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The Barnes Foundation's alarming architectural plans

October 21, 2010 | 11:55 am

Matisse Joy of Life
One clear sign of the sad loss that will occur should the Barnes Foundation's fabled art collection move in 2012 from its historic home to a new building in downtown Philadelphia has now been disclosed. The new building is being designed by New York architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien. In a Thursday news report, their absurd description of an early aim to evoke the architectural equivalent of a "Philly cheesesteak" will likely tick off many. Yet it's another detail of the plan that is more alarming because of the larger issue it raises.

The architects don't seem to understand the Barnes Foundation's historic significance.

Matisse's landmark 1905-06 painting "The Joy of Life" is a universally acclaimed breakthrough in 20th-century art and perhaps the pinnacle of the Barnes' many critically important pictures. The plan is to display it in its own small gallery on the new structure's second floor.

The painting -- Matisse's largest to date when he painted it -- has for decades hung in a stairwell of the Merion gallery, not in a room. Some have complained, as a Wall Street Journal reporter wrote, that the painting is "difficult to see" in the unusual setting. But that depends on what you mean by "see."

The plan to move "The Joy of Life" to its own room, described in the Journal story as "an innovation," in fact undercuts both the painting and the Barnes Foundation's landmark importance. The scheme is a clear demonstration of why historic preservation matters -- of why, in the words of the New Yorker's art critic, Peter Schjeldahl, "altering so much as a molecule of one of the greatest art installations I have ever seen would be an aesthetic crime."

When the Barnes Foundation opened in suburban Merion in 1925 in purpose-built galleries designed by Paul Philippe Cret, the growing collection of modern and other art was installed in unusual ways. Albert C. Barnes tinkered with those displays over the years, but they were guided by the aesthetic philosophy of his friend and teacher, educational reformer John Dewey. Matisse, who first visited Merion in 1930, declared the installation the best he had seen in America.

Barnes interior The stairwell installation of "The Joy of Life" is a brilliant articulation of Matisse's artistic breakthrough. The painting shows an old-fashioned bacchanal -- nudes in a sylvan setting dancing, playing music, making love, picking flowers and more.

But its form is not old-fashioned. It's radical.

Flat, hot and cool colors create optical space through their juxtaposition and dispersal. And many of the exuberant figures, as well as trees and other elements in the vivid landscape, are outlined in thick black, serpentine or brightly colored lines. Nothing like it had ever been seen before.

Matisse made a painting where your eye does not look at the nudes, which had been art's visual habit for centuries. Instead, responding to the new dynamism of modern life, his painting's use of color and linear drawing sends your eye on a wild ride around the scene. In the process of looking, a viewer joins the excited bacchanal, actively partaking in "the joy of life" rather than merely witnessing it.

Matisse Joy of Life detail That's why Barnes installed the breakthrough painting in a stairway, a place of lively movement and circulation, rather than on a static wall in a room. He wasn't stupid. He had bought "The Joy of Life" in 1922, and he knew exactly why it was so great. The stairwell installation embodies the painting's experiential meaning.

Here's Leo Steinberg, the brilliant art historian, on the revolutionary quality of the incomparable Matisse: "The analogue in nature to this kind of drawing is not a scene or stage on which solid forms are deployed; a truer analogue would be a circulatory system, as of a city or the blood, where stoppage at any point implies a pathological condition, like a blood clot or traffic jam."

For the new Barnes Foundation building in downtown Philadelphia, the architects are designing a stage for "The Joy of Life" -- a stage that, in effect, will create just such a pathological condition. Although a court ruling allowing the collection to move downtown requires faithful recreation of Barnes' and Dewey's historic hanging, some variation is permitted. Forget about cheesesteaks. Gone will be the current circulatory system for the Matisse, replaced by the architectural equivalent of a blood clot or traffic jam.

"It was not [handicapped] accessible," Williams explained to the Journal about the new building's stairwell, "so we were able to break the rules. There were not too many opportunities, but that was one of them."

Matisse Dance (I) Jennifer S. Altman for The Time It's worth noting that when New York's Museum of Modern Art opened a new building several years ago, Matisse's 1909 painting "Dance (I)" was moved out of a regular gallery and into a stairwell. There it suggests the original plan for the commission from the Russian merchant Sergei Shchukin. (MOMA's painting is the full-size oil sketch for the finished work.) Its ring of dancers, derived from the figures in the distance in the earlier "The Joy of Life," were meant to cavort through the circulatory system of a stairwell in Shchukin's Moscow house.

Whether the destruction of a historic landmark ought to be seen as an architectural "opportunity" is doubtful. At any rate, the comment does suggest the architects' alarming lack of understanding of the original Barnes Foundation's significance. How many other such opportunities are being seized?

-- Christopher Knight

@twitter.com/KnightLAT

Photos, from top: Matisse, "The Joy of Life," 1905-06; Credit: Barnes Foundation; Interior of the Barnes Foundation; Credit: Tim Shaffer / Reuters; "The Joy of Life" (detail); Matisse, "Dance (I)," 1909, installed at MOMA; Credit: Jennifer S. Altman / For The Times

RECENT AND RELATED:

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Barnes Foundation fundraising appears stalled


 
Comments () | Archives (16)

So you want to keep the Matisse in a stairwell. Instead of in it's own room, where it can actually be 'seen'.
Good grief.

A good overview of the whole Barnes fiasco can also be found here:

http://calitreview.com/4931

Great Article Christopher! I'm a Pennsylvaina native and still live in Pennsylvania. I'm both an artist and an educator and have been to the Barnes Foundation last year. It is one of our nations crown jewels that is about to be stolen by past mismanagement and by political opportunists who care nothing about preserving this fine institution. Philadelphia politicians could care little about the history and spirit within the original building and grounds that makes visiting the Barnes Foundation a truly jaw dropping experience.

I want to thank you for being so dedicated about preserving the Barnes Foundation and educating the public on what we're about to lose if we do nothing. I have seen the documentary film, "The Art of the Steal" and urge everyone to see this incredible movie! I think the reason the Barnes Foundation is slipping away to Philadelphia is because not enough people know about this theft in progress. Is there any way you could get some celebrities in California to take up this cause to save this great institution before it's too late? We need to shine the light on what is taking place. We have little time left to take action.

Judge Ott gave permission for the move, but required "replication" of the Barnes galleries. Isn't that pretending that the fake is real and has the same integrity as the original? The real Barnes cannot be replicated, but only diminished by what is being planned on the Parkway. Besides, the dirty tricks that brought the Barnes to the current state of affairs make integrity for a Parkway Barnes impossible. Meanwhile, opposition to the project grows daily. It's time to propose another use for the Tod Williams Billie Tsien building on the Parkway and normalize, honor, and preserve the authentic Barnes.

The "handicapped accessibility" issue may be a more important factor than you realize. I work at the National Gallery of Art, and for years we displayed Dali's "Last Supper" in an escalator landing. Eventually, however, compaints about accessibility issues for this very popular painting forced us to move it. I'm surprised that MOMA hasn't had to move their stairwell Matisse.

I'm not saying this is right or wrong; I'm just sayin' (as all the kids say).

A tragedy for sure.

Knight touches on the similarities of Shchukin's "Dance (1)" painting and Barnes' "Joie de Vivre"; yet, it might also be interested to compare the two men, their collections, and how they were both seized, in Shchukin's case by the Soviets.

The first problem with this article is in the very first line: "should the Barnes Foundation's fabled art collection move in 2012 from its historic home to a new building in downtown Philadelphia." There is no "should" in reality: the museum is moving. That train has left the station. This despite the strenuous efforts of Christopher Knight, Robert Venturi and others. Accept it. It's a fact. I've been to The Barnes more than a dozen times, and I'm terribly excited to see the art in its new home. The building it was in was inadequate in so many ways. Complaining about moving the painting from the staircase to its own room is as silly as it sounds, regardless of the fancy analogy to human anatomy. Of course the Barnes "dead enders" are happy to chime in and carp, as usual. For the first time in decades, the great paintings in this collection will be accessible to the general public, and anyone who wants to see the oiginal building still can, because it will remain. Of course few people will, because it's just a building, not a work of art. By the way, that's a very nice color picture of "The Joy of Life." Under the terms of Barnes' will, reproductions of "his" paintings were forbidden, so it's only under the new regime that color pictures of the works are available. I'm sure Christopher Knight will be among the first to visit the new Barnes and give it a negative review.

I am a former Philadelphian and lover of the Barnes Collection where it was, but the arguments against moving the collection to an accessible building all still remain ridiculous. The staircase placement of this particular Matisse (as is the case with the one at MOMA) do not celebrate circulation, but reveal, above all else, that Matisse was a decorative artist, not a design genius. Barnes' display technique also is overrated, and never fully explained by proponents because there is little to say other than that it is based entirely on hanging works symmetrically on each wall. In most cases in the old house this technique drains the life out of each individual work, and that is why the unusual placement of the Matisse in the staircase, isolating it from other works, seemed to enliven it by spotlighting it.

I remain extremely disappointed at Christopher Knight's, and indeed the Los Angeles Times', almost total silence at the effort of the Autry Museum to take the collections of the Southwest Museum for itself without fulfilling any of the public promises of the 2003 merger so glowingly recounted in this newspaper.

For instance, Times writers such as Munchnic published without critical analysis multiple articles that gave former Autry CEO John Gray license to lie about the physical condition of the 1914 Southwest Museum Building. That building, which was overbuilt with thick concrete and steel rebar under the supervision of visionary Charles Lummis, has survived without major damage all of the earthquakes in Southern California. Yet, Gray was allowed in these pages to misrepresent the building as if it was practically ready to fall down.

All of the Autry's slander of the Southwest's building was geared toward one nasty ulterior motive: to break the promised investments it would make in the Southwest Museum building to "justify" moving it all into their own building.

When the public outcry against Autry's craven plans to double the size of the Autry Museum building in Griffith Park led to City Council's insistence on compliance with merger promises, Autry pointed its accusatory finger at City officials in blame and then ran to Burbank to purchase a building to move the Southwest's collection into.

If you drive by the Autry's new home for its collections on Victory Boulevard, you will see the tell-tale reinforcing steel rods and anchors on the outside of the brick and mortar building. Yes, the Autry has spent years bad-mouthing the cost to upgrade the life/safety systems of the historic Southwest Museum building while purchasing a seismically dangerous building that it plans to store the Southwest's collections in. Autry is enthused to raise money to upgrade this piece of crap warehouse instead of raising funds to responsibly restore the historic Southwest Museum.

Meanwhile, Christopher Knight, and the Los Angeles Times, harps about the paintings in stairwells at the Barnes. The Times remains strangely silent about the betrayals of Autry's merger promises published in this newspaper.

After carefully reading his article, I wonder what Mr. Knight is really saying?

After Ernst Beyeler - http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/27/arts/design/27beyeler.html - finally stopped the awful practice of clumping paintings together in awful, cluttered and distracting bunches, we seem to be reading a fuddy-duddy plea for the return of historical practice over intelligent display.

What's more important, being able to view the work is the best way for what it truly is or to humor the awkward past and thus honor the collector above the art itself?

Sorry, my typo correction below:

Culture Monster
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« Previous | Culture Monster Home | Next »
The Barnes Foundation's alarming architectural plans
October 21, 2010 | 11:55 am

Matisse Joy of Life
One clear sign of the sad loss that will occur should the Barnes Foundation's fabled art collection move in 2012 from its historic home to a new building in downtown Philadelphia has now been disclosed. The new building is being designed by New York architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien. In a Thursday news report, their absurd description of an early aim to evoke the architectural equivalent of a "Philly cheesesteak" will likely tick off many. Yet it's another detail of the plan that is more alarming because of the larger issue it raises.

The architects don't seem to understand the Barnes Foundation's historic significance.

Matisse's landmark 1905-06 painting "The Joy of Life" is a universally acclaimed breakthrough in 20th-century art and perhaps the pinnacle of the Barnes' many critically important pictures. The plan is to display it in its own small gallery on the new structure's second floor.

The painting -- Matisse's largest to date when he painted it -- has for decades hung in a stairwell of the Merion gallery, not in a room. Some have complained, as a Wall Street Journal reporter wrote, that the painting is "difficult to see" in the unusual setting. But that depends on what you mean by "see."

The plan to move "The Joy of Life" to its own room, described in the Journal story as "an innovation," in fact undercuts both the painting and the Barnes Foundation's landmark importance. The scheme is a clear demonstration of why historic preservation matters -- of why, in the words of the New Yorker's art critic, Peter Schjeldahl, "altering so much as a molecule of one of the greatest art installations I have ever seen would be an aesthetic crime."

When the Barnes Foundation opened in suburban Merion in 1925 in purpose-built galleries designed by Paul Philippe Cret, the growing collection of modern and other art was installed in unusual ways. Albert C. Barnes tinkered with those displays over the years, but they were guided by the aesthetic philosophy of his friend and teacher, educational reformer John Dewey. Matisse, who first visited Merion in 1930, declared the installation the best he had seen in America.
Barnes interior The stairwell installation of "The Joy of Life" is a brilliant articulation of Matisse's artistic breakthrough. The painting shows an old-fashioned bacchanal -- nudes in a sylvan setting dancing, playing music, making love, picking flowers and more.

But its form is not old-fashioned. It's radical.

Flat, hot and cool colors create optical space through their juxtaposition and dispersal. And many of the exuberant figures, as well as trees and other elements in the vivid landscape, are outlined in thick black, serpentine or brightly colored lines. Nothing like it had ever been seen before.

Matisse made a painting where your eye does not look at the nudes, which had been art's visual habit for centuries. Instead, responding to the new dynamism of modern life, his painting's use of color and linear drawing sends your eye on a wild ride around the scene. In the process of looking, a viewer joins the excited bacchanal, actively partaking in "the joy of life" rather than merely witnessing it.

Matisse Joy of Life detail That's why Barnes installed the breakthrough painting in a stairway, a place of lively movement and circulation, rather than on a static wall in a room. He wasn't stupid. He had bought "The Joy of Life" in 1922, and he knew exactly why it was so great. The stairwell installation embodies the painting's experiential meaning.

Here's Leo Steinberg, the brilliant art historian, on the revolutionary quality of the incomparable Matisse: "The analogue in nature to this kind of drawing is not a scene or stage on which solid forms are deployed; a truer analogue would be a circulatory system, as of a city or the blood, where stoppage at any point implies a pathological condition, like a blood clot or traffic jam."

For the new Barnes Foundation building in downtown Philadelphia, the architects are designing a stage for "The Joy of Life" -- a stage that, in effect, will create just such a pathological condition. Although a court ruling allowing the collection to move downtown requires faithful recreation of Barnes' and Dewey's historic hanging, some variation is permitted. Forget about cheesesteaks. Gone will be the current circulatory system for the Matisse, replaced by the architectural equivalent of a blood clot or traffic jam.

"It was not [handicapped] accessible," Williams explained to the Journal about the new building's stairwell, "so we were able to break the rules. There were not too many opportunities, but that was one of them."

Matisse Dance (I) Jennifer S. Altman for The Time It's worth noting that when New York's Museum of Modern Art opened a new building several years ago, Matisse's 1909 painting "Dance (I)" was moved out of a regular gallery and into a stairwell. There it suggests the original plan for the commission from the Russian merchant Sergei Shchukin. (MOMA's painting is the full-size oil sketch for the finished work.) Its ring of dancers, derived from the figures in the distance in the earlier "The Joy of Life," were meant to cavort through the circulatory system of a stairwell in Shchukin's Moscow house.

Whether the destruction of a historic landmark ought to be seen as an architectural "opportunity" is doubtful. At any rate, the comment does suggest the architects' alarming lack of understanding of the original Barnes Foundation's significance. How many other such opportunities are being seized?

-- Christopher Knight

@twitter.com/KnightLAT

Photos, from top: Matisse, "The Joy of Life," 1905-06; Credit: Barnes Foundation; Interior of the Barnes Foundation; Credit: Tim Shaffer / Reuters; "The Joy of Life" (detail); Matisse, "Dance (I)," 1909, installed at MOMA; Credit: Jennifer S. Altman / For The Times

RECENT AND RELATED:

Matisse Joy of Life Critic: Barnes Foundation move fueled by ignorance

Architect Robert Venturi slams planned Barnes Foundation move

Barnes Foundation fundraising appears stalled
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After carefully reading his article, I wonder what Mr. Knight is really saying?

After Ernst Beyeler - http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/27/arts/design/27beyeler.html - finally stopped the practice of clumping paintings together in awful, cluttered and distracting bunches, we seem to be reading a fuddy-duddy plea for the return of historical practice over intelligent display.

What's more important, being able to view the work in the best way for what it truly is or to humor the awkward past and thus honor the collector above the art itself?

I have actually been to the Barnes Foundation, unlike most of the people who pontificate about it. (I can say that because for decades: 1) admission was severely restricted and 2) no one I know in NY has ever been there (except for two friends i dragged out to Merion.) It was a glorious experience, but the architecture is NOT more important than the paintings. The paintings are a national treasure, a national resource, more important than the collection in the Orsay or anywhere else. The pictures need to be seen in an environment that correlates with their beauty, importance, and greatness. The sooner they get out of that faux-chateau the better. (And the display of the Matisse in a stairwell was preposterous. It was there only because there was no room for it anywhere else.)

That the architects chosen for this debacle should be visually "tone deaf" comes as no surprise. This entire power grab and violation of the wishes of one of the greatest collectors of the twentieth century sickens me. At least they didn't actually torch the place, but this comes as a close second. I doubt I'll be visiting or encouraging students or friends to go, either.

" in the words of the New Yorker's art critic, Peter Schjeldahl, "altering so much as a molecule of one of the greatest art installations I have ever seen would be an aesthetic crime.""

Typical over-the-top senseless gushing of the Barnesiacs, emblematic of the nonsense from the NY/LA aesthetic Mafia and its wannabe associates in Philadelphia.

"should the Barnes Foundation's fabled art collection move in 2012 from its historic home to a new building in downtown Philadelphia"

It's over, dude. It was over 2+ years ago. See link below. The new building construction proceeds at a brisk clip. The old Barnes has already shut 5 galleries.

http://www.philly.com/philly/entertainment/arts/20080618_Fight_to_halt_move_of_Barnes_Foundation_ends.html

Try to learn to live with change, instead of bitterly clinging to the past.

This whole sad episode gives me the willies. The Philadelphians remind me of all the hillbillys in NY and PA who want to drill for all that natchural gaz. So deprived of money/real art for so long that they would poison their own water so they can drive a cadillac or a hummer whatever whatever. If I was an artist in Philadelphia I would leave. I heard Annenberg left his collection to the Met in NYC. That's rich. What a douche bag.


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