When Maurizio Cattelan sculpted Pope John Paul II lifelike in wax and resin, crushed by a meteorite, a pathetic fallen figure in his gleaming white cassock, clinging to his silver crucifix, his face crumpled in pain, the work was initially greeted as slapstick irreverence. At an early exhibition outraged visitors even tried to make the supine pope stand up. But, with the years, “La Nona Ora” (1999) becomes increasingly affecting: so many vertical symbols of humanity and power flung horizontal and abject, a tableau on a crimson carpet dusted with broken glass.

François Pinault bought the work in 2001 and it now stars in Icônes, a beguiling, ambitious exhibition at his Punta della Dogana gallery in Venice, which sets itself a challenging goal: to posit 20th- and 21st-century conceptual art as today’s sacred equivalents of the Byzantine icon.

A sculpture resembling Pope John Paul II lies on a red carpet in front of a large steel gallery door
‘La Nona Ora’ installed at the Punta della Dogana in Venice © Marco Cappelletti

Framed by the Dogana’s heavy steel latticework doors, allowing glimpses of the Grand Canal flowing past, Cattelan’s pope here is a fragile, tragic figure, trapped in suffering, symbol of a life being swept away, closer to Francis Bacon’s dark visions than Marcel Duchamp’s jests. The title, the ninth hour, refers to the moment of Christ’s dying agony. According to Pirandello, “blasphemy activates the sacred”. But the work is satirical too: “Power has an expiry date, like milk,” says Cattelan.

Icônes is staged to coincide with Venice’s Architecture Biennale, and its works fall broadly into two types: classic minimalism — which Pinault once described to me as “mon propre goût . . . things assez mystique” — and recent and contemporary installations, architectural and sociopolitical in character.

A few works, beginning with Brazilian artist Lygia Pape’s luminous “Ttéia 1, C”, are both. Its quivering golden wires stretch from floor to ceiling in geometric patterns, shifting according to the fall of light and the position of the viewer; ethereal and diaphanous, it fills the double-height opening gallery, evoking constellations, spiders’ webs, sun-dappled forests. But Pape, developing an architectural-sculptural language out of European minimalism’s geometric lines on white canvas, insisted that she was suggesting utopian webs of social connections “in which there is no interior or exterior”.

Golden threads stretch from ceiling to floor inside a gallery like shafts of sunlight
‘Ttéia 1, C’ (2003-17) by Lygia Pape © Filippo Rossi

Pape sets the tone for an elegant minimalist section of paintings which are not quite paintings: Lucio Fontana dematerialising the medium “to open up space” with light-pierced, perforated canvases in his Concetto spaziale series; Francesco Lo Savio’s Spazio Luce sequence of circles shimmering within rectangles. American minimalist counterparts include Agnes Martin’s trembling grids, Donald Judd’s gold-hued stacks, Robert Ryman’s white paintings.

Alongside them, at the heart of the show, extracts from Andrei Tarkovsky’s film about 15th-century icon painter Andrei Rublev make a case for parallels between these 20th-century artists, searching for pure, simplified expression amid the euphoria of postwar consumption and its saturated commercial imagery, and Rublev, in flight from turbulence and terror in medieval Russia.

An aerial shot of a triangular building in Venice, the former customs house
The Punta della Dogana, seen from above

Standing at the spit where the Grand and Giudecca canals meet, its crescent windows giving on to the city’s busy quotidian life, the Dogana is Venice’s former customs house and symbol of its mercantile wealth and cosmopolitan reach. It is a fantastic venue for a show about the potency of images and the effects of time, change, globalisation — themes dominant in the exhibition’s later sections. The quality of these contemporary installations is mixed (some are staggeringly banal), and none are iconic in the sense of Cattelan’s pope, but the best resonate marvellously in the historic vaulted space and engage with Biennale curator Lesley Lokko’s questions about “process . . . production, resources and representation”.

In Danh Vo’s “Christmas (Rome) 2012”, faded velvet drapes from vitrines at the Vatican, imprinted with shadows of artefacts once displayed, hang in a tower formation beneath the Dogana’s wooden beams, glimmering like ghostly silhouettes. “Un village sans frontières”, Chen Zhen’s miniature houses built from candles, are flickering hopes for the future — part of an imaginary city Chen designed in a project with Brazilian street children, who were invited to construct their dream homes. Both artists are concerned with displacement, belonging, what Vo calls “the tiny diasporas of a person’s life”, expressed with mournful delicacy.

Two golden-brownish-yellowish canvases hang on adjacent walls near a display of golden-orange fabric banners hanging from the ceiling
From left to right: Untitled (2010) by Rudolf Stingel; ‘Christmas (Rome), 2012’ (2013) by Danh Vo; another untitled work (2009) by Stingel © Marco Cappelletti
A large light-brown mound with a black entrance stands in a gallery space
‘Mothabeng’ by Dineo Seshee Bopape (2022) © Filippo Rossi

Theaster Gates’s “Roofing Exercise” works are paintings in tar and wood, layered in alternate shiny and matt strips, light breaking through the urban fabric (Gates’s father was a roofer): small dramas of construction set against accounts of the destruction of a Chicago church in the video “Gone are the Days of Shelter and Martyr”, where melancholy gospel songs accompany the thud of collapsing wooden doors. Gates summons collective memory of loss and community, the theme too of South African Dineo Seshee Bopape, the show’s youngest artist; her domed clay and marble dust building “Mothabeng” (2022), penetrated with light seeping through the fissures of the dried material, resembles a mountain, a tribal dwelling, the female form.

A nude woman sits on the floor, silhouetted against a grey background, so that her body is almost entirely black
Melba Moore, photographed by Jack Robinson for Vogue (1971) © Condé Nast

An essential coda to this cerebral show is Palazzo Grassi’s straightforward, instantly accessible and highly enjoyable Chronorama — celebrating a very different sort of icon: hundreds of photographs of the 1910s-1970s from Condé Nast’s magazine archive, part acquired by Pinault in 2021. Displayed chronologically in climbing rows around the pink palazzo’s courtyard galleries, all sparkling mosaic floors and frescoed ceilings, the black and white images look terrific and emphatic: a stark historical record, particularly of the mid-century.

Decade by decade, from Paul Thompson’s middle-aged, spectacled “Dr Mary Walker, the first woman to wear trousers in public” (1911), belonging to Vanity Fair, to Jack Robinson’s nude portrait of black singer Melba Moore, posed like a pyramidal sculpture, for Vogue in 1971, we watch how far-reaching cultural change is embodied in images of a single individual or a place, representing and explaining the era.

A figure wearing a top hat and greatcoat stands next to the pillar of a large building, holding a US flag
Paul Thompson’s image for Vanity Fair of Mary Walker, the ‘first woman to wear trousers in public’ (1911) © Condé Nast

The photographs of buildings are spectacular, each revealing tensions or aspirations of diverse societies. A Sovfoto image of Moscow at the Soviet Union’s 17th birthday in 1934 (published, astonishingly, in Vanity Fair) is followed by Ralph Steiner’s circular upward view of the Empire State Building in 1935, expansive and stunning; then Florence Henri’s “Colossus” fragments at the Palazzo del Conservatori in Mussolini’s Rome in 1936, and Matisse in an aviary in 1938, caged in Nice as Europe faced war.

From the 1940s there’s a banquet at the Vanderbilts’ residence, Lee Miller’s shot of a humiliated woman shorn for collaboration in Paris and Irving Penn’s “Cuzco Children, Peru”. Penn called the camera “part Stradivarius, part scalpel” — offering a balance of beauty and truth.

By contrast, “today images are so close to us . . . that their power of revelation is diminishing,” argue curator Matthieu Humery and consultant Andrew Cowan in the catalogue. “We must imagine for a moment a world where illusion was possible . . . an era that transfigured the banality of the world into an object of contemplation” — the perfect modern icon.

‘Icônes’ runs at the Punta della Dogana to November 26; ‘Chronorama’ runs at the Palazzo Grassi to January 7 2024, pinaultcollection.com

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