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 …