Philadelphia was blazing hot a few weeks ago as I stood at the entrance of the Museum of Art, looking down the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. The museum’s south entrance rises above the Parkway atop a hill of 72 steps. From here, the city stretches itself in a horizontal plane, its gray stone buildings increasingly overshadowed by corporate glass towers. As I descended the steps, three men ran up, racing each other in long awkward strides. Since the ’70s, these steps have become known for the famous scene from the 1976 film Rocky; here, Sylvester Stallone’s working-class guy from South Philadelphia with a long-shot dream of wining a heavyweight boxing title ends his winter morning run by racing up the steps. The camera itself ascends the steps, giving us the feeling that we too are with Rocky, his arms raised and body bouncing. Once at the top, he looks out over the city as the camera glides behind him, the small boxer against the daunting panorama. The entire scene is played out to Bill Conti’s iconic song “Flying High Now,” which has become an anthem for the underdog.
As I reached the base of the steps, venders whistled for attention as they displayed Rocky T-shirts, and a small crowds of tourists gathered around a bronze statue of Rocky stuck on a pedestal, arms raised in perpetual hope and victory.
Albert Barnes was also a child of working-class Philadelphia. “He grew up poor, tough, and smart,” an exhibit in the new Barnes Foundation describes him. Unlike its neighbors on the Parkway — which include the imposing Greek revival Free Library built in 1927, or the Rodin Museum with its ornate but delicate French neo-classical style — this new museum, designed by architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, is a spare, quiet structure of simple limestone, almost wishing to fade behind the trees and shrubbery around it. The building conveys what the architects describe as a “gallery within a garden and garden within a gallery.” It also evokes a kind of secluded fortress.
Henri Matisse famously said, “The Barnes Foundation is the only sane place to see art in America.” Matisse was referring to the original Italianate building designed by Paul Philippe Cret in 1925, and set in a forest in Merion, Pennsylvania just a few miles from where the entire collection now resides in the city center. In that older building, Barnes curated his collection of Post-Impressionist paintings including 181 Renoirs, 46 Picassos, 59 Matisses, and 69 Cezannes, as well as a trove of African sculptures, decorative ornaments, and American folk art pieces, all arranged as ensembles, filling the walls of the intimate galleries in bewildering and fascinating ways, mixing time periods and methods, styles and genres, all for the sole purpose of educating a way of looking at art across time and space.
Barnes’ approach to collecting differed from that of the cultural elites of his day, whom he despised for the ways they connected cultural capital with economic capital (Moses Annenberg, and later his son Walter, who owned the Philadelphia Inquirer and all the influence that came with it, were on the top of his list.) Instead, he set up his collection as an educational foundation that grew out of early seminars he organized for his factory employees to discuss the writing of William James, George Santayana, and most particularly John Dewey’s ideas of “learning by doing.” Barnes and Dewey were friends, and the philosopher’s ideas on art and learning were influential to Barnes’ educational efforts. These seminars included viewings and discussions about works in his collection — art discussions mixed in with factory work.
From these worker seminars, Barnes developed his foundation, expanding the seminars, authoring books, mentoring artists and students, and reaching out to plumbers and workers more than lawyers and executives. He had little intent to open his museum to the tourist buses, or, more frustratingly, to the curators and critics of Philadelphia, and set legal restraints to protect the display and use of the collection from such grand parades of visibility.
Barnes’ vision for his foundation ended suddenly when he drove his convertible Packard through a stop sign and into a speeding truck at the intersection near Paoli, Pennsylvania on a warm July day in 1957. His car was hurled 40 feet into the air, throwing him onto the highway and to his death. The newspapers stories the next day wondered what would become of his art collection, which the doctor made very clear was never to leave Merion.
But unlike museums, dead men have few powerful friends.
Arriving amid the mostly muddy western grounds (the trees and greenery were still being arranged), I entered the new Barnes by the small glass ticket office. Attractive uniformed guards and well suited parking valets stood around, giving the entrance the air of a luxury hotel mixed with a foreign embassy. Past the ticket booth, I walked along a long reflecting pool that rings the building’s front entrance, evoking more castle mote than bucolic calm, the pale limestone façade looking more mausoleum than museum.
Barnes attended medical school at the University of Pennsylvania and by the early 20th century amassed a fortune by developing and manufacturing argynol, a drug that cures gonorrheal infections in the eyes of newborns. Such infections were transmitted from mother to child during birth, and would ultimately cause blindness in the child. In the museum’s temporary exhibition about Barnes’ life, an original bottle of argynol sits on a red velvet pillow in a glass display case looking like an ancient crown jewel.
It takes little imagination to appreciate that Barnes’ extensive collection of art was built on a drug that prevented blindness. Spin your own metaphor here, but there is something tragically poetic in turning the science of sight into the art of looking.
Before World War I, Barnes used the revenues from argynol, and advice from his friend and colleague William Glackens, to travel to Paris, where he purchased major works by Seurat, Picasso, Renoir, and Cezanne, among others. In the fall of 1912, Barnes met Leo Stein at the famous apartment Rue des Fleurus in Paris, where Stein lived with his sister Gertrude. It must have been amidst those crowded and chaotic walls filled with paintings and drawings arranged from floor to ceiling that Barnes began to develop his own notions of what art can show us, focusing on form, line, shape, and color and rejecting the more accepted approach of curators and historians that emphasized historical periods or national boundaries.
The galleries Barnes created emphasize the cross-cultural and timeless nature of aesthetics, how African sculptures sit next to Western paintings, folk art next to Modernist portraits in ways that compliment and diverge but ultimately ask us to make sense of these connections. It is intriguing how so few commentators have even mentioned the importance of African art in this collection, or how Barnes was unique in his era at seeing the aesthetic and artistic value of such works. For Barnes, what this collection was meant to inspire — learned through his mentor Dewey — is that aesthetic experiences are made of everyday encounters on the street, at work, or at home. He wanted his seminars and collection to better attune people to these moments around them, to see their lives and experience with more acute attention to aesthetics. In effect, to help us all see like artists.
I stood in the sparse, light-filled atrium court that centers the whole building named for Walter and Leonore Annenberg, waiting in line to get into the collection galleries. In its first week, the collection was open to Foundation members with scheduled entrance times and guided tours in small groups. My own ticket was acquired by chance though a friend of a friend, but the online ticketing system had distributed too many tickets so the crowds were much larger than expected, leaving the guards prone to curt gesture and shouts asking us to move along, don’t linger, keep up with the group.
Inside the main gallery, I was struck by the dramatic shift in architecture that turns from flat minimalism to the more ornate reproduced Cret galleries with their muddy ochre walls and dark wood floors. The walls are filled with a collage of paintings and objects, like a distinctive time capsule of Barnes’ vision. “Its just like the Merion galleries,” a patron whispered as she looked up to the side of the domed ceiling and at the three-panel mural called “The Dance” that Matisse made specifically for this gallery — or rather, for the original gallery.
This disconnect between the large and airy exhibition spaces and central courtyard of Williams and Tsien’s contemporary designs, and the reproductions of Cret’s Italianate designs, give the building a chimera-like quality, a two-headed beast that has an oddly unsettling effect in the way the styles contrast so starkly. To someone unfamiliar with the Merion building, these galleries might look like a history museum, something not uncommon in this city of Colonial-era homes and reproductions. For others, who had made the trek to the suburbs in the past, these galleries may evoke a kind of alternative reality, making them believe they have magically traveled from Philadelphia to Merion, and little has changed: “Look, it is just as it was, only not quite.”
The tour guide, a thoughtful and relaxed young man, related a brief history of Barnes’ life. He made a few references to the “democratic principles” that underlie Barnes’ philosophy about education and aesthetics, an idea that is repeated in the exhibition across the atrium and in the promotional materials. He pointed to Cezanne’s “The Card Players” and told how singularly exceptional the work is among the artist’s many paintings of card players. Above it is Seurat’s “Poseuses,” its delicate colors distinctive and contrasting to the heavy hues of the Cezanne. Above the Seurat is mounted a decorative hinge; its particular shape echoes in the stance of Seurat’s model, to the composition of the Cezanne card players.
The wall displays other, smaller paintings, and other hinges and decorative objects, testifying to Barnes’ desire to turn the experience of art into its own aesthetic challenge. Yes, that is a Cezanne, but consider his painting within a context of shapes and colors and lines. Look at Cezanne beyond Cezanne, these galleries keep asking us to do.
Yet, despite these ensembles, the guide kept pointing toward the well-known, the iconic, the valuable. We move through the galleries at this pace, but some of us linger behind trying to absorb the complexities of the ensembles. Eventually a guard asks us to keep up with the guide, and we amble through two galleries in a matter of minutes, glancing more than looking.
If this is the new Barnes, there is still work to be done.
Some have suggested that the galleries are burdened by outdated curatorial ideas, that the ensembles need to be rethought as a way to better appreciate the key works that get lost in the arrangements. Roberta Smith in the New York Times writes at the end of her celebratory review, “the Barnes curators need to come up with creative ways — say for two or three months, every other year — to extract certain works from the gallery collection, walk them across the garden court and put them on view in the temporary-exhibition galleries for less encumbered viewing. Set out all the African works, for example. Give us a Cézanne or a Matisse retrospective.” One might imagine such retrospectives of one of the collection’s icons generating ticket sales; pulling in corporate sponsors; and leading to special, private events for big donors.
Such suggestions are heresy to Barnes purists, and underscore the decades of debates about moving the collection at all. While the Foundation trustees have argued the need to make the collection more accessible, such populist appeals mask less artful financial concerns. As Don Argott’s 2010 documentary on the move, The Art of the Steal, makes clear, the road from Merion to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway was filled with legal maneuvers, financial interests, and ethically-dubious political deals by the city’s philanthropic elite. It had all the elements of a corporate takeover.
Today, the excitement and hostility that surrounds such suggestions of recomposing the collection, even for special showings, illuminates how our simple acts of looking are ultimately historical experiences shaped by our ideas about the value and meaning of art. The Barnes galleries take us back to a way of seeing that is set within early 20th-century modernism. And while some may wish for a more contemporary approach to this treasure trove of great artists, the challenge for the Barnes Foundation is not to shrink this collection into consumable icons — into its Rocky statues, if you will — for the collection is more than its famous painters and their canvases. The value of these galleries rests in how they historicize an experience of looking that was at the center of Barnes’ ideas for his Foundation, ideas that were meant to challenge us and democratize our approach to art as part of our everyday lives beyond the museum walls. To loose these idea and this history of looking would be the real destruction of this collection. • 19 June 2012