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Critical Reverence for the New Barnes Foundation, Plus My Irreverent Photo Essay (and video)

The celebrated Matisse “Dance” mural in the Barnes Foundation’s main gallery, obscured by modern lighting fixtures. (A better view can be had from the balcony on the upper level.)

[More on the Barnes, here, here and here.]

I’m coming to terms with the fact that mine is a minority view regarding the new Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. My downbeat mourning is out of step with the manic acclaim from major critics (except for Lance Esplund, who published a scathing, astute review on Bloomberg today, joining me and LA Times writers Christopher Knight and Christopher Hawthorne on the opposing side).

I went to the Barnes determined to appraise the place on its own terms, but my heart sank as soon as I arrived at the cold, imposing entrance which heralded the loss of domestically scaled intimacy inside. My gut reaction while perusing the new galleries was that a Barnes replica, no matter how deftly executed, is a fake. It brought to mind someone who has died and come back as a zombie, looking like his former
self but lacking soul.

Even judging it on its own terms, it’s not at all clear that the Barnes has succeeded in achieving the stated goal of its move—securing its financial future while being accessible to those of limited means. (My detailed report on those shortcomings is contained in my Huffington Post piece.)

The latest critics to jump on the Philly Barnes bandwagon are art and architecture writers whom I greatly respect—Eric Gibson and Ada Louise Huxtable. Double-teaming the Barnes in reviews that take up the entire “Leisure & Arts” page of today’s Wall Street Journal, they (like Peter Schjeldahl, writing in the New Yorker) experienced an on-site conversion from their strong antipathy to replicating the Merion galleries in Philadelphia to something approaching adulation.

Eric writes:

The fact is that after touring this new facility, you come away convinced that the Barnes Foundation is poised at the beginning of a bright new future.

Ada Louise writes:

I have never disguised my defense of originals over copies, or my 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, because a faux is a fake is a phony, by any other name…So how does it feel to have one’s core beliefs turned upside down? The “new” Barnes that contains the “old” Barnes shouldn’t work, but it does.

I feel like someone who attended a revival meeting but didn’t see the light. Am I an inflexible diehard, incapable of transcending stubborn prejudices? Or have I held onto my ability to see with my own eyes, despite a day-long indoctrination session last Wednesday? It will be interesting to see how the general view of the new Barnes (as well as my own view of it) may evolve over time. In the short term, it will be interesting to see how the new home for the Barnes works for real visitors (as I intend, at some point, to do).

For a moment, at least, let’s talk about something I liked about the Barnes. As I suggested in my HuffPost piece, I admired much of Tod Williams‘ and Billie Tsien‘s interior architecture, as well as the lively surface of the exterior (but not the stark “keep-out” walls that barricaded the site from the street).

The interior walls had much visual interest, thanks to their chiseled textures. This, I believe, is an exterior wall near the entrance door, but the same and other patterns enliven the inside as well:


I was not as happy, however, in these constricted corridors—new additions to the gallery layout on each level. Unless signals are blocked, I suspect these are going to become cell-phone zones. The distance between the two doorways pictured below represents the length of those corridors:


They interrupt the flow between galleries that were formerly contiguous, leading past appealing new classrooms on one side…


…and past a tree-planted atrium on the other side. This much vaunted “garden in the gallery” presents expanses of glass and blank walls when viewed from the two gallery levels…


…but can be entered at the lower level, where the trees are planted. That level also contains a seminar room, library, giftshop and auditorium—all alluringly designed. Only a couple of people at a time can linger on the small bench in the garden that you can glimpse just past the black chairs:


It was hard for me to get a good sense of the cavernous central event space on the main level—the Light Court—because of all the clutter of furniture and television apparatus during the press preview. But the proportions seemed awkwardly elongated for the weddings and other celebrations that they hope to atrract here:


While the project was under construction, I was told they were hoping to find a better way to entice people up to the second floor, which many visitors overlooked in Merion. I’m not sure this dark narrow ascent will do the trick (unless, perhaps, they intend to add some signage):


The climb is actually more rigorous than it was before. It leads first to a mezzanine (which did not exist in the original Merion mansion), and then to the upper level. Here’s a view up to the new mezzanine from the main level. It displays Navajo rugs, Gothic sculpture and pieces by Modigliani and Lipchitz:


Here’s a mezzanine-level view:


Although I was assured that light levels are carefully monitored and controlled, I found myself worrying about the admission of sunlight (through highly filtered glass) in the gallery for works on paper, with its important array of Cézanne watercolors. You can see the reflection of the unshaded (but strongly filtered) glass window on the glass protecting the art:


And even more so, on the wall that faces the window:


Although my photo doesn’t adequately convey this, in looking through the window’s glass, I could actually see the sun, which happened to be right behind the window at the time when I was in this gallery:


One little-noted improvement is the availability of new, well-designed booklets identifying the objects in each room (replacing the former laminated cards). Many years ago, when I wrote one of several articles I’ve done on the Barnes, the African objects weren’t listed on the information cards, because (as I was told) the Barnes hadn’t yet done the work to identify them.

Now it has:


Also new was a 4,300-square-foot gallery for special exhibitions, which appropriately opened with a show devoted to the founder (with his de Chirico portrait installed, poster-like, at the entrance):


As part of this exhibition, we got to see, ensconced on a velvet pillow, Dr. Barnes’ medical breakthrough that created the fortune that underwrote the collection and the original Barnes building. Argyrol was, fittingly, a product that protected babies’ eyes (so they could grow up to appreciate Dr. Barnes’ Renoirs, no doubt):


Ironically, while the Barnes was abjuring its 1925 Paul Cret-designed mansion, the Philadelphia Museum was lovingly restoring another purpose-built home for art, designed by the same architect just a few years later. What’s more, it just happens to be right next door to the new Barnes.

Come with me now to take a brief look at the Rodin Museum, which reopens on July 13, after what director Timothy Rub calls a “forensic” restoration to its former glory. Several important Rodin bronzes have been reinstalled outdoors, as was originally intended:

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