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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. Published in hard copy 2-4 times a year. New shows: "events;" hard copy rates & how to support the online edition: "works."



View from 21st Street. The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia. (March 2012). (c) Tom Crane 2012.

I blush to admit that I never responded to the mystique of the old Barnes Foundation in Merion, not at least in the way its most fervent partisans did, though naturally I greatly admired the many virtues of its memorable collection. Maybe that's because I share what Greenberg called his “tunnel vision,” meaning the capacity to zero in on one work of art at a time, and ignore whatever else is going on around it. This makes it possible to assess the quality of the individual paintings and sculpture in a collection, without being distracted by their installation—for better or worse.

Maybe my failure to respond to the old Barnes (as an institution) was also due to the difficulty of reaching it from my home – 45 minutes from my apartment on the Upper East Side of New York to Pennsylvania Station, 1 hour 40 minutes on Amtrak to the 30th Street station in Philadelphia, another hour or so to catch the suburban train to Merion (sure, the ride is only 10 minutes, but the trains, except at rush hour, only run once or at most twice an hour), plus finally hiking to the Foundation itself.

It all adds up to more than three hours each way, or a very long day if one wants to go and return without having to run up a hotel bill. Some people, I know, enjoy the fact that an artistic destination is out of the way, difficult to get to, and hence visited only sparsely. It heightens their pleasure in the whole experience, allowing them to feel that in getting there, they have accomplished something special.

For me, I am afraid, it is simply a nuisance, or at any rate in this case it was, since --- although the collection certainly had many wonderful paintings in it--- the building that housed them wasn’t especially distinguished. I mean to say, 20th-century French Renaissance isn’t exactly a modern style, and the fussy way that visitors were treated – with reservations required in advance, and women forced to check not only their tote bags but also their purses, irritated me, too.


Still, I found my first visit there rewarding, because I’d come to look at Cezanne, and the Barnes is so rich in his work. This was the spring of 1976, when I was still in grad school at Columbia, and taking a seminar in Cezanne. Then, I knew that Cezanne was supposed to be great, but I didn’t know much about him. Today, I get a thrill from his work that I get from that of nobody else, and, though this infatuation took a long time to develop, that seminar marked its beginning. It was taught by Theodore Reff. He’d written a lot about Cezanne, but, although Greenberg referred to him contemptuously as “an iconographer,” this seminar was far more about style than subject matter.

Reff was involved in an exhibition of late work by Cezanne to be held in the fall of 1977 at MoMA, and collecting material for his catalogue essay, but he also told us that a new Cezanne catalogue raisonne was being prepared, to update one published in 1936 by Lionello Venturi. Our assignment was to present recommendations for the new catalogue raisonne, based on our study of the work (both what we could see in the flesh, and where necessary using the photographs in Venturi or elsewhere—those in Venturi mostly or entirely , if memory serves correctly, in tiny black & white).

Each member of the seminar got a specific subject to make her report about (all Cezanne’s still lifes, for example, or all his paintings of Mont Sainte-Victoire). The idea was to present them in chronological order, and offer arguments substantiating the order presented. This would have been easy if Cezanne had dated his work, but he rarely if ever did. Nor was there much information to be gleaned from his subject matter. There may have been an identifiable statuette in one or two of the still lifes, and also a tablecloth that he liked to use, but it was difficult to document exactly when he had acquired these items and dispensed with them.

As for the landscapes, there was only one showing trees at a locale that he had visited only once, and a few more showing scenes of the period in the early 1870s when he’d painted alongside Camille Pissarro; but for the last thirty years or so of his life, he’d lived in or near his home town of Aix-en-Provence, and the many pictures he’d painted of just a few local subjects, over and over again, could have been done at any time during this period.

Thus, the only way to date such pictures was upon stylistic evidence – how the way that the artist painted had evolved over the years. It was essentially a problem in formal values, not iconographic ones. This was even truer of my subject, the so-called “bathers,” which depicted groups of nude figures in landscape – sometimes women, sometimes men (never both sexes in the same picture). None of the places or people were identifiable – the landscapes were fantasy landscapes, and the people were idealized figures, in poses repeated from picture to picture, and most likely copied from other paintings, not based on studies from models.

The three biggest bathers’ scenes – all of women --- were generally believed to have been painted some time during the last six years of the artist’s life, between 1900 and 1906. The Barnes had one, the Philadelphia Museum of Art had another, and the National Gallery in London had the third. They could easily been seen as forerunners and inspiration for two of the greatest paintings of the early 20th century --- “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” (1907) by Picasso, and “La Danse” (1909) by Matisse. But there were also many smaller Cezanne bathers scenes, created anywhere from the late 1860s up to and through 1900. They, too, were much admired, by the artist’s contemporaries and his immediate successors – as has been frequently demonstrated in exhibitions of the past few years, including the last big Matisse show at MoMA, which included the small bathers owned by Matisse, and this year’s Met show of the Steins’ collections, which included yet more.


Besides his big “Bathers,” Barnes owned a number of the small ones, so I had a fine time, working my way through the collection & taking my usual slew of notes. I noticed the splendid Seurat of “The Models,” and the profusion of Renoirs, too, but the Renoirs were mostly figure studies of one kind or another, and mostly if not entirely later work --- not my favorite period for this master. The same might be said of the many Matisses. Though I liked the Matisses a lot better than I liked the Renoirs, and was happy to see so many of them, I didn’t see Matisse’s “Joy of Life" (1906) because nobody had told me that the collection included it, or that it was hanging in a dimly-lit stairwell. I also overlooked the big Matisse mural of “La Danse” (1930), painted as it was far above eye level.

As for the “Old Master” paintings, I found them almost all small and almost all of secondary quality (I didn’t think of them as misattributed, I just thought of them as lesser examples of their creators’ work). They made such a negative impression on me that I (erroneously) remembered them all as Siennese primitives, hung in a separate gallery at the back of the museum – and assumed that they were what Barnes had started out collecting because in his day they were the “status” art to collect, and that he had only later graduated to the “modern.” (Just goes to show how wide of the mark one’s assumptions may be.)

While I was dimly aware of the profusion of other kinds of paintings (and drawings etc.) on the walls, my eye swept right past the door hinges & other wrought-iron bric-a-brac interspersed with the pictures, and (as is practically always the case with me) I ignored the furniture placed on the floor, underneath the pictures. This oversight was to some extent corrected the second (and last) time that I visited the old Barnes, in the 1980s or 1990s. On this occasion, I had been invited by a New York friend of mine who, since my first visit to the Barnes, had married a Philadelphia man. She was now living with him in the City of Brotherly Love, and we drove from their home to the foundation in much more comfort than my 1976 visit had allowed.

Joining us was a friend of my friends who had studied American culture in depth, and done museum work in Philadelphia (though not at the Barnes). She called my attention to the many sterling examples of Pennsylvania Dutch furniture, and spoke most illuminatingly about them. But even this experience didn’t make me into a passionate believer in the establishment in Merion (as opposed to an admirer of the art that the building contained). Though I was vaguely conscious, from the many stories in the NY Times, that there was a long-running controversy surrounding the campaign to relocate in center city Philadelphia, I paid no attention to the details of the battle, and felt absolutely no emotional involvement in it, either as a defendant of the status quo or as a supporter of the move.


In fact, I was so uninvolved that I can’t even remember what prompted me to google “Barnes Foundation” some time in March (or was it April)? At any rate, what looked like a freshly renovated Barnes Foundation website informed me that the media preview for the grand opening would be held May 16, so I registered to attend. I was also able to sign up for a bus from New York that the foundation had chartered for visiting art critics. It left from near Pennsylvania Station around (roughly) 8:30 am, with doughnuts passed out en route, and got us to the new foundation building, at 2025 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, a couple of hours later.

Greyhound’s commercial service from the Port Authority bus terminal in Manhattan takes about the same amount of time; then you have to take either a taxi (short ride) or a city bus (operated by SEPTA) to the site (don’t know how much the bus fare is for younger adults, but if you can show a Medicare card, it’s free). Amtrak still runs trains to the 30th Street station, is about 20 minutes quicker, and impervious to highway traffic, but there isn’t any easy way to get to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway from the 30th Street Station, except by taxi.

Arriving at the foundation, we found a large & gracefully classic modern box-type building in the tradition of the International Style, sheathed in luxurious Negev marble, surrounded by lush landscaping that included terraces, gardens, a parking lot, and rows of trees that shielded the foundation from surrounding city traffic. To enter the building, we crossed a magically silent and crystal-clear reflecting pool.

The media preview had not yet begun, but it was to be held in the “Light Court.” This was a large, very light, high-ceilinged & rectangular area that led directly from the entry alcove to 12 of the galleries recreating the original Barnes installations, as well as to a second space for special (changing) exhibitions, a restaurant, and a terrace leading to the gardens. On one side of the entrance to the recreated galleries, they wrap around a classroom, so that students can pursue a course in art appreciation, just as Dr. Barnes envisioned it. On the other side of this entrance, the galleries wrap around a glassed-in garden-like enclosure with a tree (or trees?) growing up inside of it.

The Light Court, more than two stories high, extends up through the building to its roof, but a stairway at the entrance to the first-floor recreated galleries leads up to a second level, with 10 more recreated galleries, plus another classroom & a special little gallery where the central attraction is “The Joy of Life.” On the lowest level of the building, reached from the entry alcove from the street, are an auditorium, seminar rooms, a coffee bar, an art library and a coat room. According to the literature distributed at the media preview, the foundation is very much committed to carrying on the educational ambitions of Dr. Barnes, continuing his original program and supplementing it with additional courses for adults and special programs for children.

When the bus arrived, the Light Court was already set up for the “remarks” (i.e. speeches) to be delivered at the preview, with many chairs and a podium. Thus it was a little hard for me to visualize how the court looks when not used for this purpose. It is so big, so airy & the wall coverings so bland that it really needs furniture, plants and/or both (I am assuming that it normally gets all this). Before the remarks began, a buffet set up next to the doors to the terrace was serving very tasty breakfast goodies (there were also some tables present, with more chairs so that people could sit & eat). After the remarks, the buffets switched to equally tasty luncheon goodies, which they kept dispensing for what seemed like hours & hours (a lot of people, including yours truly, ate at tables set out on the terrace, for it was a beautiful day).

The remarks themselves were apt, but not especially memorable. It is awfully hard to be memorable in this genre, but one thing that emerged was the fact that, with the aid of those three bigger foundations (Pew, Lenfest & Annenberg), plus an exponential growth in membership (and I forget what other sources), the Barnes had wound up with raising $200 million. The building and (I believe) the expenses of moving had cost $150 million, leaving the foundation with an endowment of $50 million (which, one trusts, will be invested more wisely than Barnes dictated – his original strictures, about investing only in government securities and railroad stocks have long since been petitioned out of existence).


All through the afternoon, tours were being given by various members of the staff – some devoted to the architecture of the building, and some devoted to the art. I normally bypass this sort of thing, being much more interested in examining the art itself, but at the last minute, I changed my mind, and stepped up for a tour on the art – which, as luck would have it, was being conducted by Derek Gillman, the director. Boy, was I glad I did. Almost all the information that he gave us was valuable, but especially his discussion of the improvements in the lighting of the recreated galleries. Seems that in the old building, a disproportionate amount of it came from incandescent light bulbs, which have a lot of yellow in their light & little or no blue. This means that the blues in the paintings didn't show up so well, but in the new building, much more use is made of natural light—which is possible because the high-tech glass in the windows carefully filters out something like 80 percent of it, preserving the paintings from damage. The remaining 20 percent has a lot of blue in it, meaning that the blues in the paintings really show up much more, and, as Gillman pointed out, this is particularly important for Cezanne, who painted with a lot of blue.

After he’d finished his talk, and asked for questions, somebody asked him which were his favorite paintings in the collection, or words to that effect. “The Cezannes,” he replied. A man after my own heart, but above and beyond that, I was moved by the passion and enthusiasm with which he spoke. He really loves that museum & its collection, and no wonder. It just looks so beautiful in its radiantly modern new home -- and when you don’t have to schlep halfway across creation to see it.

Even the “Old Masters,” now less pretentiously labeled, look kind of sweet, & you can see why Barnes included them in his melange – to demonstrate what they and “modern” painting had in common – though, to be sure, to a formalist like myself, this demonstration is less necessary, as I’ve never had any problem with seeing modernism as the direct descendant of a great tradition. I can even see this line of descent in paintings much more modern than Barnes might have sanctioned. His foundation really doesn’t have any abstraction to speak of. Though I did notice one small Picasso in the style of Analytic Cubism, most of the Picassos on view seemed to be from the artist's more representational periods, especially the Rose and Blue Periods, and (though I may have overlooked them) I saw no Mondrian or Kandinsky anywhere (Soutine and Modigliani were more Dr. Barnes's style).

But hey, there’s so much high-quality work worth looking at, and so imaginatively arranged, that one enjoys what one gets, and doesn’t object because its creator’s taste doesn’t exactly match one’s own. Roberta Smith liked it all very much, and the Times put her enthusiastic review on Page One, with a huge continuation inside & lots of pretty pictures. Peter Schjeldahl, in the New Yorker, liked it a lot, too. It’s rarely that I agree with either of those two, but on this occasion I do. And, among architecture critics, Paul Goldberger (in Vanity Fair) and the one and only Ada Louise Huxtable (in the Wall Street Journal) gave the new building their seal of approval.

Admittedly, there was some grousing in the blogosphere, and out on the West Coast, but then you can’t please everybody, can you? I liked an observation made by Edward J. Sozanski, contributing art critic to “philly.com,” which seems to be the website of the Philadelphia Inquirer. In a piece posted on May 27, he argued that the reason it’s so hard to focus on any one gallery or any one artist, even if it’s Cezanne or Renoir, is that “one artist dominates above them and all others. That artist is Albert C. Barnes. The collection says more about him than about the painters and sculptors he collected.” My own tunnel vision is pretty good insulation against that aspect of Dr. Barnes, but in writing about the foundation at such length, I’ve concluded that his brilliant but maddening personality must ultimately be held responsible for both the glories and the controversies surrounding his creation.

I took a look at his book, The Art of Painting, when I was in grad school --- preparing for orals, maybe? Hilton Kramer had said he was one of the first formalists, and I was still trying to figure out what a formalist was. If Barnes was any indication, a formalist was a crackpot. I couldn’t make head or tail of what he wrote, but I could barely tear myself away from what had been recreated in his name at the new Barnes Foundation building. The media preview lasted until 4:30 pm, and I was practically the last to leave the building. Almost all of that extra time had been spent with the permanent collection, where there was just so much to see that I didn’t even get around to the special exhibition, though I understand it contains much more info about Dr. Barnes & his unique way of dealing with the rest of the world. The bus back to New York had long since gone by the time I left, but I was able to stay with my Philadelphia friends.


The newest problem seems to be that – ever since the official opening, on May 18 – many visitors have been having the same enthusiastic reaction that I did, with the result that the place is overcrowded. The feasibility study conducted in 2004, when the foundation was originally petitioning the court for permission to move, estimated that the foundation would be able to quadruple its attendance, from 1200 visitors a week to about 4800, by staying open for longer hours & six days a week. However, at present, it is packing in 6000 people a week, and that may be too many. At the preview, it was carefully explained to us that in order to preserve both the art itself & the experience that visitors had enjoyed in Merion, the foundation was not only going to give visitors advance reservations, but also timed entrances, in order to make sure that the recreated galleries weren’t too crowded. After all, those galleries are pretty small, not built to accommodate crowds – but what seems to be happening is that, because earlier arrivals are so disposed to linger, later arrivals are having to wait – and wait. I even hear tales of some people having to wait for hours, and complaining about it.

Then there is the map provided for persons wanting to drive to the foundation. It doesn’t indicate which way the surrounding one-way streets run, making it impossible to know how to get there. Some Philadelphians – especially those who tried to become members during this past year, and also had to wait & wait for their applications to be acknowledged — are saying that this is the way that the Barnes is & has always been—that it just doesn’t care about the public. I don’t believe this myself, but it does make me suspect that its undignified days of being a melodramatic bone of contention may not yet be over.

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