Education and Kelly's Barnes Totem

“It is in fact the play of the sun on the building and the sun on the totem, and the interaction of the people at its base that is really magic.”  -Ellsworth Kelly, on Barnes Totem

The symbol of a sphinx and the symbol of a totem have two very different sets of ideas and meanings. And yet we see the two of them interacting in the visual symbolism associated with the Barnes Foundation building on the Parkway. The image of a sphinx (discussed last post), incorporated into the look and mien of the building, emphasizes the Foundation as a keeper of light; knowledge and wisdom – the sentinel if you will, of the temple of culture and education (for what is education but “appropriate culture”?) as constructed by Dr. Barnes, and in this building’s case, a figure leaning into the westerly winds of the future.  However, the sphinx, though here beneficent and worthy, is still nearly always a lone figure – an individual creature.

A totem, referencing mostly the familial sculpture of Northwest Native American peoples, but having precedents in other cultures, always emphasizes community. The very form is familial: a sculpture, both from a tree and tree-like, which in its most common form, shows a cross-section of numerous generations, almost as a “core-sample” of a society’s, village’s, or family’s peoplehood and history. One other important distinction, which appeals to a formalist like myself: the sphinx is normally horizontal, and the totem is always vertical.

When we get to Ellsworth Kelly’s use of the totem in Barnes Totem, this familial sense, colorful in both hue and emotion in the traditional totems, is greatly simplified, stylized, and cooled; but the communal aspect is, if anything, even more important. In a way, the verticality emphasizes community directly. The sculpture is a bead-blasted steel totem, one rectangular element dog-legging from another about halfway up the entire structure’s height. When this sculpture was dedicated this spring, as part of his comments surrounding it, Kelly emphasized the sculpture’s importance as being directly related to its two distinct elements, despite it reading at first glance as one large, fully integrated piece. Not a direct quote, but he said something to the effect of, “one part is lifting the other above itself”.  And in the quote at the beginning of this essay, Kelly emphasizes another aspect which both extends the idea of the Barnes sphinx (gatherer, keeper, and distributor of light) as well as speaks to the core aim of the Foundation: interaction, and therefore the possibility for education. The best of families are always partly about education – the totems were made, after all, for later generations’ memory – and this totem is no different. It is one element lifting another – presumably for a better vantage point; to share knowledge; to teach a lesson; to impart the best of what they are after, what they are looking at; to extend one generation’s limited view further than they themselves could see, through subsequent generations. Isaac Newton said “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” It might even be said that the sphinx is looking after – a caretaker, mostly – and the totem is looking at: together; communally. In this way, the totem further extends the forward-looking lean of the sphinx, and also connects the building, like a key, to the original Barnesian core of education, and indeed the very core of the idea of education itself: continuation, imparting; betterment.

I’ve long believed that the more simplified the form in art, the greater the message that can be imparted – the caveat being that this places the onus on both the artist to be conscientious, as well as on the viewer to be paying attention to their reaction to it, and the context in which the artwork’s intent is found. (Viewing art is a type of education, and all education requires concentration, and time – not to mention enjoyment, which can cause one to forget the former two). A formally simple artwork is capable of carrying the weight of great intent – but craft and concept must meet nearly flawlessly, otherwise there will always be an uncomfortable gap between artist and viewer. The Barnes Totem rides this line tentatively – it is not Kelly’s strongest work, in my current estimation – but the context, if one is paying attention, helps the inquisitive viewer. Knowing about the Barnes’ aims will help one realize the importance of the totem – as well as vice-versa. I can imagine a new visitor being confused about the totem, and after absorbing the spirit of Barnes’ collection, having it finally make sense – “lifting up” and inspiring their understanding and absorption about what Dr. Barnes was trying to accomplish, and what the collection – and now the building – attempts to carry on. 

Part of the original role for totems was that they would disintegrate over time, uninterrupted, and in that perhaps, is the final lesson that not all is worth remembering…in a Zen way, to educate, many things must be forgotten. One thing implicit in the Newton quote “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants” is that Newton himself became a “giant”, and that giants, even sculptures of them, die, or at least decline: are we as a generation becoming giants for the next to stand upon, to see past us? Both the Barnes and the Totem built for it, ask this question; and offer opportunity.

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