It could be said that Dr. Albert C. Barnes, renaissance man and founder of the Barnes Foundation, was one of the original installation artists. His iconic ensembles — the way he chose to hang art in his museum-like institution that was never called a museum — are works of art in and of themselves.
“Dr. Barnes arranged his collection in a very unconventional way,” says Barnes Foundation consulting curator Martha Lucy, going so far as to use the word “whacky” to describe it. “He ignored chronology and history and invented his own system to classify things, hanging things together that normally would never share a wall — a Cezanne with an El Greco, for example.”
The physician, inventor, and collector’s perfectly symmetrical, perfectly ordered ensembles have been set in place for perpetuity, according to the terms of his will and executed by the architects of the new Barnes Foundation on Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Center City Philadelphia. But part of the genius of the new building is the added value it brings to the collection that rivals any in Paris. The rotating exhibition area often showcases artwork that enhances and helps interpret the collection.
On view through Monday, August 3, is “The Order of Things,” installations by contemporary artists Mark Dion, Judy Pfaff, and Fred Wilson that riff on Dr. Barnes and his way of displaying art. Two of the artists — Pfaff and Wilson — are MacArthur Foundation “Geniuses” (2004 and 1999, respectively).
“We encouraged the artists to engage critically and be provocative,” says Lucy. The result, “deconstructing without actually deconstructing,” has “layers and layers of ideas.”
In addition, there is a mid-20th-century installation designed by Dr. Barnes, “The Dutch Room,” that had to be disassembled in the mid 1990s to make way for an elevator. The works of art from “The Dutch Room,” in storage all these years, recently underwent conservation and are presented again after not being seen by the public in more than two decades. They include Navajo rugs and a massive oak door, French Medieval crosses and American metalwork, grandfather clocks, and carved wooden cupboards, but it is about the sum of the parts.
In keeping with Barnes’ commitment to the development of critical thinking skills, the exhibition invites visitors to think about display in general. How are museums organized, and what meanings do their displays create?
In short, it’s fun to see the Barnes having fun with itself.
Dion is known for appropriating archaeological and other scientific methods of collecting, ordering, and exhibiting objects. His works are filled with cabinets of curiosity, modeled on Wunderkabinetts of the 16th century.
In the work here, “The Incomplete Naturalist,” filling one large gallery room, we see that result of a naturalist arranging his tools. Dion arranges these according to Barnesian principles, considering what happens when an object is removed from the world and put into a collector’s personal microcosm. “He addresses the practice of collecting and the meaning of objects, which is parallel to what Barnes did, putting it into his own system,” says Lucy.
“What if Dr. Barnes hadn’t been turned on by painting, but the natural world?” asks Dion.
When the Barnes first commissioned these three installations, Dion sent a sketch, then spent a year collecting the objects and installed them in a few days.
On one wall, painted “apple martini” green, is a sunburst of butterfly nets, fly swatters, gardening tools, and guns. There are books on nature and flasks for collecting scientific specimens, and specimen cabinets and herbarium cupboards inviting speculation about what they contain.
“The piece is about netting, hooking, shooting, trapping, about the darker more sinister aspects of collecting,” says the artist, born in Massachusetts in 1961. He presents the dilemma a scientist faces, having a passion for birds and butterflies, and having to kill them to study them.
Wearing a seersucker suit, brown wingtip shoes, and Warby Parker glasses, Dion looks like a romantic vision of a botanist. He says he likes his objects to have the patina of use. When questioned about his own collections, Dion says he has done “a fair amount of wilderness travel and worked with a biologist. I shop, and I’m quite good at it.”
Dion’s displays, here and elsewhere, are, like the Barnes, places you want to visit often, to study the detail, to absorb its ambience, and to read all the books.
Artists who work in installation are just as concerned with formal design. Judy Pfaff, who formerly taught at Tyler School of the Arts in Philadelphia and currently teaches at Bard, says “when I enter a room I find a place I like and go to it.” In this case, she selected her spot for the small window that lets in light and offers a view of the reflecting pond.
About visiting the Barnes, Pfaff says, “What I remembered was what was not here — Mrs. Barnes.”
The daughter of a well-to-do family from Brooklyn, Laura Leggett married Albert Barnes in 1901. She managed the gardens at the couple’s first home in Merion, Lauraston, and when they moved to the Barnes Foundation’s second home in Merion, Laura devoted herself to the development of its arboretum, becoming its director in 1928. She founded the Arboretum School in 1940, and was responsible for the acquisition of plants for the gardens, exchanging specimens with other notable collections such as the Arnold Arboretum and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.
“Her obsession with plants and her scholarship were enormous,” says Pfaff, born in London in 1946. For “Scene I: The Garden, Enter Mrs. Barnes,” “I used a lot of whiteness because it’s like a memory of a stylized garden,” says Pfaff. “Laura Barnes was erased. She was from an elegant family (the Leggetts had a chain of drugstores) and she collected on her own. There are 10,000 plant specimens in cases never documented. I don’t know why her story lost value over time.” There isn’t even a Wikipedia listing in her name.
Pfaff, wearing a navy pinstriped jacket, jeans, and platform shoes, has, just as any serious gardener, dirt under her fingernails. But instead of soil Pfaff’s garden uses metal, wood, plastics, paints, and pigments. She has created three lunettes to echo the lunettes Matisse designed for the original Barnes in Merion (and which have been re-created here), but Pfaff’s lunettes have grilles of fluorescent tubing. They are made up of many smaller images of flowers, banana leaves, metal scrolls, and, at top, pictures of the old building and its lunettes.
There are natural stumps, bugs and all, and a white chandelier hangs above the garden, looking like something Miss Havisham (from the novel “Great Expectations”) might have liked. Some of the garden forms look like melted wax with marbleized color, and there’s one object that looks like a drip castle with honeycomb. Some of the elements were developed in her studio, but Pfaff worked mostly on site.
For “Trace,” Fred Wilson created a series of small rooms in which he displays readymade ensembles of rarely seen objects from Barnes storage. In preparation he spent weeks visiting the Barnes campuses, immersing himself in Barnes culture, talking to staff, museum guards, and looking at objects in storage.
Enter the room and the first thing you see is a big old mahogany office desk with a nameplate for Joan Taylor and a sign, “Please wait for receptionist.” Behind the desk is an Aeron chair and, on the wall, a facsimile of Cezanne’s “The Card Players” (the original is on view in the collection galleries).
“I had Dr. Barnes in my head, his philosophy, his conversations with various intellectuals. Going back to Merion I saw Dr. Barnes in everything,” says Wilson, born in the Bronx in 1954. A political activist, Wilson’s subject is social justice and he describes his medium as “museology.” Beginning in the 1980s he created a series of mock museums to show how museums reinforce racist beliefs and behaviors. He says he no longer has a desire to make things with his hands.
“I get everything that satisfies my soul from bringing together objects that are in the world, manipulating them, working with spatial arrangements, and having things presented in the way I want to see them.”
Joan Taylor’s desk is surrounded by chairs, benches, pedestals, and a credenza — office items left behind in Merion. For the move to Center City, new display cases were made in the style of the originals, so Wilson imagined a display of the display cases left behind. “I see them for their totality rather than as individuals,” he said. The cases themselves are ensembles.
“Barnes ensembles are about the whole, and sometimes we can’t focus on the individual,” adds Lucy.
“Everything I chose, I love and now love even more — I wish I could take it home,” says Wilson. “It’s about desire.”
There is a coat rack in front of a Van Gogh painting (again, a facsimile) — apparently, just as it was in the admin building. How ironic that someone would hang a painting, albeit a reproduction, and park a coat rack in front of it in one of the foremost art institutions of the world. “It’s about the relationship of hangers in front of the houses in the painting,” says Wilson.
There is one genuine original painting in Wilson’s installation, “The Shepherdess” by Gustave Courbet. Apparently it was once on display in Merion until Dr. Barnes replaced it and stored it in his house, which ultimately became the administration building.
Wilson obfuscates it behind a fireplace, hung with all manner of metal hearth tools. “This is exactly as the hearth in his country home was,” says Wilson. (Registrars and conservators have protected the Courbet behind plexiglass, invisible to the eye.) It is dimly lit, and you really have to struggle see the painting, which is what Wilson wanted. African music filters in with the syncopation of the metal work.
“Barnes’s friezes of masks was infused with his understanding of African culture, history, and art as a basis for early European art,” says Wilson. “He was supportive of African American artists and rights, and I wanted to have African tribal museum from those countries floating through.”
Shortly after Wilson secured Joan Taylor’s desk from the administration building, she died. I was curious to know more about Joan Taylor, whose ghost seems to haunt the space. Deirdre Maher, the Barnes director of communication, filled me in via E-mail: “Joan Taylor was a receptionist at the Barnes Foundation’s Merion campus for 15 years and was 77 years old when she passed away in February, 2015. Artist Fred Wilson wanted to include Joan’s desk in his installation but never got the chance to discuss it with her. After Joan’s passing, the Barnes spoke with her family, who gladly granted permission knowing that Joan would have been happy for it to be used as part of the installation.”
Maher was helpful in answering some other questions as well.
Q: Is the admin building on the Merion campus still active and staffed? If so, how is the staff operating without their furnishings?
A: Select Barnes staff does continue to work at the Merion campus. The Barnes Foundation Archives as well as the Arboretum and Horticulture Education Program staff are stationed there. The removal of furniture for Fred Wilson’s installation did not disrupt the working space of any employees since they were largely unused pieces of furniture in common areas and meeting rooms.
Q: What will happen to the Dutch Room and the other installations after this exhibition ends?
A: When the exhibition is over, the three contemporary installations that the Barnes Foundation has commissioned will become the property of the artists. In the case of Fred Wilson’s installation, the work will become his intellectual property, since he won’t have ownership of the actual items from the Barnes collection.
When the exhibition is over, the objects in the Dutch Room will return to Barnes storage and remain available for other temporary exhibitions at the Barnes and for potential loan to other institutions, as do all non-collection gallery objects.
The Order of Things, Barnes Foundation, 2025 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia. Installations by contemporary artists Mark Dion, Judy Pfaff, and Fred Wilson. Through Monday, August 3, Wednesdays through Mondays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (Fridays to 9 p.m., $10 to $25.
Gallery Talk, Sunday, July 5, 1 to 1:30 p.m., curator Martha Lucy will discuss the exhibition.
Conversation with Mark Dion, Fred Wilson, and Martha Lucy, Saturday, July 11, 2 to 4 p.m. 215-278-7000 or www.barnesfoundation.org.