PHILADELPHIA — It took viewing an exhibition of video art at the Barnes Collection to give me the courage to say this: The old painting galleries at this world-renowned museum are a failure. The Barnes Collection, which moved from its suburban home outside Philadelphia to a purpose-built new space on this city’s main cultural avenue in 2012, is an institution that divides critics and audiences. For some, its cluttered galleries, hung salon style with portentous yet baffling aesthetic juxtapositions, are a touchstone of independent vision and eccentricity; for others, it is a colossal vanity project that holds great art hostage to the narcissistic self-indulgence of its founder, Albert C. Barnes.
I am now firmly in the latter camp.
It took seeing the museum’s powerful survey of Bill Viola’s rich, deep and deeply moving video work to fully understand what is so hollow and dispiriting about the main galleries of the collection, which hold an invaluable collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist art assembled in the first half of the previous century. Viola’s videos do everything one wants art to do. They are arresting, absorbing and rewarding, they tend to suspend time and flood the mind with thought, and point both deeper into their own content, and outward to the longer arc of art history and the immediacy of the culture from which they are derived. Guest curator John G. Hanhardt has brought together eight of Viola’s works, made between 1976 and 2009, and takes the title for his exhibition from the longest of the works on view, the nearly 90-minute “I Do Not Know What It Is I Am Like.”
The range of Viola’s work is astonishing, from quiet meditations on solitude to room-sized video installations that explode single moments of time into cataclysmic events. There is a spiritual, perhaps even religious intensity behind almost everything he produces, which functions as a kind of guarantee: The artist is insistent on successfully communicating with his audience because there is more at stake than mere visual gamesmanship. He can be elliptical and wry, but his work is never hermetic. It is all too easy in many exhibitions to sample a video and move on; but the work of Viola doesn’t let go of the viewer easily.
After spending several hours with the videos in the museum’s temporary galleries and its underground theater, I tore myself away for a few minutes to reacquaint myself with the painting galleries, which are for most visitors the essential part of any trip to the Barnes. I’ve seen them multiple times since they were moved there from Merion, Pa., where Barnes established his foundation in the 1920s in a beautiful Paul Cret-designed building, arranged to demonstrate the collector’s theories about art. At the time, there was something radical about Barnes’s commingling of art from the 20th century with Renaissance paintings, folk art, historic pieces of metal work, hardware and craft, and African masks and other carving. Renoirs, Cezannes and Picassos were seen chockablock with Veronese and Tintoretto and anonymous early Renaissance painters.
Barnes was also an early champion of African American rights and educational opportunities, and temperamentally he was at odds with the Philadelphia establishment and other art collectors. There was a lot to admire about his quixotic personality, and when the foundation fell on hard times, and was effectively taken over by larger, richer Philadelphia institutions (which led to the move from Merion to the center city), Barnes seemed a martyr to the forces of philistinism. Perhaps he was. But he was also a collector who admired his own genius just a bit too much, stipulating that his collection remain just as he left it, room after room full of mostly symmetrical arrangements that emphasize formal and color relationships but little else.
Barnes’s legacy never felt quite as suffocating as it did after Viola’s liberating vision. Barnes acquired some magnificent works, but few of them have any room to breathe. Viola’s “I Do Not Know What It Is I Am Like” explores, among other things, the way in which finding connections and similarities is essential not just to human thought but to our larger, spiritual self. We analogize ourselves into understanding our place in the world, looking for affinities between our existence and the larger existence of animals, objects, ideas and rituals. The likeness of things in the world is a form of connection.
Unfortunately, the likeness of the works on view in the painting galleries seems superficial by contrast. They are alike only in rather rudimentary, formalistic ways. Viola’s video creates a palpable emotional sense of the very things that Barnes so tortuously tries to exemplify in his painting hang: a genuine universality that transcends individuals, and individual visions of the world.
Among the most moving videos on view is Viola’s 1995 “The Greeting,” which reproduces in slow motion the basic elements of “The Visitation,” a painting from the 1520s by Pontormo. It shows three women connecting with each other in slow motion, analogous to the four women in Pontormo’s painting. Their engagement, their greeting and the muted pleasure they take in each other’s company suggests a long relationship or kinship between them. Like most of Viola’s work, “The Visitation” is full of essential religious and historical references and even though the medium is video, the aesthetic is one of slowness and depth, as if the lines, forms and shadows of a 16th-century painting had come just a little unstuck from an old paint-on-wood image.
Viola’s work sends one back to history, back to artistic tradition, invigorated and curious to learn more. But the juxtaposition of new and old in Barnes’s collection only makes the old seem inert, a kind of prop, or a few gray-whiskered extras rounded up to fill out a scene. Many of the Renaissance works in Barnes’s collection weren’t particularly good, and when seen in Barnes’s preferred context, they speak with a faint voice.
Each one of the videos in the Viola exhibition is an event. When viewing them in succession, you must disengage and clear the mind as you move from one to another. Each video requires a mental effort at quietness and receptivity. The painting galleries, alas, never allow that to happen. Just as you begin to become engaged with one of the works that is truly exceptional in the collection, a third-rate Renoir insinuates itself into your peripheral vision, and the magic is gone. People who admired Barnes’s vision — and I suspect many people admire it more because it was contrarian than effective — speak of a conversation among the works. But there is no conversation, just the loud babble of voices talking to themselves because they find the chatter of their neighbors insufferable.
As an institution, the Barnes has been smart about remaking its institutional identity since its move to Philadelphia, a move that was divisive and painful, with many longtime Barnes supporters furious at what seemed a betrayal of the founder’s vision. But to die-hard Barnes fans, one might say: Look for any work in the Barnes collection that has the freedom and context to speak like Viola’s 1976 video “He Weeps for You” does in this exhibition. The video is conceptually simple — a copper pipe slowly leaks water, drop by drop, onto an amplified drum, while a video monitor shows the spectacle blown up large and in real time. It is mesmerizing, and one could lose a day here.
There are dozens of works on view in the other galleries that deserve similar attention. And they would attract it if they could be taken out of the chaotic menagerie in which they have been imprisoned for decades. Here’s how to remake the Barnes: Sell off about two dozen second-rate Renoirs, update the existing collection to include contemporary work in its mix, and cycle the best of the collection in and out of a more manageable display, curated by a new generation of scholars who aren’t beholden to the antiquated theories that Barnes espoused.
Perhaps then the best of the Barnes would actually speak as clear as the water landing on a drum in that magnificent Bill Viola video.
I Do Not Know What It Is I Am Like: The Art of Bill Viola Through Sept. 15 at the Barnes Collection, Philadelphia. barnesfoundation.org.