Ways of Seeing and The Panza Collection


of an Exhibition

by Molly Porter

Published on January 07, 2009

  • Description:

    Ways of Seeing and The Panza Collection

    As exhibitions go, this one was right up my alley. Actually, as it turns out, it was not just one exhibition, but two (or was it really just one?). One thing was certain – both appealed to my art historical passions. It was my first time visiting the Hirshhorn Museum, the only branch of the Smithsonian exclusively devoted to modern and contemporary art, and my excitement was mounting as I walked into the central courtyard. The building is circular and the negative space at its center frames the sky in an almost mystical way. As I looked up I stopped in my tracks, held by the sliver of a moon that hung in the late afternoon sky perfectly placed above this endless ring of a building.

    Upon reaching the second level if the Hirshhorn Museum, I stepped off the escalator and was faced with a choice that we all face as museum visitors: right or left. To my right was a text panel entitled Ways of Seeing: Giuseppe and Giovanna Panza. Here I learned that artists, collectors and filmmakers had been invited to select works from the Hirshhorn’s permanent collection, this being the second installment of the series. The intent is to provide different perspectives and new ways of experiencing the permanent collection. With my interest peaked and thoughts of Mining the Museum I entered the first gallery.

    As I meandered from room to room, I met Rothko and Rauschenberg, Rosenquist and Judd. I was seeing most of these works for the first time, but it felt like coming home to old friends. My pre-existing interest in these artists aside, the works were not placed in chronological order, nor did I get the sense that there were thematic or conceptual groupings. Moving from Abstract Expressionism to Minimalism and into the twenty-first century feels comfortable to me; they are all bound together by their rejection of figurative art for its own sake, and they all have much to say about the artist and the world around him or her. However, I’m not convinced that a museum visitor who is unfamiliar with these time periods would share my sense of comfort.
    Despite my engagement with individual artworks, there was little flow from one room to the next. The gallery walls created small rooms containing one to four works each, leaving me without a sense of orientation or spatial relation to the rest of the building. To make matters worse, there was absolutely no seating inside the entire exhibition. In order to rest, you had to step outside the exhibition into a separate sculpture gallery that formed the inner ring of the building and looked out onto my mystical courtyard. For works that invite contemplation and, in some cases, gradual absorption, this felt detrimental to the overall visitor experience. The wall text also didn’t encourage visitors to linger; in fact, it was challenge just to find it. In an interesting shade of yellow that almost disappeared into the white walls, one could find the artist’s name, place, and date of birth. For better or worse, the visitor is left to create his or her own meaning, including perhaps a guess at why Giuseppe and Giovanna chose this painting or that sculpture.

    At some point unbeknownst to me, I left Ways of Seeing and entered The Panza Collection. This exhibition featured 39 works that Panza recently gave to the Hirshhorn and consisted of primarily larger installations of Conceptual, Light and Space and Environmental art. I enjoyed these works as well, but was preoccupied by my sense that something had changed, but unaware of what exactly had transpired. Upon immerging, I realized I had literally come full circle, as I walked out to see The Panza Collection signage above my head.

    The literature I could find on the exhibitions gave a decent amount of information on The Panza Collection and referenced Ways of Seeing “in adjacent galleries” with the works of the former catalogued and the latter – just adjacent. Although I felt enriched by much of the art I experienced that day, the overall experience was less than enlightening. I came away seeing the good taste of Giuseppe Panza and not much else.

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