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The Barnes Foundation's Disastrous New Home

THE BARNES FOUNDATION, that grand old curmudgeonly lion of a museum, has been turned into what may be the world’s most elegant petting zoo. I am not surprised that the members of the press, after touring the Foundation’s new home on Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia, have by and large been pleased. We live in a period when everything is supposed to be easy, whether preparing dinner, accessing the news, or looking at art. And the old Barnes, for three quarters of a century a splendidly ornery landmark in Merion, a suburb of Philadelphia, was not easy. It was a bit hard even to get there. And once you arrived you were confronted with a fearsome onslaught of masterworks and, at least in recent years, pretty much left on your own. The sensory overload at the Barnes could be daunting, with seminal paintings by Cézanne, Renoir, Seurat, Matisse, and Picasso competing for a visitor’s attention with a great many other extraordinary things. Albert C. Barnes, the self-made millionaire who assembled the collection and dedicated his later years to teaching Americans how to look at art, probably wanted people who studied at the Foundation to be both humbled and exhilarated. In his treatise The Art in Painting, which he published in 1925, he declared that “to see as the artist sees is an accomplishment to which there is no short cut, which cannot be acquired by any magic formula or trick.”

The new Barnes, designed by the architectural team of Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, is all about giving museumgoers an ingratiating experience. The over-the-top power of the Barnes has been theorized and contextualized—the wild beauty of Barnes’s conception may still be there in galleries that meticulously replicate the original rooms, but the raw power of Merion has been muffled and anesthetized by a culture-by-committee mentality worlds away from Albert Barnes’s unyielding intellect. The new building, in a tastefully glamorized late-modern minimalist style familiar from the shelter magazines, suggests a posh spa, with the building’s comfortable seating, casual coffee bar, reflecting pool, and courtyard gardens. Much of the building is sensitively done, with a variety of soothing wood surfaces and stone treated in several striking ways. Maybe it’s too sensitively done. The new Barnes tiptoes around the unruly power of the old Barnes, approaching the wild beast with an excess of solicitude. By the time museumgoers actually arrive in the galleries, they feel so coddled and cared for that the vehement visions of Cézanne, Seurat, Renoir, Matisse, Picasso, and a host of others are most likely not going to register, at least not in the way that Barnes hoped they would. The sink-or-swim intensity is gone. The new Barnes is nice to museumgoers. “Nice” was not a word that came to mind after a visit to Merion.

So why exactly has the Barnes Foundation moved the collection from Merion to central Philadelphia? This is a tangled tale, and how one tells the story depends on how one feels about the outcome. When Williams and Tsien appeared on Charlie Rose just after the new building opened, Tsien gently urged everybody to let bygones be bygones, remarking that “the backstory is really the backstory.” That’s easy for her to say, given that she and Williams, by their own admission, had never even visited the Barnes before they were invited to enter the competition for the new building. I agree with Tsien that there is no point in wallowing in what amounts to a tale of political, financial, and legal skullduggery right out of a John Grisham novel. But this is also a great cautionary tale about the stewardship of our cultural treasures, so it cannot be ignored.

The story involves long-running legal disputes between those who did want the museum to move and those who did not. There is a star turn by the altogether dishonorable Richard Glanton, a corporate lawyer who took the reins of the Barnes on behalf of Lincoln University, a historically African American school in whose trust Barnes left the Foundation. And there are appearances by such Pennsylvania movers and shakers as the newspaper mogul Walter Annenberg and the former governor Ed Rendell. A proposal to sell works was abandoned in the face of stiff opposition. A petition to send the works on tour, in direct violation of the Foundation’s indenture of trust, was approved by the Montgomery County Orphans’ Court on a one-time basis. And eventually the court, once again overruling the trust, permitted the move to Philadelphia proper, only a few miles away.

For supporters of the move, the bottom line is sometimes said to be that the Foundation could not have been put on a secure financial basis had it remained in Merion. But this is a line of argument that close observers of the situation have long called into question. And as it happens, recently, Kimberly Camp, president and CEO of the Foundation from 1998 to 2005, has written that “bankruptcy was not the reason we filed the petition to move the Foundation to the city.” A case can be made that the money spent on the new Barnes—some $150 million—could have been better expended on bolstering the endowment of the old Barnes. Whatever the underlying motivation for the move, it was certainly not entirely financial, or even primarily financial. The truth may be that for the cultural arbiters and impresarios who have become involved in the process over the past decade, prominent among them the people at the Pew Charitable Trusts, there was always something counterintuitive about allowing what may well be the world’s greatest collection of Postimpressionist paintings to be anything less than a major tourist attraction in the heart of Philadelphia.

To criticize the new Barnes may seem unfair to those who have worked long and hard and honorably on the project and have preserved much of the internal character of the original building, which opened in 1925, designed by the distinguished Philadelphia architect Paul Cret. A great deal of care has been lavished on every aspect of the move. The new Barnes includes an interesting show of documentary material, “Ensemble: Albert C. Barnes and the Experiment in Education,” which does a good job of explaining how Barnes acquired his collection and why he exhibited it the way he did. A new publication, Renoir in the Barnes Foundation, is part of a series of major scholarly catalogues exploring the holdings. And Ellsworth Kelly, whose work reflects his long immersion in the art of Matisse, was a fine choice to design the sculpture that visitors see as they enter the grounds, although the totemic presence he has come up with is not among Kelly’s strongest works. Most visitors seem happy with what they are discovering on Benjamin Franklin Parkway, and those visitors include artists I know who have been going to the Barnes for decades and are attuned to the collection’s every subtlety.

THE FACT THAT we are confronted with a fait accompli should not silence discussion, because what the Barnes was and has now become is part of the story of modern art in America. Albert Barnes meant his Foundation to play an essential role in an evolving relationship between avant-garde art and the democratic audience for the arts. We need to know what the new Barnes says about that relationship. Nobody else has ever collected the artists they admire in such extraordinary depth as Barnes. This is what makes his collection unique, unlike any other gathering of late nineteenth and early twentieth century painting in the world. Barnes brought together 69 Cézannes, 181 Renoirs, and 59 Matisses, so that visitors find themselves immersed in particular artistic personalities, an experience far closer to what one would have had in the artist’s studio than in a more conventional museum setting, even the Museum of Modern Art, where there are rooms dedicated to Matisse and Picasso. It is this feeling of being enveloped by an artist’s vision, both the casual and the climactic works (and Barnes certainly acquired climactic works by Cézanne, Seurat, and Matisse), that accounts for the almost hallucinatory effect the collection can have on visitors who linger.

The immersion in the language of art that Barnes celebrated is incomparably enriched by the unconventionality of the presentation. Barnes rejected any chronological or monographic organization in favor of a tightly packed hanging, with works by widely varying artists from widely varying periods grouped to underscore formal and stylistic affinities, all the while accompanied by decorative arts that echo those affinities, including many examples of Pennsylvania German ironwork. By rejecting the traditional measures of artistic development and systems of organization by genre or subject—by juxtaposing paintings by artists who worked in different centuries or at roughly the same time but in radically different styles—Barnes pushed visitors to grasp what he regarded as deeper formal and expressive affinities. The way a rectangle is organized, the way colors are juxtaposed, the way brushwork is activated: these could yield, for Barnes, mystical insights into the unity of all experience. The Barnes Foundation is a visual symphony that breaks down our normal perceptions and leads to experiences that Barnes described in terms of seeing “beneath appearances to the reality underlying them.”

Barnes conceived of the Foundation as a teaching institution, and among those who have fought hardest against the move to Philadelphia is an organization called the Friends of the Barnes Foundation, which even now is pursuing in court a quixotic battle to bring the collection back to Merion. Many people regard the Friends of the Barnes as crackpots who cannot face reality, but nobody should forget that had they not fought so long and so hard it is questionable whether, when the move was finally permitted by the court, it would have been with the stipulation that the original arrangement of the works be retained, and in galleries that are close replicas of the rooms in Merion. Whatever those who pushed for the move once had in mind, there is no question that the almost universal acclaim that has greeted the new Barnes is grounded in a sense that every opinion has been weighed in the balance, and that the replica of the Barnes on Benjamin Franklin Parkway is a perfect solution, a way of giving everybody at least some of what they want.

This obsession with the healing power of the exact replica is very strange. I have the impression that so far as the architectural community is concerned, Williams and Tsien can do no wrong. Even Ada Louise Huxtable, writing in The Wall Street Journal, has expressed her enthusiasm, after reiterating her “distaste for the Disneyfication of reality or the more genteel ‘authentic reproduction,’ an oxymoron that devalues the creative act by glossing the knockoff with a false veneer of respectability.” But that is exactly what has happened on Benjamin Franklin Parkway! The central gallery in Merion was a space that was sacred in the history of modern art in America, a room where the most radical discoveries of the Old World, the revelations of Cézanne, Seurat, Matisse, and Picasso, began to take their place in the New World. That sacred space is no more. It is disappointing how few people seem to realize that a replica of a room, especially when situated in a building many times larger than the building for which it was originally intended, has an effect on a visitor that is utterly if subtly different. No replica of a space, no matter how exact it may be, is anything but a poor substitute—a simulacrum.

It is in this simulacrum—this is among the most shocking things about the new Barnes—that we now see Matisse’s mural The Dance. It is an essential work by one of the key figures in the modern movement, and it was designed by Matisse for a particular spot in Merion after he visited the Barnes Foundation in 1930. In 1933, Matisse crossed the Atlantic again, bringing with him the forty-five-foot-wide mural so that he could oversee its installation and see the fruits of what amounted to two years of concentrated work. He reported that he was “profoundly tired but very pleased” and that the mural had “a splendor that one can’t imagine unless one sees it—because both the whole ceiling and its arched vaults come alive through radiation and the main effect continues right down to the floor.” The Dance is not only one of Matisse’s largest commissioned works, it is also a turning point in his career, an early immersion in the use of cut paper forms that prefigures the giddy decorative freedom of the late 1940s, where many now see Matisse moving in directions that American artists would take decades to fully absorb.

To have ripped out of its original context one of Matisse’s most important works—a work especially designed for that wall in that building on that street—is fairly astonishing. Why has there not been more of a hue and cry about this? To experience The Dance in Merion was to experience it in the precise spot on Earth for which Matisse intended it. In Merion, there was at least the promise of the shock of recognition. On Benjamin Franklin Parkway, I found myself fighting off thoughts about the schlock of replication.

MANY SAY THE PAST is past and change is inevitable. And so it is. The day after visiting the Barnes, I found myself talking with a friend, a distinguished New York art dealer who as a very young man studied at the Barnes with Dr. Barnes himself. He remembered a day when Barnes was speaking about a particular Renoir that was in another room, and asked my friend to go take it off the wall and bring it in so they could look at it. My friend—who still recalls how his hands shook as he took that Renoir off the wall, and that Barnes was annoyed at his nervousness—suggested that no experience anybody could now have at the Barnes, whether in Merion or in Philadelphia, would recapture what it had felt like when Barnes himself was there to talk about the paintings. By that logic, some will say the move from Merion to Benjamin Franklin Parkway was only the next logical step. But does the fact that the experience of the Barnes in the 1940s can never be recaptured mean that there should not have been an effort to preserve the already perhaps somewhat diluted experience of the Barnes in the 1980s, rather than the even more diluted experience that is available today?

Modern art is getting old. Next year marks the centennial of the Armory Show, which brought to New York, Chicago, and Boston the news of Postimpressionism, Fauvism, and Cubism. We must be careful to preserve not only the works of art produced by the modern movement, but also whatever we can of the world where they first emerged and first came to be understood. We have only photographs to recall the Armory Show and the galleries run by Alfred Stieglitz, who even before the Armory Show was making the case for Picasso and Matisse in New York. The Whitney Museum, which has its origins in the years after World War I, long ago left its original building on Eighth Street, which is now home to the New York Studio School. The Société Anonyme, run by Katherine Dreier and Marcel Duchamp in the 1920s, never had a permanent address, although its collection is usefully gathered at Yale, where one can still glimpse a moment in the history of taste.

Many of the key works from the Gallery of Living Art, operated under the auspices of the collector Albert Gallatin at New York University in the 1930s—they included Léger’s epochal The City—are now part of the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. There are still corners of the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford—the first American museum to mount a Picasso retrospective and the first to buy a Mondrian—where one can feel echoes of the museum’s heyday. The Phillips Collection in Washington, known for its intimate hangings and comfortable seating, has retained, even through repeated renovations, a strong sense of its old warmth and charm. The Guggenheim Museum—though it long ago abandoned its midtown location and its original name, the Museum of Non-Objective Painting—still retains in the coiled grandeur of the Frank Lloyd Wright rotunda some vestige of its original idealism. As for the Museum of Modern Art, nothing of the old elegance of the galleries remains after the most recent building campaign, although there are glimpses of what once was, in the administrative entrance and original façade on West 53rd Street and in certain corners of the garden.

It was the Barnes Foundation in Merion that provided—until recently—our strongest connection with the heroic years when a small group of fanatics were proselytizing on behalf of modern art in America. Am I making too much of bricks and mortar? The Barnes Foundation has not sold off the Merion property. The spacious grounds are still home to an arboretum where Barnes’s interest in the natural world endures. Some will say that Barnes, who died in 1951 in an automobile accident, has only gotten what he deserved, after the years when he turned away from the Foundation so many artists and art historians, in favor of the people he regarded as ordinary Americans and meant to educate. Barnes had for much of his life been at war with Philadelphia’s cultural establishment, and there is no question that from the very start the Foundation had its idiosyncratic and maybe even crackpot side. Perhaps there was no other way for him to be, this independent-minded millionaire intellectual, a devoted follower of the teachings of John Dewey who had started out as a doctor and made a fortune with Argyrol, an antiseptic that prevented gonorrheal blindness. At a time in the 1920s when prices for modern masterworks were already rising—the Steins, from whom Barnes bought many things, were by then priced out of the market—he spent astonishing sums to acquire what he and his advisers regarded as the very best modern art. And he wrote about the art he loved with great eloquence in The Art in Painting and other books, many of them co-authored by Violette de Mazia, who continued the work of the school after his death.

These writings are a unique contribution to our thinking about modern art. To read Barnes’s writings you must wade through sections that are dry and pedantic, but in the end you discover a formalist philosophy in some respects richer than what was at the time being presented in London by Clive Bell and Roger Fry, whose work certainly had a strong influence on Barnes. In a great passage in The Art in Painting, Barnes argues that formal values are grounded in the fundamentally various nature of our experience. He writes that “no object or situation has one form and only one form,” and that we must understand a work of art as containing different forms that express different sides of the artist’s personality, just as we can understand a particular man as “French, a Jew, an engineer,” or as we can understand New York as “a city, a financial center, a harbor.” He says that “forms may have infinite variety,” and that it is the “failure to recognize this protean character of form [that] is responsible for the vast amount of absurd writing on art which would limit plastic form to that particular expression which the critic happens to prefer.” Unity, Barnes says, “is satisfactory only when it embraces a diversity,” and he goes on to argue that this is “true of life and of all the arts.” “Coherence, in brief, means not mere sameness but sameness in difference; not the unity of grains of sand but of parts of an organism which complement each other but are not all cast in the same mold.” I know of no articulation of formal values that more persuasively makes the case for them as an expression of democratic and pluralistic values.

Despite the immense influence of Barnes’s books and collections, the Foundation, which was chartered in 1922, was never more than one important strand in the story of modern art in America. By the end of the 1930s, it was the ten-year-old Museum of Modern Art, under the leadership of Alfred H. Barr Jr., that was shaping America’s understanding of the art of the new century. Barr wanted to bring the best of modern art to the attention of a highly sophisticated urban audience, and even in the 1930s some of what he was doing struck New York’s avant-garde artists as reflecting a new kind of conformism. Barr aimed for a certain disinterestedness. He wanted to create a museum that emphasized the movements of history, and the relations of artists as links in an evolutionary chain. He wanted to bring the kind of art historical scholarship and connoisseurship that had characterized the major late nineteenth-century European picture galleries into the twentieth century, even as he replaced the Beaux Arts vision of the museum as a temple with an International Style vision of the museum as a part of the urban maelstrom and expanded the museum’s purview to include the decorative arts, photography, and film.

Barr’s vision of the modern art museum prevailed in the United States. What was erased in the process was the value of a more intimate and personal presentation, which was the model at the Phillips Collection and the Barnes Foundation. For Duncan Phillips and Albert Barnes, the point was to create something more like a private salon than a museum; and Barnes had indeed bought some of his paintings from the crowded walls of Gertrude and Leo Stein’s famous studio in Paris. To the extent that this was an idea grounded in late Victorian and Edwardian aestheticism, in the sense of the interior as an all-embracing ambience, it can of course feel oppressive to museumgoers a century later—which explains why for years now the Barnes in Merion has seemed both a holdout and a throwback, the interiors with their surfeit of visual stimulation suggesting sublime curio cabinets, the paintings mixed with Early American furniture and pottery and ironwork, as well as cases full of African, Native American, Ancient Greek, and Egyptian artifacts.

For museumgoers accustomed to the stripped-down exhibition style that Alfred Barr pioneered in America, influenced as he was by a visit to the Bauhaus, the Barnes Foundation was an exhilarating shock. The Barnes presented a never-ending lesson in the many faces of form, and the way the variety of form finally composed a unity of form. Sometimes a place where time has stopped functions as a time machine. This was true of the Barnes in Merion. I do not think it is true of the new Barnes, at least not to the same degree. How could it be?

HAVE TOD WILLIAMS and Billie Tsien done the best that could have been done? It is a strange question to ask, given that in my view their building should never have been built in the first place. Among supporters of the move, it has become customary to praise what is said to be the greatly improved lighting. Critics have commented that the paintings look brighter, as if they had been cleaned, although what has happened is that the curtained windows in Merion, necessary to keep out dangerous amounts of sunlight, have been replaced by new kinds of glass that let in the light without damaging the paintings. I know it has become holy writ that more light is always better light, but the idea that Cézanne conceived works such as his Card Players and Bathers to be seen under the strongest possible light is merely a notion, difficult to prove. On the day I was at the Barnes, the computerized system that controls the light was not working properly, and after seeing the Card Players in the new, supposedly improved strong light in the morning, I saw the painting under greatly reduced light in the afternoon. The painting looked much better in a somewhat darkened room. This most monumental of all Cézanne’s figure compositions has a depth and a density that the stronger light washes out.

But more light is what people prefer today, and Williams and Tsien are nothing if not of the moment. They are practitioners of a mildly quirky modernism, the fundamentally rectilinear forms accessorized with just enough luxurious eccentricities. They remind us that they, too, believe that less might be a bore, with their touches of dark wood and bronze and their suggestions of Shoji screens. They have been praised for the Barnes façade, which is of Negev stone, with a somewhat irregular arrangement of rectangular slabs that give the broad expanses a more intimate scale, which is supposed to echo the intimacy of the galleries. The reflecting pool that Williams and Tsien have introduced to soften the approach to the building is lovely to look at, although it also suggests a high-class mausoleum, not the most felicitous association. Inside, where a coffee bar, library, auditorium, and gift shop are arranged around a seating area near a glimpse of an inner garden, everything is beautifully, subtly detailed.

Williams and Tsien speak a highly refined architectural language, but it is not the language of the Barnes Foundation, and no amount of good intentions can make it so. Even some of their supporters might concede that the immediate approach to the galleries is not handled very well. As a gateway to the collection, Williams and Tsien have created an immense room, called the Light Court, which is totally out of keeping with the rest of the museum. I gather that when filled with a crowd, as it is on evenings when the Foundation is open late, the place really rocks. But on the ordinary afternoon when I was there, the Light Court was a wasteland, empty save for some staff handing out headsets, a reminder to anybody who cared to notice that the new Barnes has not so easily swallowed the old. This is a space that Williams and Tsien could not finesse.

Of course the great collection is still here. And when I had been in the Barnes for an hour or so and had begun to forget about Williams and Tsien and the legal wrangling, the paintings worked their magic. Strangely enough, although the move to Philadelphia was meant to boost attendance, and the timed tickets are said to be sold out on some days, I found I was alone in many rooms while I was there, more alone than I recall being on my last visit to Merion. What Barnes said would happen still happened. I saw things anew. The power of form became the power of feeling itself, whether in Cézanne’s unforgettable portrait of a young man seated at a table with a skull or in Renoir’s incandescent studies of bathers. I felt the generosity of Barnes’s vision. It was inspiriting, for example, to see a painting by the American Maurice Prendergast in the great central gallery, right next to masterworks by Seurat and Cézanne, proof positive that Prendergast can hold his own. I was again glad to see Barnes’s loyalty to his high school friend William Glackens, who introduced him to the mysteries of art. And it was fascinating to realize that Barnes was still buying new Matisses around 1940, daringly reduced canvases of two women in a room that have still not received their due in America. Too often we forget that Barnes remained open to new developments in art, finding a place in his collection for work by Miró and the eccentric abstractionist Wols.

The irony that haunts the Barnes Foundation and the battles over its fate is that what Albert Barnes created was too great for the world to ignore and too idiosyncratic for the world to leave alone. Nobody except a few true believers, probably members of the Friends of the Barnes, can deny that there was always something odd, maybe even crazy, about having so much great art hanging on the walls of a building on a suburban street in Merion, Pennsylvania. That Barnes insisted his Foundation remain the same forever—that there be no color reproductions, no loans, no changes in the hanging, no admission for the general public—was perhaps not the most sensible thing to do. If he had been a little more flexible, perhaps his dream would not have been so completely shattered. Those who long ago pushed to extend the visiting hours in Merion were not wrong.

But there is another side to the story. Nobody who was entirely sensible would have done what Barnes did in the first place, which was to go to Paris and put down good money for what were regarded by most people as very strange paintings done by very strange people. The Barnes contains eighteen works by Henri Rousseau, the customs inspector who has remained an enigma to even the closest students of his career: he regarded himself as a great academic artist while Picasso and others regarded him as an accidental leading light of the avant-garde. There are some marvelous paintings by Van Gogh at the Barnes, and he was, by anybody’s estimate, including his own, more than a little mad. As for Cézanne, arguably the central figure at the Barnes, he was also pretty peculiar, a recluse in Aix whose work was as much a legend as a reality at the time of his death in 1906. Perhaps Barnes was himself a little mad. Perhaps it takes somebody who is a bit of a madman to so fully embrace the madness of art. What is certain is that the wonderful strangeness of the Barnes is no more. On Benjamin Franklin Parkway a well-mannered conformism that nowadays passes for sanity sadly prevails.

This article appeared in the September 23 issue of the magazine.