Even now, thirty-six years after he retired and more than twenty years after he died at seventy-nine, Alfred Hamilton Barr Jr. remains a figure of fascination and contention. No one had a more profound effect on the direction of American museums over the last three quarters of a century, and no museum director or curator, or anyone else for that matter, except perhaps the artists themselves, did more to shape the national perception and discussion of art in the twentieth century. Barr brought about circumstances that changed the world, or at least the world of modern art. He was the founding director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, which opened auspiciously in 1929 with a show of Cézanne, Seurat, van Gogh, and Gauguin in a six-room space on the twelfth floor of the Heckscher Building at 730 Fifth Avenue just nine days after the stock market crashed.
Barr had been hired by a trio of remarkably game and venturesome society women who collected modern art, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, Lillie Bliss, and Mary Quinn Sullivan. They assembled a board of trustees that later, in 1943, fired Barr, offering him a compensatory post as head of the museum’s collections, a role he made the most of before he finally retired from the Modern in 1967.
He was a superior man: courageous, loyal, tenacious, and modest. He set a standard for explaining difficult art in language the public could understand. His books on Picasso, Matisse, Cubism, and his best-selling volume, What Is Modern Painting?, remain exemplars of lucid, perspicacious art-historical analysis, and they are relevant even after more than half a century. Adept at interpreting the formal qualities of works of art, he struggled vainly to master foreign languages. Visiting Picasso’s studio, a Modern curator has recounted, Barr was so embarrassed to venture an opinion in broken French that he turned to the wall pictures he didn’t like. Picasso was not pleased.
Barr was born in 1902 in Detroit, into a family of Presbyterian ministers who had been trained at the Princeton Theological Seminary. He attended Princeton in the early 1920s and went on to study at Harvard under the distinguished art historian, museum expert, and collector Paul Sachs; his friends came to include Philip Johnson, Jere Abbott, Henry-Russell Hitchcock, and Lincoln Kirstein, with whom he would collaborate in building the Modern into the most ambitious and far-sighted institution of its kind. While still in his twenties he began working out what became an eclectic and expansive vision of modern art and design in which the emergence of Cubism from late-nineteenth-century progressive painting was of central importance to the main story-line, as were the projects of the Bauhaus artists and the work of the Russian Constructivists and the French Surrealists. He later included much else, from the movies of Eisenstein and Mae West to industrial and household objects like airplane propellers and saucepans.
Barr was withdrawn and soft-spoken. He suffered from chronic indigestion and insomnia. He was in many respects ill-suited to his public job. It is hard to imagine him being chosen, much less successful, as a museum director today. He was a dilatory and distracted administrator and a procrastinating writer. He found the job stressful. He had what has been described as a nervous breakdown in 1932, largely from the pressure of his work, and was given a year off. Trustees already had begun to grumble that he should step down as director. Among the papers of Abby Rockefeller in the Rockefeller family archives that I have read is a private letter from 1937 to Abby from A. Conger Goodyear, the museum’s president, in which he recounts his prodding Barr to consider quitting as director and becoming a full-time curator. The conflicts became bitter and petty. Sybil Gordon Kantor provides a fair account of his troubles in the epilogue of her conscientious and highly useful book, Alfred H. Barr, Jr. and the Intellectual Origins of the Museum of Modern Art, whose paperback edition has now been published. After he was fired, Kantor writes, a prideful Barr claimed that the directorship “had become so thankless, so ambiguous and so difficult that I am glad to have been relieved of it,” although he didn’t get out of his pajamas for a month.
He was far from defeated. Much of his best work was accomplished while he oversaw the Modern’s collections between 1947 and 1967 under his successor, the dapper, gifted, and, in the obscure annals of American museums, vastly underrated René d’Harnoncourt, who persuaded the reluctant trustees to bring back Barr from limbo and who often graciously repeated that his duty as director was “to preserve and nourish the genius of Alfred Barr.” An Austrian count and descendant of a host of noblemen who were chamberlains and provosts to Dukes of Lorraine and Hapsburg emperors, a very tall man with a booming laugh, d’Harnoncourt was an expert in Mexican art and a showman at exhibition installation.
He came to the museum having worked in the Department of Indian Affairs in the Department of Justice and then, at Nelson Rockefeller’s behest, as head of the art section on the staff of the Office of Inter-American Affairs. In 1943 Rockefeller brought him into the museum with the odd title of vice-president in charge of foreign affairs and director of the Department of Manual Industry, as a way to prepare him to be Barr’s successor. D’Harnoncourt had organized hugely popular ethnographic shows and at the Modern broadened the museum’s perspective beyond what even Barr had imagined. For his part, Barr conceded that d’Harnoncourt was a “highly effective museum director—far more than I was because, while he has strong convictions and professional integrity, he is able to persuade where I could only argue.”
Barr was bespectacled and thin, extremely polite, and given to long, uncomfortable silences, particularly in response to questions. He looked like a shy vicar. Lucian Freud told me about a time he was drunk at a party during the 1940s and insulted Barr’s wife. Barr put his arm around him:
He thought I might regret what I said the next day so he wanted to comfort me. He had something grand about him that he was completely unaware of. The way he made what he felt so clear—whether it was complimentary or the other way around—gave you a sense of intimacy.
Barr’s quiet authority and sly charm reassured many people about his views, although by no means everyone. He spent a large part of his career fighting battles: with reactionary politicians who thought modern art was a Communist plot, with American artists who thought the museum neglected them or was insufficiently modern, with critics who called him elitist, with critics who thought he was too much of a populist and panderer—and with his bosses. Kantor writes that “although Barr constantly praised those he worked with, including the board of trustees, the impression remains that his accomplishments at the Museum were made through outmaneuvering rather than cooperating with them.”
No doubt this is partly the case, but it’s worth remembering that Barr was only twenty-seven, an intellectual and an academic, when he began working at the museum. He has perhaps been given too much credit for the practical details of building the collection. Trustees like Abby Rockefeller, Stephen Clark, and Goodyear, a collector and former president of the Albright Art Gallery in Buffalo, which he left when fellow trustees rebuffed his interests in modern art, were tough and worldly in ways that Barr was not. Their contribution to the museum, financing and arranging acquisitions, is easy to underestimate because of their conflicts with Barr.
Barr fully grasped the worth of modern art but not necessarily its value when he arrived at the museum in 1929. He grew more sophisticated as he refined an idealistic but somewhat fuzzy view of what the museum should be into a more specific one. In 1939 the museum purchased Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon, an acquisition that permanently elevated the ambition of the Modern. Barr had the vision to see the painting’s significance. It was paid for partly by money raised through the sale of a Degas from the collection, a complicated financial process that relied on the skill of members of the board. Barr also stood up for what he believed to be necessary to strengthen the collection when trustees disagreed. Abby Rockefeller gave him money in the mid-1930s to buy Surrealist art, and his acquisition of works by Max Ernst, at what seem today comically low prices, angered conservatives like Clark and hastened Barr’s dismissal.
By the 1950s, the museum defined and institutionalized the central canon of modern art, from Cézanne, van Gogh, Seurat, and Gauguin through Picasso, Matisse, and Surrealism, and so on. There would be plenty to argue about in its particulars, as generations of art historians, social activists, critics, artists, and curators would do. Barr’s definition of modernism, while far-ranging, was largely limited to the works that evolved, to put it roughly, out of either Post-Impressionism or the machine aesthetic. This was only one definition of modernism, but Barr at least defined the terms of the conversation. His exhibitions, “Cubism and Abstract Art,” “Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism,” and of Picasso and Matisse, along with the books and brochures he prepared for them, were, as Dwight Macdonald wrote in 1953, “models of how to popularize without vulgarizing.” Just as influentially, he displayed the museum’s collection in a sequence of white-box galleries that distilled the messiness of history into a clear and logical, albeit tendentious, story which became a model for modern art museums everywhere. He liked tidy classification. As a child he had imagined becoming a paleontologist, and he was an amateur ornithologist.
Biographers make much of Barr’s Presbyterian upbringing as a root of his evangelical approach to modernism. Barr described his own Christianity as “intellectual and therefore feeble.” Kantor points out that he was drawn only to “the nonauthoritarian organization of Presbyterianism” and that he had an aversion to his father’s preachifying. Philip Johnson once said that the more enthusiastic Barr felt about something, the quieter he became.
This is instructive because, whatever his passion, Barr’s view of art was never dogmatic or zealous or narrow—in fact, it had a quality of flexibility that detractors of the Modern have often missed or distorted, alleging that the museum, from which Barr can seem inseparable, became dogmatic and zealous and narrow. If it did so, this happened after Barr retired, as artists and critics with new concerns came to see the museum as insufficiently committed to the contributions of women and minorities, for example—although it is a matter of constructive debate whether what happened at the Modern after 1967 was the culmination of Barr’s scholarly ambitions for the study of key artists like Cézanne and Picasso, of whom the museum later presented landmark exhibitions, or an ossification of Barr’s ecumenical approach.