Art at the extremes
Seattle Times art critic
BARNES FOUNDATION BARNES COLLECTION, MERION, PA.
MUSEUM OF MODERN ART
FLORIAN HOLZHERR, CHINATI FOUNDATION
FLORIAN HOLZHERR, CHINATI FOUNDATION
Museum of Modern Art, 11 W. 53 St., New York, N.Y. (212-708-9400 or www.moma.org).
The Barnes Collection, 300 N. Latch's Lane, Merion, Pa. By reservation only (610-667-0290 option 5 or www.barnesfoundation.org).
The Chinati Foundation, P.O. Box 1135, Marfa, Texas (432-729-4362 or www.chinati.org).
Donald Judd House: For a more human perspective on Donald Judd and his work, you can also visit the artist's house, studio, library and garden, now maintained as a museum in Marfa. Judd had a formidably outfitted kitchen, displays of Indian jewelry, baskets and rugs, extra beds here and there, and an institution-size library. The Judd house is managed separately from the Chinati Foundation. Tours are by reservation only through the Donald Judd Foundation (432-729-4406).
"Prada Marfa": And don't pass by a hilarious art installation that spoofs the aura of glamour art can bring to small-town Texas. Not far out of Marfa, near Valentine, Texas, sits a clever creation by European artists Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset. It looks just like a sleek shop of Prada shoes and handbags standing all by itself at the side of a lonely highway (www.pradamarfa.com).
Amid the jostling crowd in the contemporary galleries at the Museum of Modern Art, people are yammering on cellphones, others wander blank-eyed, glued to their audio-tours. Others in the crush are chattering in a variety of languages as in front of me, a smiling woman steps in front of a large colorful painting. She turns her back to it and strikes a pose as her pal snaps a digital photo. They don't seem to notice, or care about, the wrenching subject of their backdrop: two dismembered corpses.
A month earlier and half a country away, on a sprawling 340-acre former military base in West Texas, I turn up my collar against the wind and stare with a few friends across a silent field at massive concrete forms silhouetted against the sky. A scattering of converted artillery sheds and barracks along the path ahead of us hold sculptural installations that represent one artist's enduring vision.
One scene is from one of the country's most heavily trafficked museums, the other is from one of our most remote collections, both places I visited in the past few months. I traveled, too, to the Barnes Collection in Merion, Pa., one of the most important — and contested — private art collections in the nation. These are the extremes of how art is packaged and presented today.
Museum of Modern Art
By the standards of museum administrators, the new MoMA surely qualifies as a success. A year after its gala reopening, MoMA is swarming with visitors. After waiting in line to pay admission, you queue up again to check your coat. You have to jostle through the galleries and, if you need a break, there's a line to get into the cafe. During the first year of operation after a major expansion project designed by Yoshio Taniguchi, attendance was a staggering 2.6 million — up more than a million from before the remodel. (By comparison, Seattle Art Museum averages about 300,000 annually.)
The flood of people pouring through the doors is proof that New Yorkers and art lovers from around the globe consider MoMA high on the list of hot art destinations, despite the initially controversial $20 admission fee. But what are they elbowing in to see?
Visiting the contemporary galleries got me thinking about the homogenization of art these days. Just as we can visit a new city and find the same lineup of businesses we have at home — The Gap, Starbucks, McDonalds, Barnes & Noble — many museums are showing the same set of pre-approved internationally known artists and forfeiting their distinctive regional flavor.
MoMA holds some of the world's greatest modern art from the 19th and 20th centuries. But I went to MoMA hoping to see something extraordinary and new, and instead found a lot of the same art we've seen in Seattle in recent years. The mesmerizing video "The Way Things Go" by Swiss artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss was playing — but I had seen it here at the Henry Art Gallery. And there was Charles Ray's disorienting, lifelike tableau "The Family" and a Kara Walker cut-out. Ditto. Seattle Art Museum has spotlighted the work of Yinka Shonabare. Warhol, of course, can be found most anywhere. All admirable artists, for sure.
But where were the surprises? Instead of finding clues about new directions in the latest art, I found myself looking for a place to escape the crowd.
The Barnes Collection
Art collectors have a reputation for wanting to control from beyond the grave the artworks they've acquired, but rarely do you find one more dogmatic than Dr. Albert C. Barnes. At his death in 1951, Barnes left the bulk of his fine-art collection installed according to his own aesthetic notions at the suburban Philadelphia estate where it still resides, with stipulations to keep it just that way. Barnes saw the presentation of his collection as an experiment in art education and wanted his holdings to be available to the common people, whose ideas about culture he liked to mold. He wasn't much interested in highbrow art scholars or critics who didn't see things his way.
If Barnes had quirky ideas about how and to whom the collection should be shown, the foundation staff who carried on after his death made things even more rigid. And more recently the neighbors in the upscale suburb have added their own notions about how much public traffic is suitable. After years of misguided management and costly lawsuits, the Barnes Foundation finally ran out of money. Recently, a judge gave permission for the foundation to expand the board, open up fundraising and begin planning a new, more public home for the collection in Philadelphia. Before that move happens, I decided to see the legendary collection for myself, just as Barnes had assembled it.
Grand canvasses by Matisse and Picasso hang facing the entry. Nearby hangs Seurat's rather astounding canvas "Models (Poseuses)," a dynamic arrangement of three young women. The startling thing is the presence of Seurat's own most famous painting "Sunday Afternoon on the Island of the La Grande Jatte" within the composition, shown leaning against the studio wall — like a picture window into another world.
For a few minutes I stood overwhelmed in the middle of the gallery, not sure where to start. The Barnes Collection includes 181 Renoirs, 69 Cezannes, 59 Matisses and assorted works by Picasso, Rousseau, Modigliani, Soutine, Monet, Degas, di Chirico and many others. Among them are masterpieces that have had little public exposure, such as Matisse's groundbreaking 1905-06 "Joy of Life" and that wonderful Seurat in the first gallery. I knew there were 22 more galleries to look at, and hundreds more paintings — not counting all the intriguing objects and furnishings interspersed throughout the rooms and hallways. (You arrive at a reserved time but can remain in the galleries until closing, or as long as your blood-sugar level holds out. No food is allowed on the premises.)
I spent hours trying to take in the collection and the philosophy behind it. I must admit, though, after all I'd read about the superb paintings, the intimate setting, the unique appeal of such an extraordinary compendium of artworks, finally visiting the Barnes was something of a letdown. The many phenomenal paintings in the collection tend to get drowned out in a sea of less exceptional ones. Some of the unfamiliar ones deserve more serious attention than their placement allows. Just too much stuff.
Dr. Barnes' method of displaying the work on the walls in "ensembles," with artworks from different periods and cultures and arrangements of decorative art objects and furniture, may be educational but it is far from ideal. Imagine a blocklong banquet table crammed with caviar and lobster, champagne and chocolates, among a hundred other tasty dishes. After a while, the tastes all start to run together.
Yet even amid all that plenty, the basics are ignored. Some paintings are positioned too high to get a good look at. The lighting is poor, with a single light fixture hanging in the middle of each room and inadequately screened windows. As it stands now, the Barnes Collection is an extravagant relic, a curiosity: a testament to one man's ideas, ego and wealth. What the future holds for it remains to be seen.
The Chinati Foundation
Artist Donald Judd was seeking creative freedom in the late 1970s when he purchased a former military base in Marfa, Texas, and started building permanent sculptural installations on a scale that most artists only dream about. Judd was working at a time when artists such as James Turrell, Michael Heizer and Robert Smithson had moved art outside the system of gallery shows and museum retrospectives. They began pursuing such huge, encompassing and complicated projects that some of them remain incomplete after decades of work: Turrell's Roden Crater in Northern Arizona; Heizer's enormous sculptural installation "City" in the Nevada desert.
In Marfa, Judd didn't just enshrine his own austere, minimalist sculptures, but invited his friends Dan Flavin (1933-1996) and John Chamberlain to create large-scale permanent projects as well. Judd died in 1994, and today the Chinati Foundation oversees a living, expanding multipart museum that keeps intact masterworks by Judd, Flavin and Chamberlain, as well as more recently commissioned installations by the likes of Carl Andre, Roni Horn, Ilya Kabokov and Claes Oldenburg. There are temporary exhibitions as well. When I visited with friends in November, an exceptional show of rarely seen Chamberlain foam sculptures from the 1960s was on display — an unexpected treat. The foundation also encourages new work, inviting artists in residence to create limited term, site-specific installations. About 15,000 people a year visit the exhibitions.
As the centerpiece of his sprawling museum, Judd remodeled two former artillery sheds and walled them with glass, custom containers for a series of 100 sleek aluminum sculptures arranged in a grid. He designed the space so that the galleries themselves are an essential part of the artwork and the illusions it creates. The reflective, boxlike forms of the sculptures at first appear to be identical. But in fact, each is composed differently within its external dimensions: a theme and variations.
If a Bach fugue materialized, it might look like this. I love the way the mirror-like aluminum surfaces of the sculptures reflect each other, at the same time catching tantalizing bits of the sky, shadow and grassy field outside the windows. Wavering in the rush of sunlight through glass, the place feels like a formalist fata morgana, a minimalist's equivalent to the Sistine Chapel.
Whatever you think of the artwork, it is hard to knock the way the art is presented.
The day we visited started sunny and mild, but quickly turned cold. Moving between exhibits, we leaned into the wind. Yet inside, in each encompassing and contemplative environment, we wandered happily, amazed at the stark complexity of Judd's vision, the obsessive quest for order and perfection that drove him. And it was fun to note the small ways in which — this being the real world — that perfection eluded him.
Like the Museum of Modern Art and the Barnes Collection, the installations at the Chinati Foundation are an important altar of modern art. But at Marfa, there is an advantage: You see art as the artists intended for it to be seen, in a context that highlights the work's internal rhythm and integrity. Here art that might seem difficult or obscure plunked in a museum group show suddenly comes to life, installed in a progression of the artist's own design.
Sheila Farr: firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company