Three Artists Riff on Albert C. Barnes's Unique Way of Displaying Art

Three Artists Riff on Albert C. Barnes's Unique Way of Displaying Art

Architectural Digest
May 31, 2015
By Meredith Mendelsohn

In a broad-ranging exhibition at the Barnes Foundation, three artists examine how we control our surroundings through classification and order.

The late collector Albert C. Barnes is as legendary for his holdings of Renoirs, Cézannes, and Matisses as he is for the wild way he displayed them in his suburban Philadelphia mansion. Barnes, one of the 20th century’s most prominent American connoisseurs of art and antiques, famously ignored traditional organizing principles—like medium, period, and style—in favor of highly formal yet unlikely juxtapositions. “So, you’ll get an antique metal spatula next to a Modigliani painting next to a Pennsylvania German blanket chest,” says Martha Lucy, a consulting curator to the Barnes Foundation and a professor of art history at Drexel University.

While Barnes stipulated in his will that the collection’s display could never be altered, the museum’s sparkling new campus in downtown Philadelphia—where Barnes’s treasures have been reinstalled exactly as they were in their original setting—provides plenty of exhibition space for other artists to consider his ways, which is what Lucy invited Mark Dion, Judy Pfaff, and Fred Wilson to do. The result is “The Order of Things,” on view through August 3. “Visitors tend to react almost viscerally to the display. Some hate it, some love it, some find it wacky, some brilliant,” says Lucy. “I thought it would be an interesting jumping-off point for contemporary artists who work in the installation mode.”

Dion, who has long been interested in how we control our surroundings through classification and order, speaks to Barnes’s obsession with presentation, not to mention symmetry, with a wall of carefully arranged butterfly nets, shovels, picks, hooks, guns, filing cabinets, and other tools of the naturalist.

Pfaff’s sprawling installation of verdant polymer paths and metal trees invokes Laura Barnes, the collector’s late wife, and her passion for horticulture, which is far more evident in the arboretum and gardens at the museum’s original site in Lower Merion.

For his part, Fred Wilson, who is known for his trenchant, often wry, critiques of museums, created a series of small rooms with furniture transplanted from the offices and storage room of Barnes’s Merion location and installed as it had been there.

“I hope the exhibition will get visitors thinking about the importance of display,” says Lucy, “about how much one individual’s vision, or system, can affect the way we perceive things almost 100 years later.”