A Wink at the Quirks of a Famed Collector

A Wink at the Quirks of a Famed Collector

The New York Times
March 5, 2015
By Hilarie M. Sheets

Now that the Barnes Foundation has weathered its move from Albert Barnes’s home in suburban Merion, Pa., to downtown Philadelphia in 2012, it seems newly game to look at itself with a bit of irreverence.

For The Order of Things, opening on May 16, the installation artists Mark Dion, Judy Pfaff and Fred Wilson have been invited to respond to Barnes’s own brand of installation art, his idiosyncratic mix of Impressionist and old master paintings, furniture, metalwork and ceramics placed in “ensembles” according to color, shape and size rather than chronology or art history.

“People react to the way Barnes installed his collection in such different ways, some finding it liberating and others saying it subsumes the individual works into these bigger structures,” said the exhibition curator, Martha Lucy. Barnes, who died in 1951, decreed that the works had to remain exactly in the place he left them, and the foundation reinstalled them to the inch in its new home.

“Even though we can’t take them apart because of Barnes’s mandate,” Ms. Lucy continued, “we can still have artists engage with what’s great and what’s problematic about them.”

Known for using classifying methods of science in his installations, Mr. Dion is arranging a naturalist’s tools on the wall as Barnes might have done. The obsessive symmetry in the grouping of butterfly nets, botanical pruners, microscopes and guns will read as Barnesian, but with a pointed critique about collecting.

“In natural history, collecting is a destructive act because it literally kills things,” Mr. Dion said. “Once Barnes collected his works and froze them in a very particular context, the art is not allowed any other kinds of discussions.”

Mr. Wilson often illuminates a museum’s culture with installations made from objects uncovered in its storage rooms. Here, noticing adjacencies of commonplace furniture and paraphernalia in the foundation’s offices in Merion, he will reinstall these clusters faithfully on plinths as “ready-made ensembles.” “There’s an absurdity in it, obviously,” Mr. Wilson said, perhaps raising an eyebrow at Barnes’s adherence to the notion of permanence.

While the unruly exuberance of Ms. Pfaff’s typical installations might run counter to Barnes’s way of looking at art, “his eclectic mixing and independence makes a lot of sense to me,” she said. She plans to splice together various architectural plans on the gallery floor and build to the ceiling, integrating crafts, furniture and natural materials. “I’m wondering what Pandora’s box Martha has opened up,” Ms. Pfaff said.