LaToya Ruby Frazier, Houston & Lafayette NYC (Braddock PA Levi Billboard), 2010, Image Courtesy of the artist

ROME - Thematic shows can be a scourge or a thrill. There’s no telling what will happen when disparate artists show their wares at the same time – the “Regarding Warhol” show at the Met last fall, for instance, was quite divisive among critics. But the life-is-like-a-box-of-chocolates approach can be mighty tasty, if you like at least some of the chocolates.

Certainly there’s no more high-profile confection than “Empire State,” the exhibition on view at Rome’s largest art venue, the Palazzo delle Esposizioni, until July 21, which I covered here

Old-hand curator Norman Rosenthal – formerly head of the Royal Academy in London and the man who gave us “Sensation” – joined forces with up-and-comer Alex Gartenfeld to create an ode to the diverse and powerful New York art scene with a not-too-shabby lineup of artists including Jeff Koons, Rob Pruitt, Julian Schnabel, LaToya Ruby Frazier, Wade Guyton, Nate Lowman and Dan Graham.

One of the great pleasures of a thematic show is when the chemistry in a gallery ignites because of the combination of artists therein. “There are alignments in the exhibition that I think are really surprising for people,” says Gartenfeld, who has just started his new job as a curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami. “Neither of us is trying to put together the family album of New York, neither of us is interested in crystallizing what it means to be a quintessential New York artist. We’re interested in framing artists who we think have a shared history.”

Nate Lowman, [TBT], 2012

One of the “frames” created by the palazzo’s neoclassical galleries brings together Koons and Guyton. Koons told me that he loved the combination – he’s showing three works including the shiny blue take-off on classical antiquity, “Metallic Venus,” and Guyton is represented by an untitled painting on linen of the type that was on view in his midcareer show at the Whitney last fall. “The basis of it is minimalism,” Koons said of the shared foundation of their art. “And a sense of a moral core in both our works.”

Gartenfeld reported to me from the Rome opening that he loved “the swirling reflections of the Guyton on the Koons sculpture.” And he added: “It was great to see these powerful meditations on middle-class labor in the same place.”

For those going to the Venice Biennale, it might be worth a detour south to the Eternal City to catch this exhibition.