Critic Roundup: The Barnes Foundation

The reviews have been streaming in steadily since the opening of the Barnes Foundation, the collection of early modernist masterworks

View from 21st Street. The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia, in March 2012. (Courtesy Tom Crane/Barnes Foundation)

The reviews have been streaming in steadily since the opening of the Barnes Foundation, the collection of early modernist masterworks of Dr. Albert C. Barnes, on Saturday at its more centrally located site along Benjamin Franklin Parkway. The building, designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, at a cost of $150 million, replicates the galleries of the original structure while expanding its footprint to add new amenities like a central court, a café, a gift shop and an auditorium—a total of 93,000 square feet, compared to the original in Merion, a suburb of Philadelphia, which was only 10,000 square feet. The critics are all over the place on the new building. Here’s a cheat sheet of where some of them stand.

“I couldn’t imagine that the integrity of the collection—effectively a site-specific, installational work of art, avant la lettre—would survive,” writes Peter Schjeldahl for The New Yorker. “But it does, magnificently.” Considering that in 2004, Mr. Schjeldahl, writing for the same publication, called the proposed relocation of the Barnes Foundation to its current site “an aesthetic crime,” the critic’s delighted reaction was a surprise. Regarding the repositioning of Matisse’s The Joy of Life (1906), Mr. Schjeldahl asserts it looked “bigger” than he remembered and “less confusing,” but had nonetheless “suffered a grave loss of cadmium yellow across a central area.” Mr. Schjeldahl’s kudos extended to the architecture by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, which he called “spectacular.”

Roberta Smith, writing for The New York Times, also likes the new Barnes, though she, like Mr. Schjeldahl, was initially a naysayer. “Against all odds,” she writes, “the museum…is still very much the old Barnes, only better.”  She made note of the new lighting, claiming it was one of the “systemic improvements” that make “everything breathe in a new way.” For Ms. Smith, the move of Joy, from its “humiliating position on the stairway landing” to an alcove on the balcony, was a positive one, but the biggest virtue, it seems, is the potential afforded by the new 5000-square-foot temporary exhibition gallery, which “pulses with curatorial possibility.” Her recommendation? “Set out all the African works, for example. Give us a Cezanne or a Matisse retrospective.”

Christopher Knight, for The Los Angeles Times, unlike Ms. Smith and Mr. Schjeldahl, is skeptical, calling the new Barnes “America’s weirdest art museum” and a victim of “The Bilbao Effect—museum art as a civic profit opportunity.” He called the new building “bland” and claims the new Barnes “shuns adventurous imagination.” About the new place for the Matisse’s Joy, Mr. Knight claims its original position in the stairwell was an “imaginative installation” and likely took the risky move because he “surely knew” of the Russian art collector who had commissioned paintings for the stairwells of his mansion in Moscow in 1910.

Jerry Saltz and Justin Davidson did a joint review in New York divvying up the art and architecture. Mr. Saltz claims the art “never looked better,” though he disparaged the system-less style of presenting the artwork, the “Smorgasbord Mundo” as he calls it, where paintings are “wedged into 24 small galleries ” along with an array of folk art, crafts and art from all over the world that is unevenly heaped together. Mr. Davidson calls the work of the architects “virtuosic,” considering what they had to work with—a skimpy parcel of land on Benjamin Franklin Parkway, “a cultural corridor with all the friendliness of a parade ground.”

Christopher Hawthorne, the architecture critic for The Los Angeles Times, viewed the attempt to re-create the galleries of the old Barnes Foundation site in Merion as an “architectural equivalent of a paint-by-numbers exercise.” “The problem,” he writes, “is not simply that the architecture of the rebuilt galleries feels a bit hollow and insubstantial. It is that the artworks themselves are diminished. They hang in rooms where the relationship between architecture and art is not deeply personal and eccentric, as it was in Merion, but precise and clinical.” Critic Roundup: The Barnes Foundation