PHILADELPHIA - From a distance, the side of the three-story rowhouse merely appears to have a bizarre, splotchy paint job. But when you get as close to the building as humans usually get to neighborhood structures - say, just across the street, or at the far edge of the sidewalk - the wildly imaginative mural cemented to the side of the building takes shape.
In a Cubist sort of way.
There are elemental renderings of human faces, the head perhaps outlined in rectangular pieces of mirror, while painted on differing pieces of tile are a nose, various renderings of eyes, a mouth.
In one section there is the mold of a human hand. Another tile has the mold of a revolver, and on another is a snakeskin design. There are floral shapes and leaves. Bright yellow tiles are painted to show a happy looking fish.
Individual tiles have letters that spell "COSMOS," and in lower case, "help is on the way." The wall is painted a luscious brick red, while grout around tiles, mirrors and molds is orange or aquamarine or purple.
An adjacent wall is topped with green and brown beer bottles and what appear to be bulbous candlesticks fashioned from green glass. None of these items is as tall as the bicycle wheel that forms an exclamation point to this statement.
Just what that statement is depends more upon the viewer than what the artist might have intended, says mosaic creator Isaiah Zagar, in what for him passes as an explanation.
Zagar, in faded green T-shirt and stained pants, is taking a break while he washes down a sub sandwich with a bottle of Rolling Rock beer. "These mini Rolling Rocks," he says, a grin splitting the white thicket that is his untrimmed beard, "they'll be going up on a wall, too."
With similar exterior mosaics literally plastered on more than 30 buildings, Zagar is as much a fixture of the Philadelphia arts scene here as the world-renowned - but far less visible - Barnes Foundation collection of French Impressionist paintings.
And because each collection goes well beyond the accepted vision of an art museum, Zagar and Barnes emphasize the breadth of art in this great city.
Changing the world
Grouting pieces of mirror and beer bottles to walls is not what Zagar or his professors had in mind when he studied graphic arts and printmaking at the Pratt Institute of Art in his native Brooklyn. Nor did any of them foresee the time Zagar would spend in a Benedictine monastery, or the three years in the Peace Corps in Peru, or the 15 days he was institutionalized after having a nervous breakdown.
"It was 1968 - the whole country had a nervous breakdown," Zagar matter-of-factly tells a visitor as he finishes lunch in the yard next to his studio. "When Martin Luther King was killed (that year), I couldn't breathe."
Zagar relates that his Peace Corps assignment had him teaching Peruvians how to refine their traditional artistic skills and to market their work, to improve their way of life.
"If you can make a little change in the world you are in, it is worth sacrificing something," says Zagar, stating part of his philosophy. "The Peace Corps gave you the tools to make changes, and the mandate to do it."
But he and his wife, Julia, returned home to a United States embroiled in the Vietnam War. "When I came back from Peru, I was not a cog in the machine - I was in its way by being against the war."
That brought on the nervous breakdown. After treatment, he turned to his art training for a living, even as he continued to make more of those "little changes" in his adopted home of Philadelphia.
He moved into a neighborhood that half a century earlier had been home to prosperous African-Americans. But the community, long in decline, was by then in the path of a planned crosstown highway.
Nonetheless, the Zagars bought one of the numerous rowhouses that would have been either demolished or been squatting 40 feet below the planned overpasses. They opened a store selling art and clothing from Latin America, to supplement what sales of his own two-dimensional work brought in.
With home, studio and store in the seemingly doomed neighborhood, Zagar helped rally other residents to successfully fight against the path of the highway.
He also started to buy property cheaply and thus "turned the outside of my houses into canvases" for his mosaic murals. "People who rent from me think they are renting my houses, but they are renting my art."
The designs are art-by-committee. In Peru, "I had people translating my flat drawings into other media - weavings, sculptures. Now, I draw things and send them to artists in India and Peru" and they create their interpretations.
"They bring their works to my agents, I pay them, then I create what they inspire in me.
"That's why I say Philadelphia is the center of the art world," another part of his philosophy, and one that is painted in gold on the front door of his home in the integrated, working-class neighborhood.
To spread the idea, Zagar teaches two-day classes in his techniques: breaking tile, cutting mirror, gluing tile and grouting. He charges $150 for the classes.
The Web site announcing these classes asks for the money at the time of registration because even those who "change the world a little" need to earn a living. As the artist/landlord says with a laugh, "I own 99.9 percent of all I've produced in the past 15 years - nobody wants to buy it."
Viewing - with restraints
That reluctance would not be true for the works collected and displayed by Albert C. Barnes.
Born to a working-class family in Philadelphia in 1872, Barnes earned a medical degree and, in his mid 30s, began marketing a silver-based antiseptic he had helped create. He became a multimillionaire.
He also developed an interest in contemporary painting and in the first few years of the 20th century had a high school classmate, American artist William Glackens, buy him 20 pieces, including paintings by Van Gogh, Picasso, Renoir and Cezanne.
Barnes went on to develop theories about art appreciation, such as how to display art to best understand what he considered the unifying principles of the use of light, line, color and space.
Of overriding interest to him were the Impressionists and post-Impressionists. These works he bought in quantity.
The doctor decided to display them as the textbooks, so to speak, of a new form of art education. So in 1922 he created the Barnes Foundation and named as its director longtime friend John Dewey, the eminent philosopher who also challenged accepted theories of learning.
Then Barnes had built an elegant, 23-room "schoolhouse" for students enrolled in a two-year curriculum devoted to those techniques: Light. Line. Color. Space.
What he accumulated is staggering. Docents place the total of paintings, sculptures, weavings and ornamental metal items at about 9,000. Less than half is displayed, but this is where the foundation's reputation grows:
Barnes reportedly selected and arranged every item now shown. And his will states that nothing could be substituted or even rearranged.
Whereas most museums, such as the renowned Philadelphia Museum of Art, emphasize most items by leaving some blank space around them, Barnes wanted foundation students and visitors to recognize similarities, so he closely positioned like works.
And instead of being grouped by period, style or artist, a typical display is that in the hallway by which viewers enter the second of the foundation building's two floors:
A grandfather clock, dated 1757, stands a few feet from a 17th century African bronze. Across the narrow hall, the walls of which are lined by Navajo rugs, is a Modigliani sculpture of a face.
Near this is a Renaissance bronze of a woman nursing an infant; this piece is backed by a modernist Miro tapestry. Just to the side of it, an El Greco hangs next to a Renoir.
In one room, horizontal landscapes by Renoir flank a tall portrait of a thin male figure by Picasso, from his "blue period." And on an adjacent wall is a tall, thin woman, by Modigliani.
In a room not much larger than a good-sized living room, one wall has 46 pieces of art hanging on it, including several Picassos, some Glackens and Cezannes and, stacked one above the other, four sketches by Degas.
In front of this hodgepodge is a glass case displaying 15 African sculptures.
As one docent succinctly put it: "He collected a lot of things and mixed them all up."
As if to force the viewer to find which of Barnes' artistic techniques is common to any one display, the only information provided is the artist's name, on a tiny plaque on the frame. The medium, the year it was created, even the title of each work, are not posted near it. Much of this information is on laminated cards in each gallery.
The artist most displayed is Renoir; the foundation has 181 of his works. There are also 69 Cezannes, 60 Matisses, seven Van Goghs, four Monets . . .
An estimate published in January 2001 put the value of the collection at more than $6-billion.
And yet, the Foundation has operated for years at a loss. A major problem is that the Township of Merion, the suburb in which the foundation building is located, has ruled that no more than 400 visitors a day can enter the building - and that can happen only three days a week.
Until recently there was little on-site parking, so that residential streets surrounding the 13-acre site had been cluttered with visitors' cars.
For years, foundation trustees have been suing to break Barnes' will. They want to accept Philadelphia's offer to move the art from its home, 8 miles outside the city, to a venue downtown.
But the art critic of the Philadelphia Inquirer wrapped up a three-part series this month on the controversy by declaring, twice, that moving the collection would be "a tragedy."
For almost 80 years, Edward J. Sozanski wrote, Barnes' elegant, purpose-built home, amid an acclaimed arboretum that is also the subject of a two-year course of study, has produced "a distinctive and seductive . . . spirit of place."
Shifting the artworks, even to a more-spacious museum, would destroy "a magical feeling of refuge."
A fabled collection that only a handful of people can see. And thought-provoking works adorning walls and fences in the hip South Street neighborhood. Perhaps Philadelphia really is "the center of the art world."
If you go
Isaiah Zagar's Web site includes more photos of his work, information on his workshops and a map of the exterior murals; go to www.isaiahzagar.org/index.html
The Barnes Foundation is open from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., Friday through Sunday, from September to June. In July and August, it is open for the same hours Wednesday through Friday. Admission is $5; the audio tour is $7; reserved parking is $10. Reservations are mandatory.
The Foundation is off Route 1, at 300 N Latch's Lane, Merion, PA, 19066. Call 610 667-0290 or go to www.barnesfoundation.org To get a taste of the collection, click on the Web site's page titled Foundation Prints Collection, which are a number of paintings that have been reproduced for sale. Information on the Arboretum is also on the Web site.