Ivan Gaskell on the Panza Collection Initiative

The project I hope to complete during my annual summer fellowship concerns the Panza Collection Initiative at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York City.

Between 1991 and 1992, the museum acquired more than 300 items by artists associated with Minimalism, Post-Minimalism, and Conceptualism from Giovanna and Giuseppe Panza di Biumo. Among the artists represented are Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, and Robert Morris.

Problems have arisen because the collectors acquired many works not in realized physical form, but as certificates, contracts, and sets of instructions. The artists had relinquished reliance on personal craft, and even on the artwork as necessarily being instantiated in a permanent physical form. The artwork, therefore, initially lodged not in a finished object personally made or even directly supervised in its construction by an artist, but rather in sets of instructions to be executed at a future date. Such items present a novel challenge for museum scholars. Puzzles proliferate beyond questions of care to include philosophical matters.

With a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, in 2010 the museum initiated the Panza Collection Initiative, led by a curator, Jeffrey Weiss, and a conservator, Francesca Esmay, working in partnership. Its unusually collaborative character has allowed Esmay and Weiss to propose novel solutions to the practical museum problems presented by items in the Panza Collection. I plan to discuss a number of these problems as philosophical puzzles.

The exemplary partnership modeled by Esmay and Weiss has overcome the propensity to dispute authority between curators and conservators within museums. However, they work under institutional constraints determined by the fiduciary duties of the museum’s trustees who have an interest in justifying and safeguarding acquisitions. This is especially problematic because some of the artists have gone so far as to disown some versions of their works that the Panzas had acquired in the form of sets of instructions, and that they had then caused to be fabricated in a manner that did not satisfy the artists. Judd disowned some of the Panzas’ fabrications in a series of articles first published in 1990 (Donald Judd, “Una Stanza per Panza,” in Flavin Judd, ed., Donald Judd Writings, 2016, 630-699). The result is a series of items that arguably resemble artworks by Judd, but that do not conform to Judd’s conception of their appearance. What is the status of these items? What should happen to them? Is the artist’s statement regarding their status definitive?

A similar set of puzzles arises in the case of works by Robert Morris. He regarded each of his sculptural works as replicable, each successive iteration of an individual work superseding those that preceded it if he proclaimed this to be the case. This means that if the museum acknowledges the artist’s authority, earlier iterations would lose their status as artworks. Have such allegedly superseded items in the Panza Collection ceased to be artworks?

Disposal of such items by Judd and Morris is not an option in the light of the fiduciary responsibilities, and the potential embarrassment, of the trustees and successive directors. The team’s most radical proposal, adopted by the museum, has been to create a new category within the museum’s collection management system distinct from that of accessioned artworks: decommissioned works. Such items remain in the collection, but decommissioned. This is a brilliant pragmatic solution, yet it does not solve the puzzle in any philosophical sense. Philosophers might fear that decommissioned items have been consigned to ontological limbo.

Much hinges on where one believes the artwork itself to lie, if, indeed, it lies anywhere other than in a set of relationships among people, institutions, and things. If, in the cases of works by artists such as Judd and Morris, they and their appreciators hold the artwork to consist in the concept independent of any physical instantiation, decommissioning any such instantiation does not deprive an artwork of its status as such. Decommissioning merely relieves one ostensible constituent of the artwork of its responsibility to contribute to the definition of the artwork to which it relates on the grounds that the museum has adjudged that constituent erroneous, or, in the best construction, supererogatory. The advantage of this procedure is that it allows for the option of recommissioning should opinions or circumstances change; and, furthermore, conveniently safeguards the long-term interests of the trustees.

If the artwork does not reside exclusively in its adequately realized physical manifestations, whether singly or as a set of relations, neither does it lie in the documents that the Panzas had bought. The insistence that such documents are no more than indications of a concept wherein the artwork properly lies would seem to distinguish them conceptually from items such as earlier artists’ compositional sketches that scholars unequivocally regard as artworks. Yet, in truth, do such sketches differ from what Esmay and Weiss now term “supporting documents” acquired by the Panzas? My exploration of this issue will turn on a discussion of what I term the Duchamp fallacy: the claim that the artist alone can decide by designation that any given thing shall be an artwork, rather than having to test any such assertion before a viable community of appreciators.

The action of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in accommodating certain physical items from the Panza Collection as decommissioned things is sufficient for the most urgent purpose—their ongoing care—yet it does nothing to solve the philosophical puzzles to which their existence gives rise. Should we applaud Esmay and Weiss for having come up with a practical solution, or fret about this? Your thoughts, please!

Stay safe, sane, and sanitized!

Ivan Gaskell

Permanent Fellow

Professor of Cultural History and Museum Studies, Bard Graduate Center, New York City