The Philadelphia Art Commission has approved a new sculpture that will go in front of the Barnes Foundation on the Parkway.
The sculpture, called “The Barnes Totem” by Ellsworth Kelly, was commissioned as a gift for the Barnes by the Neubauer Family Foundation, which was instrumental in moving the Barnes’ world-famous collection of early 20-century impressionist paintings from Lower Merion to Center City.
The piece is a steel bar, 40 feet tall, with a zig-zag in the middle. The gleaming, silvery surface of the steel will be textured through a bead-blasting process.
Members of the Art Commission quickly and unanimously approved the public sculpture.
“Barnes has this magnificant collection of a particular period,” said chairman Moe Brooker. “The interesting thing to me is that they are looking to the future in an interesting way with the addition of this wonderful sculpture by Kelly. Kelly is a master.”
Ellsworth Kelly, 89, worked as an artist for the Army when he enlisted during World War II. Since then he has had a long, steady career, consistently working in an austere, minimalist aesthetic.
“Ellsworth Kelly is really one of the three or four greatest living artists at this point, and is absolutely in his prime,” said Joseph Rishel, senior curator at the nearby Philadelphia Museum of Art. “This isn’t me, this is general consensus: Over the last five years the pieces are getting bigger and bigger, and greater and greater. This is definitely, absolutely one of the dead-central pieces by this very great man.”
The Barnes Foundation had anticipated the gift, and designed a spot in the landscaping, near a reflecting pool, to best accentuate the sculpture’s angular play of light and shadow.
Although the piece is not yet in place, it already has detractors.
“If you want to invite people into the Barnes, it seems you want to have something that goes beyond the taste of aesthetes,” said Libby Rosof, co-founder of the contemporary art website The ArtBlog. “This is difficult work, there’s nothing friendly about it. I admire Ellsworth Kelly, but this piece I don’t think belongs in the public sphere like that.”
The sculpture is still being fabricated. The president of the Barnes Foundation says it will be in place for the opening of the building in May.
This disclosure: The Neubauer Family Foundation is a major donor to WHYY.