an blog | AJBlog Central | Contact me

MeTube: Scenes (and thoughts) from the Barnes Foundation’s Preview

Top of the Barnes (behind Philadelphia’s Free Library): Green roof on the right. Gallery mock-ups on the left, where monitors measure the sunlight and help regulate the lighting in the galleries below. In the middle, a cantilevered light box (now renamed a “canopy”) that admits filtered and diffused illumination into the sprawling event space below. Entrance to the facility is on the far right, at the opposite side of the building from the gallery wing.

All photos by Lee Rosenbaum

Today was dedication day at the new Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. (Today was also proclaimed by the Association of Art Museum Directors to be Art Museum Day). The reviews of the new home for the Barnes are now mostly in, and they’re mixed. (I previously linked to the jump-the-gun reviews here.) I sense an irreverent CultureGrrl photo essay in our future. But for now I’ll confine myself to a brief rundown of the reviews, some commentary of my own, and a CultureGrrl Video that lets you hear the party line, as delivered at Wednesday’s press preview.

In her Page One review for today’s NY Times, Roberta Smith fell in love again with the fabulous art and reluctantly reconciled herself to the quirky installation, which she’d like to see occasionally tweaked. So would I. I always feel particularly sorry for van Gogh‘s virtuous Joseph Roulin, condemned to being eternally ogled by Renoir‘s floozy:


The Times art critic seemed not very interested in assessing the design of the art’s new home and surrounding site. Where’s the paper’s architecture critic, Michael Kimmelman, when we really need him? (In Medellin, Colombia, as it happens.) I commented on aspects of the exterior architecture in the CultureGrrl Video at the end of this post.

James Russell, architecture critic for Bloomberg, filed a mixed review, praising the “imposing architecture” as “beautifully crafted,
dignified, deferential” but noting that “the new structure can’t help
what was once a unique experience.”

But even “diehards” and “purists” (like me) should be able to eventually suspend disbelief about the artificial stage set that the architects have meticulously constructed. As you have already doubtless heard, it is now imbued with improved lighting (including filtered skylights throughout), thanks to lighting consultant Fisher Marantz Stone.

That said, the illumination was far from ideal on the partly cloudy day when I visited. I was disappointed that the colors of Matisse‘s “Joy of Life” did not “pop” as I had been led to expect. To my eye, the natural light in many of the galleries needed a stronger boost from the artificial illumination that supplements the skylights.

Here’s the Matisse as I saw it, looking nothing like the vibrant painting that is today illustrated on the jump page of Roberta’s Times article:

Matisse, “The Joy of Life,” 1905-06

When I asked chief curator Judith Dolkart about this unexpected dullness, she pointed out that the Matisse shares its small room with tapestries that require reduced illumination. Here’s the filtered-glass skylight above this pastoral Matisse, which was relocated not only from Merion, but also from its awkward stairwell installation at the old Barnes:


There’s no getting around the fact that what was once a bastion of authenticity (where even making copies of artworks was expressly forbidden) is now, in essence, a fake—a mere copy of itself, disingenuously purporting to honor the legacy of its don’t-move-anything founder. In a CultureGrrl BlogBack, the doyenne of architecture criticism, Ada Louise Huxtable, fumed that reproducing the Barnes would be “an exercise in patronizing and self-delusory sophistry that is
supposed to lull us into thinking that we are keeping a place, or an
ambience, already irretrievably lost. It never works.”

This view is echoed by the LA Times‘ architecture critic, Christopher Hawthorne, who decries “the galleries’ lack of authenticity.” Similarly, his art-critic colleague at the paper, Christopher Knight, called the new Barnes, “one part Colonial Williamsburg,
where authentic and ersatz mingle; one part Lehman Wing, where an
excellent New York collector’s expensive period taste is enshrined in a Metropolitan Museum of Art
replica of his apartment; and one part Disneyland’s Main Street U.S.A.,
where a spiffed-up version of what time has torn asunder offers
commercial entertainment.”

I think the willingness to be unsparingly frank may be in inverse
proportion to the proximity of the critic’s home to Philly!

If you struggle to cast aside your sense of loss, you can still become lost in admiration for the timeless masterpieces of Impressionist, post-Impressionist and modern art that, wherever they move, will always move visitors. I will grudgingly confess that I’ll probably find myself at the Barnes more frequently, now that it has moved to the big city. More visitors—four times more, if the projected 250,000 materialize over the next year—is what Barnes officials are urgently hoping for, to help make the place financially sustainable (an outcome that seems to me still in doubt).

But lets leave financial considerations for another day. For now, let me take you back to Wednesday’s press preview, where you will get the party-line about the Brave New Barnes from its president and executive director, Derek Gillman, its architects and landscape designer, Billie Tsien, Tod Williams and Laurie Olin, and its chief curator, Judith Dolkart.

Gillman describes the ways in which the new Philly facility differs from Paul Cret-designed mansion in Merion that opened in 1925. The architects talk about how gratified they are in seeing their vision realized. Laurie Olin ruefully looks forward to the end of the opening festivities, so he can finally finish his work. (Although he didn’t mention it during his formal remarks, I learned that several horse chestnut trees he had planted in the southeast corner of the property were yanked out to make way for the party tents and will be returned to their proper places once the revelries conclude.)

At the end, you’ll get to admire art with Dolkart. Lots of people on Wednesday purported to read Dr. Barnes’ mind. But Dolkart (co-author of the Barnes’ new “Masterworks” handbook) really did seem to channel the founder’s thoughts, engagingly making sense of his quirky installations, to which she has obviously devoted much thought in the two years since she came to the Barnes from Brooklyn.

Finally, my warm thanks go out to YouTube, for offering me, quite by chance, a Barnes-ian correspondence between Judith’s gesture, below, and the right arm of the Renoir nude directly behind her:

an ArtsJournal blog