The past has come back to haunt us at the Barnes Foundation, big time.
It returned this weekend in the form of a monumental mural by painter and sculptor Ellsworth Kelly called Sculpture for a Large Wall. Kelly created the mural in 1956-57 as a commission for the former Philadelphia Transportation Building at 17th and Market Streets.
It's a landmark work of art, the first abstract sculpture in Philadelphia and a piece that looks as fresh and lively today as it did when it was installed in the building's lobby 56 years ago.
The sculpture left Philadelphia in 1998 under circumstances that shocked the city's cultural community. We'll get to that sad story presently.
Large Wall returns as the centerpiece - more than that, as the raison d'etre - of a small exhibition that kicks off a Barnes initiative to extend its historic art collection beyond the lifetime of founder Albert C. Barnes, through temporary special attractions.
The show consists of only five sculptures, some of which could also be regarded as shaped paintings, and several drawings. Yet this handful of works fills the foundation's new special-exhibitions gallery mostly because Large Wall is so prepossessing.
It is, after all, more than 65 feet long and 11 feet high; it covers the east wall of the room, floor to ceiling and nearly wall to wall. If it seems a bit overpowering for the space, it was even more so in its original narrow setting.
Kelly, who will turn 90 on May 31, made the sculpture as a deep relief consisting of 104 anodized aluminum panels arranged in four rows of 26. The panels are irregular parallelograms, some with curved sides, fastened to horizontal rods.
Some tilt forward, some backward. Kelly scattered open spaces throughout as a way of generating irregular and unpredictable rhythms; the effect is akin to a three-dimensional musical score.
He used only five colors, including silver, the dominant hue. The others are red, yellow, blue, and black, distributed sparingly - only seven panels of each. The more numerous silver panels strike the eye as varying shades of gray-white or even beige, depending on their orientation and how the lights strike them.
Large Wall is a brilliant conception. Its variety is infinite, but never static, its energy boundless.
The other four sculptures can't be more than supporting players, but, coming much later in Kelly's career - three were made in the last seven years - they affirm the artist's continuing commitment to boldness and to the sensuous potential of eccentric geometry, especially the shallow arc.
Three of them - Red Curve, Black Form 1, and Two Curves - eloquently straddle the boundary between painting and sculpture. Each is as much one as the other.
In Red Curve (1986), Kelly skews geometric regularity ever so slightly, just enough to produce pleasing tension, then cloaks the shape in a vivid, assertive scarlet.
Two Curves (2012), in white, is even more elegantly minimal. The top edge nearly dissolves against the pale wall, while the bottom curve, accented by deep shadow, stands out in bold relief.
These sculptures in particular demonstrate how much visual power, lyricism, and excitement the artist achieves with a few basic ingredients.
So how does Ellsworth Kelly, a quintessential modernist, connect with the Barnes collection? The official line is that, like Barnes, Kelly believes in the primacy of line, form, color, and light. Therefore, his art represents a logical extension of the Barnesian philosophy.
However, Barnes favored figurative art; I suspect he would have been puzzled by Kelly's abstraction, if not dismissive of it.
A more obvious connection is Joseph Neubauer, vice chairman of the Barnes board, who seems to be a Kelly admirer. He and his wife, Jeanette, through their Neubauer Family Foundation, commissioned the Kelly sculpture The Barnes Totem that stands outside the museum entrance.
As for the tragic (for Philadelphia) story of Large Wall:
The Transportation Building was closed and ringed by a wire fence in 1993, after Conrail moved out. Two years later, Kelly's New York dealer, Matthew Marks, observed the mural in the barricaded building, which to him appeared abandoned. Both Marks and Kelly decided that the sculpture should be retrieved. Marks managed to buy the work from the building's owner, the Rubin Organization, for $100,000, in retrospect a ridiculously low price.
Ronald S. Lauder, then the chairman of the Museum of Modern Art, bought it from Marks in 1998. He and his wife, Jo Carole, immediately donated it to the museum - which, since acquiring it, has exhibited it only twice, briefly in 2004 and last year in a show dedicated to it.
The former Transportation Building was subsequently renovated and remains in use. So, the mural needn't have been moved from 17th and Market, where the public could see it daily, to museum storage in Manhattan, where it exists mainly as a MoMA trophy.
Give the Barnes Foundation credit for bringing Large Wall out of hiding for the next four months. This exhibition may be the last opportunity for Philadelphians to see this homegrown masterpiece for a very long time.
Art: Sculpture for a Large Wall
The Ellsworth Kelly sculpture and four others remain on view at the Barnes Foundation, 2025 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, through Sept. 2. Hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday through Monday, to 10 p.m. Friday. Admission is $22 general before 3 p.m., $18 after; $20 and $15 for seniors; $10 for students with I.D., and free to area art-college students, active military personnel, and on the first Sunday of each month. Information: 215-278-7200 or www.barnesfoundation.org