Giuseppe Penone – Sculptor of time



I went into the wood forest and began a slow, thoughtful and astonishing journey in time. Giuseppe Penone, 1969

Born in 1947 in Garessio Italy, in a Piedmontese village surrounded by mountains and forest, Giuseppe PENONE was associated early in his career with the Arte Povera. In the late 1960s, this group consisted of Italian artists who wished to redefine their relationship with materials and artistic language by exploring the links between nature and culture. These artists developed a special relationship with nature, some creating ephemeral works and most of them using materials considered “poor”, such as soil and plants. Giuseppe Penone has been working with nature – trees, marble, bay trees, water… And the human body, revealing their mysterious symbioses for over 40 years.

Plant intelligence
Penone’s early works involved direct interventions with trees. In 1968, the artist inserted a bronze hand onto the trunk of a young tree and thereby modified its growth. A few years later, the tree had appropriated the sculpture (its title: It will continue to grow except at this point). There are only photographic remains of this action. Thereafter, the tree became the artist’s primary motif – although not the only one – and his work underscored the vitality of trees, seeming to prove Heracles’ adage: “panta rei; everything flows, nothing remains constant.”

Giuseppe Penone at Versailles
Among his recent solo exhibitions, the largest have been those at The Drawing Center in New York and at the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 2004, at the Museum Kurhaus Kleve and La Caixa Foundation in Barcelona in 2006 ​​and representing Italy at Italian pavilion of the Venice Biennale in 2007. In 2008, the Villa Medicis in Rome devoted an exhibition to his work as did the Belgian MAC’s at Grand Hornu in 2010. In 2012, he was invited to participate in Documenta 13 in Kassel, and to present new work for a year at the Whitechapel Gallery in London as part of the Bloomberg Commission. This year his work will be showcased at Versailles in France.
Giuseppe Penone is indeed the sixth major Contemporary artist selected to exhibit at the Palais de Versailles. He will be taking up the baton of a dialogue between Baroque and Contemporary art that was initiated in 2009 with Jeff KOONS and Xavier VEILHAN and continued with Takashi MURAKAMI in 2010, Bernar VENET in 2011 and Joana VASCONCELOS in 2012. These shows have attracted more than 4 million visitors. Naturally such a project represents a major challenge for the Italian artist who will be investing the park and a number of rooms in the palace from 11 June to 30 October 2013 at the invitation of Catherine Pégard. His works will be divided between the palace and the park along the axis of the La Grande Perspective, investing the Le Nôtre garden, the Latona lower terraces, from the “green carpet” to the Grand Canal. Twenty sculptures will be placed in the Royal driveway leading – with its lengthy perspective from the palace to the Grand Canal, and others will occupy the Bosquet de l’Étoile.
Brimming with adoration for nature, Penone’s sculptural works will create an elegant and sensitive path. Asked how he felt about the project, Penone says, “Having the opportunity to engage my work with that of Le Nôtre at Versailles is a great privilege. The garden is an emblematic place that materialises Western ideas about the relationship between man and nature.”
Like the Louvre, Versailles carries a halo of prestige and exhibiting there tends to stimulate an artist’s market quite considerably. On the whole, owners of Penone’s works (galleries and collectors) have been reluctant to part with his pieces: since 1990 less than 130 lots (of which only 28 sculptures) have been offered at auctions, which is a small number for an artist of Penone’s stature. However, the announcement of his invitation to Versailles has already prompted the sale of a beautiful bronze work created in 2005 and which signed a new auction record just four months before the opening of the Versailles exhibition (Pelle Di fiori (Occhi Al Cielo, Mano Terra) at £240,000 (nearly $378,000) at Sotheby’s in London on 2 February 2013).

Arte Povera and art market logic
The work of Arte Povera artists has long escaped the logic of the art market because the artists wanted to avoid their works being considered as products. As a result, Penone has crept very slowly onto the secondary market, initially in the form of minor works in the early 1990s, after more than 20 years career. Like Penone, other Italian Arte Povera artists such as Giovanni ANSELMO and Pier Paolo CALZOLARI also have a thin secondary market compared to the prestige and quality of their international exhibitions in galleries and renowned institutions.
Compared to his career and reputation, Penone’s auction market is therefore still very restricted, and as such, relatively untainted by speculation and market risk. Indeed, Penone, who represents a safe artistic investment, was 58 before one of his works crossed the $100,000 threshold at auction. That sale took place in Paris, one year after his major retrospective at the Centre George Pompidou (21 April – 23 August 2004). The work therefore came on the market at the right time and had several strong points, including a prestigious provenance (the old collection of Liliane and Michel Durand-Dessert) and being perfectly suited to museum presentation (monumental dimensions of 200 cm x 585 cm, mixed and complex work between painting and sculpture). Entitled Impronta Digitale (1982), it reached $203,400 at Sotheby’s Paris (€170,000, 6 October 2005).
Since then, his market has seen 14 other results above $100,000, which is not many, especially compared to the younger stars of the market who have already passed this threshold a few dozen times (or even a few hundred times in the case of Damien HIRST, one of the most speculative artists of the decade).

Is Penone affordable?
One of the best artists of Italian Contemporary art for under $5,000? Yes, it is possible, by carefully watching the lower profile market places other than London and New York. For example, a number of very interesting purchases were recently made in Germany, such as a painted sculpture in wood that sold for €3,500 ($4,649 excluding buyer’s premium) in November 2011 at the Villa Grisebach. Although the piece an attempt to find the existence of a tree in a sheet of industrial wood (Untitled, 131 cm x 95 cm), is not a single piece but rather a multiple edited in 40 copies, it is nevertheless a superb acquisition with a good date (1982) and it is emblematic of Penone’s work. If it had been a unique work, the price would have been 5 to 10 times higher.
As for Penone’s collectors, they assiduously hunt down his original works, as we saw back in 2009 when Abtei (with a similar theme to the Untitled mentioned above, but larger in size and unique) was conservatively estimated at between €4,000 and €5,000 in Cologne before eventually going under the hammer at €28,000 ($39,200).
Collectors fight particularly hard to acquire sculptures in which the tree, Penone’s first (chronologically) and primary poetic subject, exposes the mystery of its growth. A very small number of monumental sculptures on the subject (3 to 5 metres) sell for between $250,000 and $400,000 at auctions. This may seem high; but is perfectly reasonable considering the artist’s reputation and contribution to the history of Western art.