Art: Back at the Barnes, a second look

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Albert C. Barnes in the main gallery in Merion. Now that his collection is a public museum, its negative qualities become more prominent, particularly its disregard of history.

Mother drilled into our fuzzy little heads the importance of first impressions, but she neglected to say anything about seconds.

A return visit to the new Barnes Foundation on the Parkway 15 months after it opened in May 2012 to intensive fanfare suggests that second impressions may be significantly more revealing than introductions.

Except for the collection itself, which by design looks exactly as it did in Merion, the new Barnes is radically different from the old. Besides being much more spacious, there are more visitor amenities - easily achieved, because Merion didn't have any.

The lower-level lounge area is especially pleasant. There's a cafe, the foundation library, the inevitable shop, and an auditorium where visitors can absorb a 20-minute video about founder Albert C. Barnes.

One can even go outdoors without leaving the building. An atriumlike horticultural well, open to the sky, invites relaxation and contemplation.

Relaxation wasn't possible indoors at Merion, but it's actively encouraged here. On the ground floor, the cavernous Annenberg Court opens onto an outdoor terrace at one end, while patrons of the adjoining restaurant can enjoy a semi-secluded outdoor garden.

Unfortunately, the Annenberg Court lacks even the suggestion of art: it's as neutrally charmless as an empty bus garage.

All the more reason, then, why visitors pass through quickly, pick up an audio guide at the collection entrance, and slide down the rabbit hole to experience art as Albert C. Barnes understood it.

The transition is somewhat disorienting, because, in the collection wing, visitors not only enter an unfamiliar aesthetic dimension - they travel back in time as well.

This wasn't as obvious during the excitement of the opening months. But, by now, the Barnes has settled into a familiar operational groove. Logistically, it appears to function like a traditional art museum, such as its neighbor on the Parkway, the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Yet, this impression is deceiving. Moving to Center City might have made the collection more accessible, but it also has made the collection's quirks, and especially its deficiencies, more obvious.

Barnes-Merion was a completely integrated experience involving architecture, horticulture, and the presentation of the art. On the Parkway, the collection presents itself more as a historical artifact in an artificial, and not especially resonant, environment.

Consequently, Barnes' eccentric method of displaying his collection, and even the philosophy behind it, make less sense on the Parkway than in Merion. Equally to the point, now visitors more readily notice that much of the art in this storied collection is mediocre.

Even at Merion, it seemed obvious that the founder placed himself and his dubious theories above the achievement of individual artists and the flow of art history. His wall "ensembles" are arbitrary conceits that blend the great, the good, and the ordinary into an indiscriminate, aesthetic jumble.

Higher-quality paintings are usually given prominence in the ensembles by being placed in the center, but not always. For instance, in one gallery a Van Gogh portrait of postmaster Joseph Roulin, one of the artist's iconic images, is jammed into a corner by a covey of Cezannes, serving neither artist adequately.

At Merion, Matisse's magisterial Joy of Life was hung in a stairwell. Now, this modernist masterpiece has its own room, where it seems more imposing even though the room is far too small.

Replicating the Merion galleries, considered tactically necessary to win court approval for moving the foundation, was never a sensible idea.

The foundation galleries weren't scaled to accommodate the public, and even though they have been reproduced to the millimeter, they're functionally even smaller because of dark "stay-back" lines inlaid in the floors.

(The lines are intended to discourage visitors from moving too close to the art; observation suggests that they aren't especially effective.)

The foundation regulates access to the collection wing to prevent overcrowding, but even the largest galleries are so undersized by contemporary museum standards that they can feel congested when occupied by only a handful of people.

In transforming the foundation from a 1920s private gallery to a 21st-century public museum, the art, the artists, the public, and even Barnes would have been better served by a radical rethinking of how to present the higher-quality portions of the collection.

Several years ago I proposed a tripartite focus on Barnes' "big three" - Renoir (excluding the dozens of minor examples), Cezanne, and Matisse, with the rest of the collection selectively redacted and hung in a way that explicated the more important artists and the marquee works.

Presented this way, the Barnes collection would be an even more impressive attraction than it is now, a rare and exotic beetle frozen in amber.

Now, more than ever, it suggests that Barnes was a hit-and-miss connoisseur who had remarkable luck in picking winners, but who also didn't worry about picking also-rans - either that or he couldn't tell the difference.

People have always judged his collection by its astonishing number of Renoirs and Cezannes and by its quirkiness - all those hinges. As a private collection, it was entitled to its eccentricities and was immune to criticism.

But now, it's a public museum, and, in that context, its more negative qualities become prominent, particularly its obsessiveness and disregard of history and the multiple dimensions that great art encodes, in favor of a pinched interpretation.

Most disturbing, a lack of respect for the art itself, expressed through Barnes' installation, subordinates the significance and appeal of individual works to his overpowering ego. He wanted to be remembered as an innovative educator and philosopher. The new Barnes wants us to embrace this legend, but if one looks closely, the collection tells a less-attractive story.

 


If You Go: The Barnes Foundation

2025 Benjamin Franklin Pkwy. 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays through Sundays (to 8 p.m. Sept. 1), and to 10 p.m. Fridays. Closed Tuesdays. $22, general; $20, 65 and older; $10, students with valid ID and ages 6 to 18. 217-278-7000 or www.barnesfoundation.org.

The Ellsworth Kelly special exhibition has been extended to Sept. 30.


Contact Edward J. Sozanski at edward.sozanski@gmail.com.

"Art" by Edward J. Sozanski and "Galleries" by Edith Newhall appear in alternating weeks.