanding of an artist’s intentions, as well as sound philosophical and aesthetic judgment, they in turn are rarely taught in art schools, liberal-arts curricula, or art-history programs. Moreover, conservation research is rarely presented to the public, either in museum exhibitions or via education departments, whether because it involves sensitive and complex decisions, or because it tends to be hopelessly underfunded, or because its raison d’être is to be invisible.

Dieter Roth, P.O.TH.A.A.VFB (Portrait of the Artist as Vogelfutterbüste [Birdseed Bust]), 1969, seeds cast in chocolate, plywood base, 9 1⁄2 × 11 7⁄8 × 11 1⁄8". © Estate of Dieter Roth.

One of the earliest and still best texts about the philosophical and historical implications of conservation might be a good start: “The Modern Cult of Monuments,” by Austrian art historian Alois Riegl, who, like Panza, trained as a lawyer. Penned as a framework for legislation about preservation, the essay disentangles an artwork’s often competing “values”—for example “age value” for material changes over time, “historic value” for an object’s ties to a particular context, “newness value” for a belated striving for perfection. In other words, the most pressing issues raised by the PCI were already right there in 1903.

When it comes to the art of the ’60s and ’70s that Panza collected, there’s still an embarrassment of riches. Someday, much of that art—and much of the art of our own time—may simply no longer exist. Our task is to experience it fully in the present, to build an archive of its past for the future, and to educate artists, estates, collectors, and the general public about its conservation. The PCI has made great strides toward that end, and Esmay’s technical-history texts in particular are a rare treat. But let’s remember that nothing distinguishes modern and contemporary art more than its nontraditional materials and techniques. If our planet makes it, some of “our” artworks—fabricated or ready-made, moldy or tarnished, saved in obsolescent file formats—may one day turn a thousand, “decommissioned” or “no longer art” or following some other nomenclature, in storage or requiring extensive label explanations. The likes of Flavin, let alone fluorescent lighting, may be studied in outdated books and fading photographs. That’s more than my ancient-art colleagues have. Welcome to art history.

Christine Mehring is the Mary L. Block professor in the department of art history and the college and associate faculty in the department of visual arts at The University of Chicago. She is also a faculty adjunct curator at The University’s David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art. Last year she curated YOU BE MY ALLY, Jenny Holzer’s first augmented-reality app, commissioned by The University of Chicago.