The Heroism of the Crowd: Flânerie at the Barnes Foundation
Person of the Crowd: The Contemporary Art of Flânerie at the Barnes Foundation
February 25 to May 22, 2017
2025 Benjamin Franklin Parkway
“The Person of the Crowd” is a large survey of 53 artists that has numerous successes and failures, leaning towards success. It is inherently unwieldy, stretching across five or six decades surveying installation, video, performance and conceptual works centered on the theme of the social and political context of modern urban life, crowds, political life, private lives in public, and communities. The exhibit includes work by seminal artists in these various fields as well as recent developments. Many of the works are shown dovetailed and overlapping each other in one large gallery, in a way that is for the most part a curatorial success, pulling into interactions with each other video works and conceptual sculptures sometimes shown dryly and remotely detached in the white and black boxes of other museums and galleries.
Several parts of the exhibit take place around the streets of Philadelphia including posters and billboards by Jenny Holzer and the Guerilla Girls, as well as performances by Wilmer Wilson, Ayana Evans, and a re-enactment of Tania Bruguera’s Diplacement of 1998, an important work of recent political art resulting in Brugeura’s arrest and detention in Cuba. The pieces in the gallery stretch from Robert Rauschenberg, Guy Debord, and Vito Acconci, to more recent artists such as Zhang Huan, Virgil Marti, and Papo Colo. If the viewer is familiar with art history, works such as Carolee Schneemann’s Beatle Box, c. 1960s, and David Hammons Untitled (Speakers), 1986, provide a whiff of context to the more recent works. One of the failures of the show is that even with the judicious and informative labeling, some of this historical context is hard to grasp. On the other hand, a success of the show is that even slight pieces—slight in relation to the other later accomplishments of these two artists—are brought back to life by seeing them next to other likeminded works. A kind of visual and historical rewinding takes place in this exhibit which is hard at times to follow, but yields a more vivid experience of most of the individual works. Again this is not without some failures, but the successes often outweigh them.
Along with the art of this period, “Person of the Crowd” weaves together two additional contexts in its consideration of contemporary flânerie: the history of the Barnes Foundation itself and the narrative provided by Walter Benjamin and others in regard to 19th century Parisian idlers, voyeurs, and observers in the crowd. The Barnes Foundation is a non-museum intended to be a visual demonstration of a self-proclaimed “objective” method of understanding art through plastic values that was developed by Albert Barnes and the longtime director, Violette de Mazia, and illustrated by many of the best works money could buy in the first half of the 20th Century, hung floor to ceiling and wall to wall. “Person of the Crowd” curiously displays works similarly, except the interactions of visual qualities reach across diverse mediums and speak more directly to social and political worlds.
Thom Collins, executive director and president of the Barnes Foundation, and curator of the exhibition, focuses in his wall text on Edgar Allen Poe’s short story “The Man of the Crowd;” the poet, Charles Baudelaire; and the idea of someone who has the leisure time to wander through crowds in the city, such as the flâneur, or dandy, all of which figure prominently in Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire.”
The main collection of the Barnes Foundation carefully compares visual qualities of works in its “wall pictures” which for some are curatorially heavy-handed. Similar relationships occur in this exhibit. It is questionable if Jean Shin’s found pieces of blue painted plywood construction site fencing from her 2016 “Surface Tension” series are seen best here running through the middle of the show rather than closer to the wall, as she has shown them before. Here Shin’s series seems to be a room divider and backdrop for other works, even as they regain some original context as found fencing.
“Person of the Crowd” provides the rare pleasures of seeing Robert Rauschenberg’s 1961 Second Time Painting (1961), next to Brett Day Windham’s Rosary (2008-13), both of which examine the mystery of quotidian objects. Pope L.’s The Great White Way, 22 Miles, 9 Years, 1 Street (2003) contrasts vividly and starkly with Kimsooja’s Beggar Woman – Cairo (2001). The efforts of performance and the engagement of the spectator are questioned by both. In a corresponding way, the narrative territories of many of these works, if read from the right angle, pleasurably enrich each other’s various transitional states of social identity, as in the works of Jefferson Pinder, Papo Colo, Sanford Biggers, Kendell Geers, and Lynn Hershman Leeson. Likewise the rooms of the Barnes Foundation makes use of strategic comparisons that inverts relationships between performance pieces, say African masks, and narrative art, such as Picasso’s and Matisse’s paintings. Benjamin in Part II of his essay contrasts a hero or political figure that stands in the crowd with the heroism of the crowd. Pinder’s Marathon (2001) and Biggers’ Duchamp in the Congo (1997) leans more to what separates members from the crowd, but not without redefining a moving center of the crowd.
Beyond the obvious social and political engagement that links the works of “Person of the Crowd” are their narrative complexities, narrative twists and turns, made evident in conjunction with formal, visual, and political weights. (This is in fact true of the Barnes Foundation’s collection as a whole, but is rarely acknowledged by either its admirers or its detractors.) And part of this narrative complexity that cannot be overlooked is the diversity of voices and cultural outlooks present in this exhibit. (Ditto.) While including a nod to 19th century Paris, other connections and conversations are brought into a state of motion and play, maybe frenetic but not chaotic, which renders the works and their themes animated and in a state of transition.