FRANCE/

French billionaire Francois Pinault has dramatically extended his Venetian empire of contemporary art this week, and given the city a new museum.

Pinault’s foundation has taken over one of the most prominent buildings in Venice: the old customs house, or Punta della Dogana, just across the water from Piazza San Marco.

Pinault — who founded the retail and luxury group PPR SA and owns Christie’s International — beat the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation to the Dogana, and becomes by far the biggest contemporary-art presence in the hometown of Titian and Giorgione. It would be an understatement to call him the Charles Saatchi of La Serenissima; his operation now dwarfs Saatchi’s in scale.

An inaugural exhibition entitled “Mapping the Studio: Artists from the Francois Pinault Collection” is currently on, both at the huge Palazzo Grassi on the Grand Canal — which has been run by the Pinault Foundation since 2006 — and at the new space in the Punta della Dogana.

There, architect Tadao Ando has transformed the 17th- century customs building, long derelict and inaccessible, into a cool 21st-century gallery space of the kind seen in New York’s SoHo or London’s Hoxton areas.

However, the conversion must be judged only a partial success, as the smooth minimalist structures of the new construction meld awkwardly with the time-worn textures of the timber roof beams and brick walls.

Turkish Delight

The exhibition is a sort of Who’s Who of global art today. As one enters, virtually the first work to meet the eye is a 1995 sculpture by Rachel Whiteread, “Untitled (One Hundred Spaces),” a series of resin molds of the underside of tables that look almost edible — like so many pieces of candy or Turkish delight. Above, a stuffed horse by Maurizio Cattelan has apparently crashed head first into the venerable building, and dangles there.

Other highlights include a room of beautiful paintings by Cy Twombly, one of the grand survivors of 1950s American art: “The Coronation of Sesostris” (2000). They are huge canvases featuring scratchy images of rowboats, like graffiti from the ancient wall. Another space is filled with enormous pictures by the German star artist Sigmar Polke.

Upstairs is the Chapman Brothers’ “Fucking Hell” (2008), a classic of Britart — if that’s not a contradiction in terms. This is a reconstruction of the original work destroyed in a warehouse fire in 2004. It consists of nine glass cases in which tiny model figures, meticulously detailed, do indescribably horrible things to each other in a dystopian world echoing both the Third Reich and the Roman Empire.

Colored Cityscapes

If the Chapmans’ work comes under the category of don’t- look-too-closely-in-case-you-get-a-nasty surprise, the most sumptuously delicious-looking installation on display is Mike Kelley’s “Kandors, Full Set” (2005-2009), a series of imaginary cityscapes and giant bottles fashioned with colored glass and exhibited in semi-darkness.

Altogether, this exhibition is an impressive anthology of the blue-chip artists of 2009. In the context of Venice, however, one can’t help thinking in terms of centuries, not decades. Above the triangular point of the building is a huge metal ball, the world, and topping that, the sculpture of fortune swivels in the wind.

The question arises: how many of these fashionable artists will still be remembered in 100 years?

For now, they’re here, presented with some panache right at the heart of Venice.

Martin Gayford
Bloomberg

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