Albert Barnes would turn over in his grave. That was my first reaction.
He’d never reach into the Philadelphia community the way his foundation is doing with its latest exhibition. And he’d have no interest in the gritty sort of images being shown here.
But wait a minute!
The art of the stroll
The paintings Barnes acquired 100 years ago were more radical — to viewers of that era — than those included in the Barnes Foundation's Person of the Crowd: The Contemporary Art of Flânerie.
This exhibition is based on Edgar Allen Poe’s short story "The Man of the Crowd" (written in 1840 during his years in Philadelphia), in which he introduced the idea of flânerie, or “strolling.” This character wandered the streets to observe the burgeoning city, its inhabitants, and their daily activities. Two decades later, poet Charles Baudelaire, inspired by Poe, used the flâneur as the basis for a new art movement in Paris.
Gathered in the Barnes are presentations of what recent artists saw when they joined the crowded streets in the way Poe described and Baudelaire codified. Other displays appear on the streets of Philadelphia.
In the museum
Some viewers will look at what’s displayed and call it piles of junk. The artists will respond: “Exactly.” The late American artist known as Arman believed he could offer a critique of capitalist consumerism by presenting refuse collected from the streets of neighborhoods in Paris and calling it "urban archeology." Martha Rosler took frequent walks in the neighborhood around her Manhattan studio, documenting the Bowery’s large alcoholic homeless population. Instead of photographing the people themselves, she photographed their refuse in doorways and alleys.
Wilmer Wilson IV walked city streets in recent months collecting discarded tube televisions, which he configured to display X-rays of human ribs. Wilson will also carry television sets into the streets, where he will activate them and intervene in pedestrian life. Belgian artist Francis Alÿs traversed urban streets and documented them in a video that's now showing at the Barnes, in which he punctures a can of paint and then strolls without itinerary until it is empty.
Daphne Fitzpatrick produced a three-hour video of herself wandering the length of Manhattan’s Broadway, recording novel artifacts and human activities. Slater Bradley’s video doppelganger wanders midtown Manhattan in slow motion, muttering anxiously, visibly unsettling some passersby. Like Holden Caulfield, the alienated teenager in Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, he wears a red hunting cap.
Man Bartlett’s video installation is the result of working with Central and Overbrook High students, immersing them in the movement of people around 30th Street Station. He asked them to listen and write down what they heard. Their perceptions are posted on a dedicated microsite at personofthecrowd.org, and an edited seven-minute video is shown at the Barnes.
On the streets
Posters, photographic prints, and T-shirts by Allan Espiritu are displayed at 915 Spring Garden Street and at Fishtown Bikes-n-Beans, 1321 N. Front Street. Espiritu seems intent on showing the ubiquitous nature of media with oversaturated, repetitive graphics. Jenny Holzer’s black-and-white posters with her pithy statements will be at Physick House, 321 S. Fourth Street. Christy Rupp created life-sized images that illustrate how crowded cities have become habitats for rats. These will be exhibited at various locations in North and West Philadelphia.
Virgil Marti shopped for fabric in South Philadelphia and used his purchases to create two large "poufs" — round upholstered seats with faux rabbit fur, velvet, and brocade. They will be at indoor and outdoor locations at Taller Puertorriqueño, 2721 N. Fifth Street, in Fairmount Park, and at the Barnes Foundation.
This brings matters full circle, because Albert Barnes was a graduate of Central High -- and he credited that unique school for exposing him to a broad range of artistic enterprises, including classical music and horticulture as well as the visual arts. But he came from a poor family and displayed African artifacts and household detritus alongside Impressionist masters. He might just love this new exhibition after all.