Installation view of Giacomo Manzú's Cardinale in piedi, 1958-60, from "The Great Wonderful: 100 Years in Italian Art." Courtesy Phillips. 


"Italian art is overlooked and undervalued," says curator Francesco Bonami. "The only way to overcome both is by organizing an auction. This is how people react today." The market-friendly statement may seem surprising coming from an art professional whose resumé includes a nine-year position as senior curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, and turns as director of the 2003 Venice Biennale and co-organizer of the 2010 Whitney Biennial. But Bonami, who has curated the first sale of Italian art for Phillips auction house, doesn't think clear-cut distinctions between the market and institutions are useful categories anymore.

In fact, Bonami explains that this afternoon's Phillips sale, "The Great Wonderful: 100 Years of Italian Art," draws from research he conducted for "Italics: Italian Art Between Tradition and Revolution," an exhibition he organized for MCA Chicago and François Pinault's Palazzo Grassi in 2008. That show examined Italian art from 1968 to 2008 "not only from the usual suspects point of view-Arte Povera, Transavanguardia, Fontana and Burri-but also from artists working in the same period who didn't make the cut of those movements."

The Phillips sale, with an overall estimate of approximate $21-28 million, comprises 64 lots selected and organized by Bonami for pre-auction viewing in an elegant townhouse on the Upper East Side. The mix of works is eclectic. Among the offerings projected to command the highest prices are Domenico Gnoli's Shirt Collar Size 14 1/2 (1969), a larger-than-lifesize acrylic painting of a shirt's breast, estimated at $7-9 million; Giuseppe Penone's Idee de pietra (2003-07), a huge bronze tree with a granite stone, estimated at $1.5-2 million; and an Alighiero e Boetti map made in the late 1980s, estimated at $1.5-2 million. There are pieces by lesser-known individuals, too, like Jack Clemente, an Irish-Italian artist whom Bonami learned about several years ago. Two of Clemente's relief sculptures from the late 1960s, constructed out of humble braided rope and burlap on canvas, are estimated at $8,000-10,000 each.

Bonami shrugged off the stereotype of auction curating as an unserious pursuit, avoiding a discussion about the current exhibition at Sotheby's S2 gallery curated by pop star Drake. Instead, the curator explains that the auction experience offers certain advantages over other professional platforms. "To do a show like this in an American institution would take four years," he said, taking into account logistics and the fact that museum calendars are planned years in advance.

He adds that museums "look to the market a lot when they are programming." The statement seems especially timely in light of the Art Newspaper's recent report stating that nearly one-third of solo exhibitions in museums are given to artists represented by just five powerhouse galleries. "A museum show is, most of the time, a museum for sale," Bonami says, adding the market of midcareer artists benefit from solo exhibitions.

Another forthcoming project by Bonami, in Italy, plumbs the private partnership well. Opening June 17, "Don't Shoot the Painter" is the second exhibition he selected from the UBS Collection of contemporary art for Milan's Galleria d'Arte Moderna. The exhibition is part of an agreement between the museum and the Swiss bank, which has donated funds for the gallery's renovation. "Painting has always played a role like the pianist in Western movies," Bonami says of the show's theme. "When mayhem starts, the pianist starts to play and brings calm to the situation." Likewise, he adds, in moments of aesthetic or political crisis painting often returns stronger than ever. The show will include both work by painters and photographers interested in the medium, such as Thomas Struth and Andreas Gursky.

The curator believes that the market is not the source of today's art world crises, but rather, critical consensus and celebrity worship are the twin evils in contemporary art. He cites Klaus Biesenbach's nearly universally panned Björk exhibition as a negative example of both. On the other hand, Bonami says, there are stars whose notoriety works against them—like Bob Dylan, whose paintings he curated in 2013 at Milan's Palazzo Reale. "I think that actually his paintings are affected by his being Bob Dylan," he says, speculating that museums would be less likely to show the performer's visual art given his musical success. And while he feels that artwork by celebrities like Sylvester Stallone and James Franco benefit unfairly from the hype machine, he mentions Patti Smith as an artist whose drawings have merit on their own.

Whether or not Bonami's opinions coincide with popular taste, his ultimate statement about contemporary art is one that places blame not on the market but on the art world's muddy politics. "The museum as celebrity machine, I think that is maybe more disturbing than the money equation," he says. "What is immoral is to make museums appear fair and pure, as though no conflict of interest is happening."