Modernism for America: Negro Art and Primitivism at the Barnes Foundation, 1917-1951

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This dissertation analyzes how the collector Albert Barnes (1872-1951) arranged and taught various “primitive” arts—African American spirituals, African sculpture, Native American art, and Pennsylvania Dutch crafts and furniture—to foster American modernism and American democracy. Although he is best known for his modern art collection, Barnes’s displays brought heterogeneous arts into close proximity in zealously symmetric ensembles that organized objects by their formal qualities, their “light, line, color and space.” This insistent visual formalism, however, has obscured the importance that race and American identity had in the organization of the displays. Barnes formed his understanding of race in aesthetic terms, so that his thinking on race was inextricable from his formal approach to art. In parallel to many of the modern artists he admired, an experience with so called primitive art and music catalyzed his understanding of the relations within and among the objects in his collection. This dissertation analyzes Barnes’s primitivist vision and hearing through his and his interlocutors’ private and published writing and through illustrations of the displays, which were frozen in place at his death in 1951. Chapter 1 uncovers the Foundation’s roots in Barnes’s classes for his factory workers and his early collaboration with John Dewey to promote democratic education. The next two chapters analyze the relationship between African American music, African sculpture, and modern French paintings. Chapter 2 analyzes how Barnes in Merion, his New Negro colleagues in Harlem, and his dealer Paul Guillaume in Paris all constructed this relationship differently in journals. This chapter argues that Barnes used and inverted a French avant-garde interest in both African primitivism and américanisme to frame the reception of modern French art back in the United States. Chapter 3 turns to the local, to analyze how Barnes presented the relationship between modern paintings and the spirituals as central to establishing modernism in America. It argues that while Barnes used the spirituals as source material for modern Western art, his New Negro interlocutors and students focused more on its active role in modernity itself. Chapter 4 analyzes a paradox: while Barnes famously resisted, or was at least highly skeptical of, the photographic reproduction of his art collection, he not only allowed but encouraged the reproduction and circulation of his African sculpture collection. I argue that this one exception indicates the different status of the African sculpture as tools to explicate modern art rather than as fully auratic objects. Moreover, parallels between Barnes’s circulation of photographs of African sculpture and photographs of African American people show how people and objects became conflated under a primitivist rubric. Chapter 5 returns to Barnes’s project of conceptualizing American modernism and democracy with his turn towards collecting a range of “primitive” American art, which included Native American pottery, rugs, and metalwork and Pennsylvania Dutch crafts and furniture. If, for Barnes, “Negro art” was the “only great art of the American soil” in the 1920s, by the 1930s he began to broaden the contenders for authentic American expression to other groups on America’s margins. My Conclusion considers the artist Horace Pippin and the ways in which his art was framed as primitive. I argue that despite Barnes’s quest to institutionalize the relationship between “Negro art” and modern art he was never able to see that Negro art could itself be modern.

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  • 01/29/2019
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