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Art: Three artists cast an eye on Barnes' ensembles

Not everyone would look at a wall on which a great Matisse is hanging and decide it would be improved by hanging a couple of spatulas on either side.

Artist Mark Dion stands before his symmetrical display of objects tied to natural history collecting. (David Maialetti/Staff Photographer)
Artist Mark Dion stands before his symmetrical display of objects tied to natural history collecting. (David Maialetti/Staff Photographer)Read more

Not everyone would look at a wall on which a great Matisse is hanging and decide it would be improved by hanging a couple of spatulas on either side.

Such a person would be a genius. Or a nut.

Albert C. Barnes was the only such person I'm aware of, and after a century of controversy, we are still arguing about which he was. Surely, he had one of the greatest eyes of his time, and he amassed a unique collection. He insisted, however, that we see his collection in only one way - his way. The Barnes Foundation is his grudging gift to us all. It liberates our eyes by presenting art in an unconventional way. But it incarcerates the art, reducing rich, ambiguous works to mere specimens that illustrate a set of ideas that may not be as profound as Barnes thought they were.

In "The Order of Things," which opened Saturday at the Barnes Foundation, three artists consider the oddity of the collection, and especially the way it is shown. It is a thought-provoking show, though it is probably not for those who go to the Barnes to be ravished by the beauty of the paintings. It is more for those, like me, who ask, "What's with the spatulas?"

The three artists, Mark Dion, Judy Pfaff, and Fred Wilson, take different approaches to a field that didn't exist in Barnes's time - installation art. Yet Barnes, who obsessed over the arrangement of his collection, and who viewed each wall of each gallery as an exemplar of his formalist interpretation of art, was a precursor to, if not a founder of, installation art. The exhibition also reassembles a "lost" Barnes room.

Dion's work, The Incomplete Naturalist, is the most Barnes-like of the three, though it is also the most directly critical of Barnes's "ensemble" approach. It posits that a naturalist had placed his tools - including a vast array of nets, knives, a couple of guns, a microscope, and some specimen jars - on an acid-green wall. The generally symmetrical arrangement, with clusters of similar shapes, colors, and textures, mimics those of the galleries.

The point is quite clear. Collecting is inherently destructive, and it often kills what is collected. Presumably, what Barnes' collecting has killed is the art. Yet Dion's ensemble is all tools. The biological and geological specimens that would correspond to the art are missing. It made we wish for a different work, one in which preserved insects and taxidermy were arranged according to Barnes's visual criteria. Would the result look crazy or conventional? I'm not sure.

Fred Wilson's work, Trace, offers a slier critique. At the Barnes Foundation's offices in Merion, he found what he calls "ready-made ensembles." Well-worn furniture, office equipment, printed reproductions of paintings, and a few items of clothing seem to exemplify the visual principles Barnes followed on the gallery walls. In one, a couple of chairs, including a round-shouldered example from the 1980s, seem to echo the lines and curves of a Modigliani.

In another, a coatrack stands in front of a van Gogh, partially obscuring it. The general shape of the rack echoes the proportions of the painting, but if you look closely, you might notice that the billowy shape of the yellow poncho seems to pick up the dynamism of van Gogh's swirling brushstrokes. If you do notice that, though, you should also notice that the whole exercise is preposterous. If a poncho hung carelessly on a hanger tells you how to look at a van Gogh - which may be true - Barnes's elaborate arrangement of his collection is unnecessary. We really can be trusted to look for ourselves.

Elsewhere, Wilson piles up some benches from the old building; they have a strong visual impact but can't be sat on. And behind an elaborate display of fireplace tools, pans, and cauldrons taken from Barnes's country house is a real Courbet painting taken from Barnes storage. I can't tell you anything about it because I couldn't really see it, which is the point.

Judy Pfaff's Scene I: The Garden. Enter Mrs. Barnes is the most elaborate of the three, a room-size work that evokes the architecture of the main gallery and the vegetation in the arboretum in Merion and in the paintings. Pfaff has said she wanted to draw attention to Laura Barnes, and to the arboretum with which she was intensely involved.

Pfaff photographed and manipulated images of the garden, and of the jungles in paintings by Henry Rousseau, which are arranged on the floor, jigsaw-puzzle fashion, and as tiles on the wall. Many are covered with a resin that makes them shine. She has also poured brightly colored, fast-hardening liquid foam on the floor, creating melting flower and grotto shapes. A huge, seemingly overgrown chandelier pulls the place together.

The piece is about the tension between the symmetrical, classical order of Albert Barnes and his collection and the more fluid forms of nature. This is also, of course, about introducing a feminine principle into Barnes' intensely masculine realm. Much of the art in the collection is, of course, extremely voluptuous, but Barnes' relentless symmetry and geometry suppress the sensual. Here, what has been repressed oozes to the surface.

The Dutch Room is, in fact, an entire gallery from the Barnes in Merion that was removed to make way for an elevator during that building's mid-1990s restoration. Its disappearance was not talked about at the time, because Barnes' will stipulated that the collection be left exactly as it was when he died. (When he was alive, he fiddled with it often.) The room is shown in a transparent structure.

The Dutch Room is a typically Barnesian mélange, combining art and artifacts from many places and cultures in a balanced yet dynamic arrangement. It seems one more candlestick would overload it, and one fewer textile would leave it bare.

There are no obvious masterpieces there, but everything looks terrific. It is dominated by three clocks, two tall ones at the flanks, and quite an amazing one-handed one hanging against a fabric in the center. The man certainly had an eye, and this installation is the most interesting in the show. His fault was not that he did not do good installations, but that he insisted they be unchanged for all time.


Mark Dion, Judy Pfaff, Fred Wilson: The Order of Things

Through Aug. 3 at the Barnes Foundation, 20th Street and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; closed Tuesdays.

Admission: Adults, $22-$25; seniors (65 and over), $20-$23; students and youths (6 to 18), $10; children (5 and under), free.

Information: 215-278-7000 or www.barnesfoundation.orgEndText