My day in Philly was what I call a 5-Star Art day…Simply an hour and half Amtrak ride from New York City, one is able to visit the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the new Barnes Foundation Museum. There are more art institutions in Philadelphia, yet this trip was focused…
Let’s start with the city’s newest addition, the Barnes Foundation, which was founded by Dr. Albert C Barnes in 1922 for the purpose of promoting the advancement of education and the appreciation of the fine arts. Between 1912 and 1951, Barnes assembled one of the world’s most important holdings of post-impressionist and early modern art, acquiring works by Cezanne, Matisse, Picasso, and Renoir. It is a stellar list and, with the assistance of the educational philosopher, John Dewey, the collection took on a life of its own, with Barnes installing the works salon style. He also collected African sculpture, antiquities, Asian art, Native American ceramics, jewelry and textiles. It was one of the most prestigious collections of its time and that is where the controversy begins. Barnes protected his vision for the collection in his will, which states that the works had to remain intact as he left them, 10 miles outside downtown Philly.
Philadelphia leaders clamored for the collection to be moved to the city as a museum—which is exactly what Barnes did not want. He mandated that the collection be used for “art education, not commercial display” and the artworks could not be lent, sold, or moved. Furthermore, he had a long history of being shunned and, therefore, chose to shun the Philadelphia social set. The best recount of this is in the documentary, The Art of the Steal, a 2009 documentary that I can’t recommend enough. I am not ruining the ending of the film, as the ending has been fictionalized, by saying that the Barnes Foundation opened to the public this past August in downtown Philadelpia. And as much as I am still on the side of Barnes, the opportunity to see the collection is like no other.
Works by Picasso, Cezanne, and Renoir cover the walls. It is like being in an art candy store. Everywhere you turn you see something that you love. What makes the collection special is the experience of seeing how Barnes installed and made connections among the works. One of the highlights is Matisse’s mural The Dance, commissioned by Barnes in 1930 when he invited Matisse to his home in Marion. The logistics went a little awry as Matisse had the wrong dimensions and had to redo the work, completing the piece in 1933. It almost feels silly to only name one Matisse as the collection has 59 works, including Reclining Nude with Blue Eyes (No couche aux yeux bleus), 1936, Le Bonheur de vivre (The Joy of Life), and one of my personal favorites, The Music Lesson, Summer, 1917.
Then there is Renoir with 181 works, the most by one artist in the collection. I felt that everywhere I turned I was looking at a Renoir; and it was always a treat when your eye rested on one. I personally loves his Nudes and was able to see works such as Reclining Nude (La Source), 1895, Nude in a Landscape (Nu dans un paysage), 1917, and two bathing paintings –Composition, Five Bathers (Composition, cinq baigneuses, 1918 and Bathing Group, 1916. Another major artist of the collection is Cezanne who has multiple still lifes, Mont Sainte-Victoire works, and one of my favorite The Card Players (Les Joueurs de cartes), 1890 – 1892.
Picasso is also well represented. While there are many of his works, my personal favorite is The Ascetic (L’Ascete), 1903, an important painting from Picasso’s blue period. The piece is truly haunting. I could go on forever about this piece, however, I want to just mention that the collection also includes Van Gogh, Degas, Modigliani, Rousseau, Klee (who I always enjoy seeing), and Soutine—Barnes being responsible for bringing his work to the United States for the first time.
The Philadelphia Museum’s Permanent Collection is one of the best in the country. I am going to stick with contemporary, yet note that it is an encyclopedic museum only second to the Metropolitan. I am not going to go into what an unbelievable Duchamp (the largest in the country), and Brancussi (also the largest in the country) they have. Both are outrageously fun to see, however, I am going to focus on the contemporary rooms, as the museum has done something which I find rewarding and special – dedicating a room to iconic, important contemporary artists through their Notationseries, an ongoing series of gallery installations.
On my visit, I saw a room of early works by Ellsworth Kelly, a room of early Jasper Johns and a newly installed room of works by Sean Scully. The installation includes two significant recent acquisitions, Chelsea Wall #1 and the triptych Iona. These works are shown with Scully’s Wall of Light Heat and 12 Small Mirrors, on loan from private collections. The installation was perfect and grants the viewer a chance to really start to understand this beautiful, dedicated painter. You understand his subtle nuances, the way he combines color and form to create a painting that resonates. For me, the colors sometimes float, some moving forward, others into the background. Sometimes they sit and react with one another. Scully also plays with composition, which I find memorizing. He has his own signature, yet is also looking at those abstract painters before him. The work is not based all on abstract forays so much as inspiration drawn from architecture. But it is all about the stripe, as Scully asserts that the “stripe is a signifier of modernism”. It is truly beautiful loyalty….