The Elusive Barnes Foundation

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On a four-lane road called City Ave., about 20 minutes outside Philadelphia, past a Popeye's Chicken & Biscuits and an undistinguished strip mall, a discreet blue sign provides the only clue to the whereabouts of one of the world's greatest private art collections, amassed with bloody singlemindedness by a pharmaceutical magnate named Albert C. Barnes between the years 1912 and 1951. The eponymously named Barnes Foundation sits on a modest 13-acre plot of land in a quiet, tree-lined residential neighborhood. Dotted with mismatched houses and condominiums, the street leading to the Foundation's limestone mansion speaks?like the Foundation itself?of better times.

Latch's Lane, which runs in front of the Barnes' bunker-like, Renaissance-style villa, is a quiet place these days. Gone are the groups of protesters that have bedeviled the Foundation in recent years, the alert squad cars and yellow police tape. Gone, too, are the buses full of tourists it once hoped to lure to its 23 galleries chock-full of art treasures. In their place, a smattering of visitors drifts in and out of the Foundation's new parking lot, following the attendants' martial-sounding calls to stick to the circular path that leads to the front gate. After some 10 years of acrimony and litigation involving neighbors, township officials, benefactors, the state attorney general, the Montgomery County Orphans Court (which supervises changes to wills) and self-appointed guardians of the Barnes legacy, stepping inside the iron doors of the Barnes Foundation has hardly gotten any easier.

Getting into the Barnes Foundation has never been less than a complicated affair. Unlike most art museums that one may visit any time during operating hours, the Barnes requires not one but two separate reservations: one for one's person and another for one's car. Like the best Michelin restaurants, strict arrival times are closely adhered to. No bags or coats may be brought inside, so visitors are instructed to leave their belongings at the mercy of distracted parking attendants.

But things were much worse when old man Barnes applied the astoundingly restrictive rules he established for viewing his singular art collection. T.S. Eliot was unceremoniously rebuffed when he tried to visit, as were Le Corbusier and the sculptor Jacques Lipchitz, whose two friezes adorn the Foundation's austere building. Officials from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, with whom Barnes maintained a less than cordial relationship (he called their museum "a house of artistic and intellectual prostitution"), were repeatedly forced to don disguises to view the Foundation's masterworks. More recently?presumably trapped between the twin pincers of Barnes' cumbersome will and the township's hostile zoning demands?the Foundation turned away another name-brand personage: the gaudy celebrity and art collector Elton John. He had, it seems, dared to arrive without a reservation.

For those who manage to access the forbidding cloister that is the Barnes, a glorious reward awaits them that is just this side of fantastic. For art lovers, the experience compares only to a child's first Christmas visit to FAO Schwarz. The shock of myth materialized is present?yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus!?and also an awesome sense of bounty. The collection contains 2500 pieces, including, incredibly, 180 Renoirs, 69 Cezannes (more than in all the museums in France put together), 60 Matisses, 46 Picassos as well numerous other works by artists like Titian, Tintoretto, Chardin, Delacroix, Manet, Monet, Van Gogh and Seurat.

Orchestrated into "ensembles" by the irascible but knowledgeable Barnes himself, the works are hung from floor to ceiling on the museum's specially designed burlap-lined walls (a dated innovation that transforms the space from neoclassical formality into an interior wrapped in sackcloth). An El Greco rubs up against a Milton Avery that in turn shoulders a Rubens. A Bosch painting is set cheek by jowl with a Cezanne, pulling the viewer's eye toward a tiny, gem-like Goya. Paintings by Corot and Gauguin wait patiently on an adjoining wall. Filled to the very brim, like the coffee cups of air-traffic controllers, and spurning the trappings of more up-to-date museums, the smallish rooms of the Barnes struggle to hold back their objects' wealth, conservatively valued at some several billion dollars.

The Barnes Foundation's collection, greater and more purposeful than the collections accumulated by Isabella Stewart Gardner in her palazzo on the Fenway and Henry Clay Frick inside his 5th Ave. manor house, is bullishly strong in impressionist and postimpressionist painting but ranges far afield to encompass early Christian art, African masks, Native American rugs, pre-Columbian objects, rare furniture and unique works of folk art from the Americas. Jumbled together inside the Foundation's rooms with hardly a label among them (paintings will sometimes sport a single prosaic word on their frames, identifying the artist: "Cezanne"), the Foundation's physical organization remains unchanged since its patron's death, following his stringent prescriptions to the letter.

Albert Barnes, a connoisseur idiosyncratic enough to originate his own homemade esthetics (with a push from his friend and mentor, the philosopher John Dewey), believed chiefly in two things: using art as a "civilizing influence" on working people and American blacks and shocking folks into fresh perceptions by avoiding traditional artistic categories and chronologies. Born poor and drawn to black American and later African culture as much by genuine fascination as by his visceral rejection of Philadelphia's blue blood establishment, Barnes refused to treat any of his beloved objects with the distance of anthropology. He embraced his entire collection through a peculiarly ahistoric, formalist approach that emphasized the social value of art appreciation, mixing and matching eras and genres according to his highly sophisticated sense of color, light and line, producing strange combinations of art works in the most unexpected places.

A climb up an otherwise mundane stairwell of the Barnes will, for example, make one wheel around to encounter Matisse's bright and sprawling Joy of Life, a work that, like much of the collection, suffers in public appreciation only because of its relative inaccessibility. Pennsylvania Dutch and Egyptian pieces prod the viewer toward questions about line and space in a room full of impressionist paintings. A gaggle of amazing Cezannes, including the darkly monumental Woman in a Green Hat, are weirdly complemented by turn-of-the-century American barn hinges. One of Modigliani's famously elongated and sensuous portraits hangs above a cabinet of African tribal masks and a shallow horizontal relief hailing from Madagascar. In an eerie note, scores of grandfather clocks chime, almost in unison, every hour on the hour.

The Barnes may prove a hassle to get to, but the time spent there is, to say the very least, well spent and never, ever boring. The most eccentric setting possible for viewing one of the world's premier art collections, the Barnes sets an impossible standard for quality in a collection, outpacing money-rich museums like L.A.'s Getty Center, itself no slouch in the Weird Tales from the Art Crypt department.

The Barnes Foundation is currently open three days a week and allows for a maximum of 1200 visitors per week. Call ahead. Drive straight there, past Philadelphia's worthy art institutions. And bring cash. You never know. Just to spite you, they may decide not to take American Express.

The Barnes Foundation, 300 N. Latch's Lane, Merion Station, PA, 601-667-0290.

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