The Order of Things explores Barnes's style of displaying art

The Order of Things explores Barnes's style of displaying art

The Philadelphia Tribune
May 16, 2015
By Bobbi Booker

The curious display of the Barnes Collection, organized into what Dr. Albert C. Barnes referred to as ensembles, is one of the hallmarks of the Barnes Foundation. Barnes mixing together objects from different cultures, time periods and media overturned traditional categories of display. Thus, nearly a century ago, Barnes was much like a contemporary installation artist and endowed objects with new meanings simply by shifting their context.

Mark Dion, Judy Pfaff, Fred Wilson: The Order of Things, is an exhibition featuring new works commissioned by the Barnes Foundation examines the unusual way that Barnes displayed his collection. According to a release, “the results are three large-scale installations and a sound intervention that bring contemporary ideas into dialogue with the permanent collection and its installation at the Barnes.” 

In his work The Incomplete Naturalist, Mark Dion creates an enormous Barnesian ensemble using the arcane tools of an imaginary naturalist. In an immersive large-scale floor piece titled Scene I: The Garden. Enter Mrs. Barnes, Judy Pfaff plays on the tension in Barnes’ ensembles between order and disorder. For his work Trace, Fred Wilson creates a series of small rooms — a museum within a museum — in which he displays “readymade ensembles” and juxtapositions of rarely-seen objects from Barnes storage in a playful remix of Dr. Barnes’ ideas. The exhibition also includes a “sound collage” featuring music native of the African tribes that created many of the sculptures and masks in the Barnes African collection.

Curated by Martha Lucy, Barnes Foundation consulting curator and assistant professor of art history at Drexel University in Philadelphia, The Order of Things will serve to better orient visitors to the Barnes Foundation, offering an explanation of the philosophy behind the organization of the collection and of the ensembles’ importance in the history of museum practice.

“Barnes’s ensembles are ripe for analysis,” explained Lucy. “Dr. Barnes arranged his collection in a very unconventional way; he ignored chronology and history and hung things together that normally would never share a wall — a Cézanne with an El Greco, for example. What Dr. Barnes did was replace the traditional display system with one of his own: Each of his assemblages is perfectly symmetrical, perfectly ordered, and set in place for perpetuity. This is what the artists are responding to in The Order of Things. Mark Dion, Judy Pfaff and Fred Wilson are all riffing on Barnes. Their responses are thoughtful and provocative, and we hope they will offer audiences new ways to think about Barnes’s display.”

The show will also include an installation designed by Barnes in the early 20th century. Called “The Dutch Room,” the installation was disassembled in the mid-1990s to allow for the construction of an elevator in Merion. The works of art from The Dutch Room have recently undergone conservation and will be presented to the public for the first time in over 20 years; the room will also serve as an example of Barnes’ display methods in the company of the three contemporary responses.