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Close Encounters


by Linda Yablonsky
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Fabulosity in a box. That is the new Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia.

The old one, in suburban Merion, on the city’s tony Main Line, was also quite fabulous, but the building, a manor house built in 1925, was smaller. It didn’t get much daylight or have an auditorium, seminar rooms and an indoor garden, nor was it easily accessible. You had to make an appointment, only to be told on arrival that, due to restrictions on traffic through the neighborhood and the institution’s class schedules, visiting hours were short.

But the collection -- amassed over 40 years by Alfred C. Barnes, a control freak who trained as a doctor and struck gold with a silver-laced antiseptic to prevent eye infections in infants (it protected against the transmission of gonorrhea in particular) -- had to be seen to be believed, and even then it was incredible: 60 Matisses! 44 Picassos! 18 Rousseaus! 14 Modiglianis! 181 Renoirs and I don’t know how many great Cezannes. Add to that Rembrandt, El Greco, Degas, de Chirico, Charles Demuth and William Glackens (who selected Barnes’s first buys in Paris), and you’re absolutely dazed and confused.

Yet light-headedness wasn’t what made the pilgrimage worth the trouble. The real high was the hang.

If Isabella Stewart Gardner was the world’s first installation artist, Barnes was the next. He mixed and mashed-up his wealth of French Impressionist, post-Impressionist and early modernist paintings with Old Masters, Greek and Roman antiquities, Navajo jewelry and ceramics, Pennsylvania Dutch furniture, 19th-century Spanish furniture, folk art, medieval altarpieces, African textiles and figurines, examples of American Impressionism, realism and primitivism and more, in 24 small galleries of a two-story manor so badly lit that one had to squint to make them out.

Even more perversely, Barnes tended to put large paintings at eye level and tiny ones near the ceiling, framing each group with antique hinges, door pulls, escutcheons, ladles, keys, scissors, locks and other metalworks intended to steady the eye and direct it upward.

During my one trip to Merion, more than 15 years ago, it was too much to grasp at one go. In Room 14 alone, a Tintoretto and a Veronese hung with a major Rousseau, portraits by Courbet and Picasso, landscapes by Utrillo and Redon, and a 15th-century painting of the Virgin Mary with three saints -- and that was just part of what was on a single wall.

I could have spent my allotted hours studying a single painting -- Cezanne’s The Card Players (the largest one he made), Seurat’s Models (1886-88), van Gogh’s grotesque odalisque, Reclining Nude (1887), Matisse’s The Music Lesson (a more populous version of The Piano Lesson) -- but then I would have missed Picasso’s haunting, Blue Period The Ascetic (1903), the conelike headdress of Modigliani’s Portrait of Jeanne Hébuterne and Matisse’s studio-in-a-boat, High Tide (1920).

Renoirs were in nearly every room, but I could hardly make out Matisse’s magnificent Le Bonheur de vivre. It was in the dark stairwell leading to the second floor, which I couldn’t remember very well later, so shell-shocked was I by the barrage of art on the first.

Barnes, who died in a 1951 car crash, insisted that people had to experience art for themselves. The foundation had no inventory or catalogue, no postcards for sale in the gift shop. “Good paintings are more satisfying companions than the best of books and infinitely more so than most very nice people,” he once wrote.

His will brought out the beast in many. It dictated that no part of the collection could ever be moved or loaned. (He must have known that Gardner’s will also prohibited any change to the design of her equally eccentric collection.) Trustees were in court for years, first over the construction of a small parking lot, then over touring part of the collection during the galleries’ renovation, and finally, when financial mismanagement threatened to ruin the foundation altogether, over the proposal to move the whole kit and caboodle to Philadelphia. The controversial decision was designed to secure the future of the collection, estimated to be worth $25 billion.

When the new building opened last week, I had a better look at the collection than before. Much better. As others have reported, the married architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien have engineered improved lighting while replicating the dimensions and design of the original galleries, and keeping Barnes’s installation almost exactly the same. The exception is Le Bonheur de Vivre, which now shares a second-floor gallery with tapestries by Picasso and Roualt.

The collection certainly looks better and brighter than ever. Blues are bluer, reds deeper, and the installation makes its own kind of sense. And since no one was rushing me through, I could take in everything for as long as I could stand. Room 7 was the sex room, lots of nudes, including a particularly provocative Courbet, a Monet, a Degas, and the ubiquitous Renoir.

More works caught my attention -- Matisse’s Three Sisters panels, a fetching portrait by Toulouse-Lautrec, still-lifes by Braque, an outsiderish, 19th-century French cityscape by Jean Baptiste Guiraud, and a strange, Cubist-like painting by the postwar Italian artist Afro (recently on view in New York at Haunch of Venison) -- and rewarded it every time.

Nonetheless, the building itself doesn’t look friendly. Built of textured Negev limestone blocks, it suggests a 96,000-square-foot mausoleum with an anomalous, translucent glass crown plopped on top. Adding to the cemetery atmosphere are reflecting pools, and along a path to the entrance, an allee of young red Japanese maples. At least they’re pretty. But together with an unusually boring gray monument to nothing by Ellsworth Kelly -- a gray beam topped by another -- the building expresses a taste for Brutalist minimalism that would have been completely alien to Barnes. In conservative Philadelphia, however, it looks proudly modern.

Inside, the Light Court -- an airport terminal-like hall with soaring, cantilevered ceilings and the same limestone walls -- is nearly absent of any ornamentation or visual pleasure. That and the beaded curtain-like doors to the collection galleries reminded me of bland, 1960s-era synagogues in the suburban landscape of the city, which happens to be my hometown. Even as a child I hated its moralizing provincialism, and I felt it creeping in here. Once I heard that the floors of the hall were made with wood reclaimed from the Coney Island boardwalk, I liked it better. And after a few hours, the airy space was welcome respite from the cramped collection galleries beyond.

Still, I heard people level charges of sacrilege. Boston’s Gardner Museum trustees, faced with many of the same restrictions, similar financial problems, and the most famous art heist in history, didn’t break the will. Instead, they built a Renzo Piano-designed addition for contemporary shows and public amenities. But that museum was already in a city.

The Merion house, the bellyachers said, was for people who loved art enough to make the effort to get there. In fact, Barnes established the foundation as an educational institution for underprivileged (read: black) schoolchildren, young artists (Horace Pippin was one) and the labor force in his pharmaceutical factory. Personnel were compelled to spend two hours of most workdays studying philosophy and the collection. Now everyone can do it.

Despite its being in Philadelphia, I have no complaints.

LINDA YABLONSKY is an art critic who writes for, the Art Newspaper, T: The New York Times Style Magazine, W and other publications.