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Dr. Giuseppe Panza di Biumo, an unassuming man of 84, is perhaps the closest thing to a walking oracle Buffalo's art world has seen since Seymour H. Knox.

Like Knox, the pre-eminent benefactor of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery who assembled much of the gallery's famous modernist collection, Count Panza, along with his wife Giovanna, have made a staggering number of prescient decisions. First, in the '50s, the Panzas collected works by Mark Rothko and Franz Kline while they were still blips on the radar screen of abstract expressionism.

Subsequent decades took the Panzas on collecting trips through the brightest stars of pop art, minimalism and environmental art. Bit by bit, as they traveled the world and met with the art world's future dynamos, they amassed one of the most sought-after collections of modern art in the world.

Through major sales and donations in the past 25 years, important work from the Panza collection now belongs to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, along with several institutions in Europe.

And now, in a show that combines the Panzas' historical successes with their current appetite for innovative new work, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery is hosting a rare and ambitious exhibition of some 70 light- and color-based works that is sure to be as challenging for viewers as any in recent memory.

"This for me is a historical point of my life as a collector," said Giuseppe Panza during a preview of the show in November. "This museum is the first museum in America which gives me the possibility to show what we like, what we have shown, what is important in our lives."

The paintings in "The Panza Collection: An Experience of Color and Light," unlike many of those that the Panzas gave or sold to other museum collections, represent the artistic approach dearest to the Panzas' hearts today. That approach is the isolated exploration of color and light that began with Rothko and stretches now to several of the living and somewhat underappreciated artists in this show who see their work as a logical extension of the ideas of movements -- like abstract expressionism and minimalism -- that came before.

In conversations and printed interviews, Panza often notes that the element of color in painting used to be secondary to form and shape. With the new crop of artists that Panza began to explore in the '50s, the role of color became the primary concern and its exploration apart from traditional confining forms serves as the basis for his fascination with an entirely new and revolutionary mode of artistic endeavor.

"It's the most real kind of painting, because the mind of the inside came outside," said Panza, whose heavy Italian accent sometimes gets in the way of his very sincere meaning. Writing in the 2003 book, "The Panza Collection," he put it bit more eloquently: "Modern art attempts to make the primordial forces hidden within our being emerge from the subconscious."

For some others, however, the monochromatic canvases and fluorescent light bulbs of this show might seem divorced from any popular and accessible notion of enjoyable art.

But when you're used to looking at Rubens and Rembrandts, or even the drips of Jackson Pollock or scraggly cliffs of Clyfford Still -- how can the average gallerygoer mine her subconscious by peering into what by most accounts is a big blue canvas?

"It's a very difficult step, but once people start to spend time in front of the work or in the environment of a series of paintings, I think that step starts to happen," said Albright-Knox Director Louis Grachos. "I think for many people it's not an easy step, because there are no images, there are no symbols to start with. There's nothing to really grab onto immediately except the experience of the paint or the light."

"The color looks like something really easy, except it's really difficult, because color is light reflected from a surface," Panza said. "There are many specific techniques, different materials in order to reach this goal, to reflect the light in a way that reveals the sensibility of the artist."

>Taking more time

Grachos and senior curator Douglas Dreishpoon, who with Panza selected the works for the show, hope that included audio wands and docent tours will help people think of the art in the Panza collection in a completely new way.

In training docents to give tours of the exhibition, Dreishpoon encouraged them to "think about the galleries, the spaces, as meditative spaces -- and as a place where they can allow the art to work its magic."

But in an increasingly frenetic world, following Dreishpoon's advice to "slow down" is a task some might consider foolhardy if not altogether impossible. Most gallery visitors will immediately recognize the exhibition as something strange and unfamiliar. The entranceway to the main gallery seems innocent enough, with a meticulous graphite drawing by Sol LeWitt occupying one wall and an enormous red-tinged square canvas by Phil Sims hanging on the adjacent one.

In the first gallery, though, there are nothing but 16 fluorescent light bulbs, arranged in diagonal patterns and evenly spaced along the gallery's south wall. They immediately confront the viewer and -- like the James Turrell light box at the opposite end of the gallery -- try to replicate the sort of experience one has when entering a church or cathedral. With no overhead light and not a single piece of art on the rest of the gallery's monumental walls, your attention has nowhere else to go but to the strange confluence of white and red light and color that Flavin has created.

"The color itself in the Flavin room is material," said Sims, whose own work occupies another of the largest gallery spaces in the building. "You cannot experience that without having it bodily affect you. And that's what runs through this whole exhibition."

Before entering the smaller galleries, which contain work from living artists Anne Appleby, Stuart Arends, Ruth Ann Fredenthal, Max Cole and others, visitors must pass through the sculpture court, which contains a kind of interactive installation by Bruce Nauman.

Nauman's works, "Triangle Room" and "Yellow Room (Triangle)" are incongruously shaped rooms with bright yellow lights affixed to the ceilings. The viewer is invited to enter the rooms and to compare the sensations created by the light as it reflects off the rooms' painted walls. Like the Flavin room, this is a purposeful mood-setting device to get the viewer ready for some of the less flashy and more challenging work. It also serves as an art-historical link between the earlier works of Flavin, LeWitt, Nauman and Robert Therrien and newer works that have been created in the last 15 or so years.

The remainder of the show, aside from some sculptural works by Therrien, an installation from Robert Irwin and a room of neon light-based works from Joseph Kosuth, is composed of monochromatic canvases. This is the very stuff of frustration among art viewers, works that seem so easily created and yet so difficult to grasp.

>A symphony of art

Three works by Fredenthal occupy one gallery. They seem to be muddy colors on square oyster linen canvases, and without listening to the artist's audio description, you might have no idea that they relate to classical music and old master paintings, or that they contain a broad spectrum of pigments specifically attuned to create what the artist hopes will be a transcendent viewing experience. She wants the viewer to experience her art in the same way as they would listen to a favorite symphony.

Similarly, Alfonso Fratteggiani Bianchi -- the lone European in an exhibition crowded with Americans -- wants the viewer to appreciate his incredibly bright works of pigment on stone.

"Color, which is the primary material of painting, is one of the materials of the world, and it contains shapes and structures," Fratteggiani Bianchi said. Since Rothko, he added, it has become impossible for many artists to entertain the idea of doing traditional figurative painting. "For me, it is impossible not to work with [color]."

Discussions of the show cannot help but resort to spiritual terminology, each room a little cathedral of meditative experience. Call it the church of Dan Flavin, or Winston Roeth or Timothy Litzmann. These artists, intentionally or not, are replicating the sort of artificial experience of light and color that remained previously in the realm of cathedrals, temples, mosques and the great spectrum of nature itself.

But when we are surrounded daily by light and color in infinite kaleidoscopic variety, what can be gained from isolating those qualities within the walls of a museum? Does nature not provide us with the ultimate luminescent experience?

Well, yes and no.

The exhibition of color and light comes to Buffalo during a seasonal span when nature provides a limited color spectrum and a certain kind of muted sunlight. So, depending on one's tendency toward seasonal affective disorder, reactions to the paintings -- some brilliant, all containing unique and deceptively simple combinations of color and luminosity -- can have much the same effect as a sunlamp on a bleak and chilly December afternoon.

Appleby's works, specifically, chronicle a sort of natural experience, with pleasing green-hued triptychs that recall a walk through a meadow or forest without actually depicting it. Huge canvases by David Simpson are painted with an iridescent pigment that changes color depending on the angle at which they are viewed, and he describes his work as an attempt to explore color's effect on the soul. These are the sorts of experiences that can only happen with a wide-open mind and a cleared-out schedule on a Sunday afternoon.

"We all come to art for different reasons," Grachos said, "but for me, the kind of ability to go into an art space and have experiences that really are transforming and making you think about other things and change the way you look at things. That's a lot of what [Panza's] vision is tied into."

e-mail: cdabkowski@buffnews.com