PHILADELPHIA — It’s an illuminating mental exercise to ponder: what if Dr. Albert C. Barnes, the pharmaceutical tycoon and physician who assembled an unmatched collection of Post-Impressionist and early Modern paintings in Philadelphia, was actually an installation artist before his time? This is the central conceit that inspired The Order of Things, now in its final days at the Barnes Foundation. Curated by Drexel University art history professor Martha Lucy, the exhibition comprises three distinct installations by Mark Dion, Judy Pfaff, and Fred Wilson. It also includes a re-creation (with original objects) of the “Dutch Room” from the original Barnes site in Lower Merion as it looked from its inception, in 1925, until it was dismantled to make way for an ADA-mandated elevator in the 1990s.
The paintings that Barnes collected seem quite traditional today, though they were cutting edge at the time. Paired with his array of decorative arts and household objects and arranged in symmetrical tableaux just so, the overall effect is quaint. So it is counterintuitive, but actually quite brilliant, to reconsider Barnes’s artistic activities as a form of art in their own right. He didn’t paint or sculpt, fabricate brass andirons, build furniture, or throw pots by hand; he arranged things he loved according to a passionately specific vision, juxtaposing objects and works of art because they simply ‘worked’, the way we all do at home, and not according to the genre-driven, chronological system of display that has guided most art museums since their inception. Pennsylvania Dutch chests are adorned with American pottery or pewter objects, above which two nearly identical decorative door hinges are suspended on either side of a Cezanne portrait. The Barnes Foundation’s arrangements of art and objects invites visitors to take part in an immersive experience that only works in person, hovering somewhere between the hands-off etiquette of touring a museum and the tantalizing thrill of poking around someone’s house when they aren’t there. Barnes’s creation is not just the organization of his things, but a ritualized experience of viewing them together in a specific place.
This has always been the Barnes Foundation’s best and most challenging attribute: all the pottery, candlesticks, and paintings cannot be moved, even a fraction of an inch, from their present location. The question naturally arises, then, of what to do in terms of contemporary programming — because the irony, at least in terms of the permanent collection, is that the institution can’t actually do anything. Unlike other large museums, the Barnes cannot rotate objects in and out of active display or organize special shows using these works to bring particular artists or styles to light. Each piece must remain exactly where it is, forever.
In its new location in Philadelphia (following a much-debated move in 2012), the Barnes has in fact found a way to make a virtue of this odd limitation by devoting space — housed adjacent to the permanent collection galleries within the same building — to a rotating series of temporary exhibitions and commissioning original projects by contemporary artists, something it could not do at the old site. It now finds itself with the ability to dive seamlessly into a very current mode of artistic practice: artists’ responses to complex historic sites. The Order of Things, more so than its recent predecessor, Yinka Shonibare’s lovely 2014 installation Magic Ladders, engages primarily with the way objects at the Barnes are arranged, barely touching on the substance of those objects themselves. If we are to understand Barnes’s collection as an historic site, these artists have created responses in which the specific content and cultural context of the works — the painters of 1910s France or a workshop in late 18th-century Pennsylvania — seem to matter little. What matters most, manifested across three very different installations, is the way the collection represents a love of things.
Viewing the massive installation of filing cabinets, butterfly nets, magnifying glasses, and microscopes that comprise Mark Dion’s “The Incomplete Naturalist,” one gets the impression that if Dion didn’t exist, Dr. Barnes would have had to invent him. Dion’s work over the years has found him creating contemporary cabinets of curiosity, assembling large collections of everyday objects, or taxidermied animals, or dead trees supporting living ecosystems of moss and fungi. He evokes the mise en scène of the gentlemen naturalists of the Enlightenment and Victorian eras with elegant wood cases and glass-covered drawers.
In a profound way, Dion gets Barnes the scientist (Barnes developed the drug as Argyrol, which was used as a treatment for gonorrhea prior to the advent of antibiotics). His title is probably a nod to a 2002 biography of Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, The Compleat Naturalist, by Wilfrid Blunt. Linneaus was the founder of modern taxonomy, the system of classifying organisms by species. In an interview about the exhibition on the Barnes’s website, Dion poses the question that inspired his installation: “What would Dr. Barnes be like if he were a naturalist?” The resulting assemblage is to the history of science what Barnes’s assemblages are to the history of art: a grouping of scientific equipment and supplies that suggests an eccentric way of organizing knowledge through objects, absent the classically “Linnean” drive to organize them by artist, region, or indeed species. Like Barnes’s door hinges and pottery, everyday things are being used here aesthetically, rather than functionally. Dion’s nets imply a hypothetical butterfly hunt, but they are busy doing something else on the wall.
In her catalogue essay, curator Martha Lucy notes that although they were controversial, Barnes’s arrangements garnered their share of praise in their day: Henri Matisse liked the “promiscuity” with which objects and paintings were mixed, and an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer that appeared in 1924, the year before the foundation opened, praised it for being free of the “gloomy atmosphere” that seemed to hang over more traditional museums. Lucy points out that this was very likely a reference to “The Gloom of the Museum,” a 1917 essay by John Cotton Dana, philanthropist and founder of the Newark Museum, which sharply criticized what he saw as an elitist presentation of works of art in a way that made the experience opaque to visitors who lacked art historical knowledge. By this logic, what Barnes did, and what Dion celebrates in his installation, was to decouple the content of the taxonomy of art history from the objects he arranged, but to harness its impulse to impose structure, so that his assemblages would elicit a new way of viewing.
Barnes, who grew up working class in Philadelphia, wished to make the appreciation and study of art widely accessible by using universal qualities like shape and color to make connections — one need not know anything about Modigliani or Pennsylvania Dutch furniture to approach them. The joyful juxtapositions are an invitation to come inside and play. The evident absurdity (and undeniable beauty) of Dion’s sunburst array of butterfly nets against a kelly green wall resonates with this impulse.
Judy Pfaff’s “Scene 1: The Garden. Enter Mrs. Barnes, 2015” is a visual feast devoted to reimagining Laura Barnes’s arboretum. Mrs. Barnes was responsible for creating the elaborate gardens, referred to as the Plant Collection, at the Lower Merion site (and which still exist, despite the institution’s move.) Pfaff has created a symmetrical and grid-like system of metal frames and fluorescent lights, which is submerged under brightly colored epoxy, some of which is imprinted with the pattern of a beehive. A large, white chandelier hangs overhead, and photographs of flowers that have been manipulated digitally line the walls and floors. The feeling of disrupted order is palpable in a way that clearly evokes the controlled chaos of a well-manicured garden, though visually it’s less immediately evident how the installation connects with the Barneses’ worldview.
Fred Wilson’s installation, “Trace,” is a lighthearted response to the ‘Barnes Logic’ of object assemblage, using the office furniture and ephemera from the original site in Lower Merion to create mini assemblages, along with copies of Barnes’s paintings mounted on the walls just behind the objects. The rolling desk chairs and coat racks are immediately familiar to anyone who has worked in an office with somewhat older furniture. “Trace” is a witty iteration of Wilson’s “Mining the Museum” practice: here, instead of artistic treasures from the basement, we see the very guts of the old Barnes Foundation flipped inside out. Wilson may be drawing an analogy here to the provocative way in which Barnes placed his paintings alongside “everyday things” like door hinges, plates, and bowls, taking this high/low juxtaposition a step further by adding new everyday things, like staplers and umbrellas, to the mix. This is not Wilson’s most affecting installation; something about the choice of material feels less serious than past works, such as “Metalwork 1793-1880” (1992), which pairs antique silver tableware with slave shackles, drawing a powerful connection between the material luxuries of 18th- and 19th-century America and the slave labor that made possible that wealth. But the comparative lack of gravitas in “Trace” also makes it one of Wilson’s most wry and amusing works, and it’s refreshing to see this side of his practice.
The Order of Things is a smartly conceived step in a very exciting direction for the Barnes Foundation. Issues of social class, accessibility, cultural relevance, and the educational ‘usefulness’ of art are all pressing concerns for museums, and it’s fascinating that an institution whose collection is quite literally a thing of the past should program such a creative response to it.
Mark Dion, Judy Pfaff, Fred Wilson: The Order of Things continues at the Barnes Foundation (2025 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia) through August 3. A conversation between Judy Pfaff and Martha Lucy will take place on August 2, 3:30–4:30pm.