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.

It is difficult to extract Barr, the brilliant young man, from what the museum eventually became—the prime repository of a seemingly preordained canon of modernism. Barr’s early reports to his trustees betray some uncertainty. His notion of modernism emerged piecemeal. At one point he suggested that the museum might collect Goya as a precursor of modern painting, a fascinating idea but far from what the Modern came to see as its mission.

It is useful to recall that only a few years before the Modern opened, the Metropolitan Museum was still wrangling over whether Impressionism, by then half a century old, was something invented in the absinthe shops of Paris, as Roland Redmond, the Met president, sniffily put it. A Met curator was almost fired simply for proposing that the museum buy a Cézanne. Barr’s talent was partly to identify the main currents of modernism earlier than most other people did. At the same time, one must bear in mind that his great shows of Cubism and Dada and Surrealism took place in 1936, when Cubism was already thirty years old and Dada, in its original manifestation, had long before exhausted itself. The American public was slow in coming to this work and Barr’s genius equally entailed a talent for promotion: he realized that modernism, being a hard sell, required a propaganda campaign. He was the first director to hire a publicist for a museum.

Barr was an idealist, not a determinist like Clement Greenberg, who rejected art that did not fit his strict criteria of art for art’s sake and who insisted that art conform to its materials (the flatness of the canvas, the physical properties of paint); nor was he a strict formalist. He prized difficulty in art but admired the simple beauty of machine ball bearings. “Modern art is almost as varied and complex as modern life,” he said. He embraced and promoted not only painting, sculpture, drawing, and architecture but industrial design, photography, and film, at a time when very few Americans thought of dime-store objects in aesthetic terms and even the moviemakers themselves didn’t dream that their work would ever end up in an art museum.

Barr made a trip to the Soviet Union in 1927 and 1928, where he met Eisenstein and was impressed by avant-garde films. He noted in his diary that movies “required a new critical apparatus.” When he established a film library at the museum in the mid-1930s, there were no repertory movie theaters in the United States, no art houses, no graduate schools teaching film, no film festivals. This was a radical idea. Iris Barry was hired as the museum’s librarian and wrote movie reviews in the Modern’s bulletin. Her enthusiasm for Mae West’s performance as Diamond Lil, the vixen who invited Cary Grant to come up and see her sometime, in Lowell Sherman’s She Done Him Wrong of 1933, provoked an indignant phone call from Abby Rockefeller. What did this have to do with art? Barr told Dwight Macdonald that embracing “the best in these arts of popular entertainment and of commercial and industrial design will mitigate some of the arcane and difficult atmosphere of painting and sculpture.”

Rockefeller came around, but the museum’s trustees had had enough of Barr’s directorship by 1943 after he displayed a decorated shoeshine stand by a folk artist named Joe Milone and presented a show of paintings by Morris Hirshfield, a retired Brooklyn slipper manufacturer, whom one newspaper critic called the “master of two left feet,” because he only painted left feet. It is ironic that Barr’s downfall should have been folk art, which Abby Rockefeller, his benefactor, loved and collected. But his tenure had depended on a shaky alliance with skeptical trustees and, in retrospect, was doomed to fall apart. Barr once said, “Each generation creates art. It also discovers art.” It can be difficult now to imagine how unusual Barr’s catholic vision of art was, because it has so thoroughly redefined American culture. He believed in “the conscientious, continuous, resolute distinction of quality from mediocrity.” For Barr this did not mean abstraction versus realism or high versus low, dichotomies he was too subtle to resort to. Art of quality depended not on a certain style or movement but on free expression and informed judgment within a democratic system.

During his trip abroad in 1927 and 1928 (he said he was going to pursue a dissertation on the relationship of the machine or primitivism to movements like Cubism and Constructivism), Barr visited not just the Soviet Union but also the Bauhaus in Dessau, and in Holland he saw paintings, furniture, and architecture by Mondrian, Rietveld, and other members of De Stijl. Soviet and Nazi repression of the revolutionary art he admired on that trip turned Barr into an especially strong advocate of artistic freedom, and he helped various artists flee Hitler for the United States, among them Ernst, Chagall, and André Masson. He became a vocal opponent of federal censorship when Red-baiting congressmen, like George A. Dondero of Michigan, blackballed abstract artists and those said to have Communist sympathies from government-sponsored exhibitions during the 1950s. In a public statement of 1956 Barr called for the “outspoken defense of American principles of freedom” against both “the communists and the fanatical pressure groups working under the banner of anti-communism.” Art, he asserted, must never be held hostage to politics, which did not mean that artists could not choose to be political. A healthy society depended on the ability of artists to act as free citizens, supported by enlightened private patrons.

Because of “a general decline in religious, ethical and moral convictions,” Barr said, “art may well have increasing importance quite outside aesthetic enjoyment.” He believed that preaching modernism to the masses was therefore both a matter of public edification and a moral principle.

Barr came of age during a particularly creative moment in the history of modern art and also during a time when new literary magazines and journals spoke to a cosmopolitan public about art. Barr learned about modernism from The Dial, he once said, and in 1927 he even designed an art quiz for Vanity Fair derived from a course he was teaching at Wellesley. “What is the significance of each of the following in relation to modern artistic expression?” he asked readers, then listed names, titles, and places like George Gershwin, Matisse (but not Picasso, whom he then thought of as having a less permanent influence), James Joyce, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and Saks Fifth Avenue. The last, Barr explained, “through its advertisements and show windows…has done more to popularize the modern mannerism in pictorial and decorative arts than any two proselytizing critics.”

Barr was also fortunate in his assistant, Dorothy Miller, who, from the 1940s until the early 1960s, organized shows of American art that promoted the careers of artists such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Arshile Gorky, Frank Stella, Larry Rivers, Robert Rauschenberg, Ellsworth Kelly, Louise Nevelson, and Jasper Johns and mitigated criticism of the museum, for example during the 1950s from the critic Tom Hess, editor of Art News, for having slighted Abstract Expressionism. Barr even could be said to have gotten a break from Hitler. During the war, the market for art was depressed, and the Modern was able to buy cheaply the work of artists attacked by the Nazis. Then in the 1950s a poor economy in France allowed Barr to enrich the museum’s holdings of Matisse.

Kantor has much to say about the influence on Barr of his teachers, including Charles Rufus Morey and Frank Jewett Mather at Princeton and Paul Sachs at Harvard. Mather taught modern art. Barr wrote to him in 1931:

You speak of yourself as conservative. Which I suppose is true. Yet none of my teachers was nearly as open to new ideas and so tolerant of contemporary art they didn’t like.

Tolerance became Barr’s guiding principle. Morey, Kantor reminds us, was a medievalist whose course at Princeton, as Barr said, “was a remarkable synthesis of the principal medieval visual arts as a record of a period of civilization: architecture, sculpture, painting on walls and in books, minor arts and crafts were all included.” Following the example of the Viennese art historian Alois Riegl, Morey plotted a scheme for medieval art that seems the template for Barr’s later influential charts of modernism. For the jacket of the catalog of “Cubism and Abstract Art” Barr drew a flow chart of movements and artists, an almost maniacally complex diagram of arrows connecting Cézanne to Cubism to Futurism to Dadaism to Surrealism. His most famous drawing was of a torpedo representing the evolution of the museum’s collection as it should move through time into the future. Its first incarnation had Goya, Ingres, and Constable at the torpedo’s tail and the Mexican muralists in its nose. Morey’s scheme was an inspiration for this sort of device, as was the medieval world he described. The Bauhaus, the commonly cited source for Barr’s concept of multiple departments at the museum dedicated variously to film, photography, architecture and design, and painting and sculpture, echoed what Morey had already taught Barr about the diversity and equality of the arts in the Middle Ages.

Barr then became Sachs’s protégé, learning from him much about museum management, connoisseurship, and exhibition display. Sachs believed in “modern art as inseparably linked in history to traditional art, and the romantic notion of the rebellious genius,” Kantor writes. When Barr taught modern art at Wellesley in 1927, he related Gauguin to the master artists of medieval stained glass, Redon to Matthias Grünewald, and Renoir to Rubens. He put slides on the screen and spoke little, being naturally reticent, but also trusting students, as he told Sachs, “to bring home the conviction that art is especially so because it depends so largely upon esthetic feeling.”

Kantor also connects the development of Barr’s sensibility with the Harvard Society for Contemporary Art, founded in December 1928, just before the opening of the Modern, and run by Lincoln Kirstein, Edward Warburg, Agnes Mongan (later of Harvard’s Fogg Museum), and John Walker, the future director of the National Gallery in Washington. The society is often said to have been a step ahead of the Modern and some of its exhibitions—of the Bauhaus, of the School of Paris, of modern German art—do seem, as Kantor puts it, like dress rehearsals for shows held by the museum. Barr was helpful at giving advice. But he was by then already busy with his own work at the museum and only, as Kantor notes, “remained on the periphery of these activities at Harvard.” Less obvious and just as important an influence on him was Katherine Dreier, a more radical and dogmatic proponent of modern art, founder of the Société Anonyme, who with Duchamp organized in 1927 the vast exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum that made the Armory Show of 1913 seem almost antique. Dreier gave Barr advice and gave art to the Modern.

Barr, as Kantor says, did not exist in a cultural vacuum. Modern art was already starting to be institutionalized and promoted, but not as successfully as he thought he would do. Kantor mentions John Cotton Dana at the Newark Museum, who deserves even more attention than she gives him. A populist courting a wide audience for modernism, Dana exhibited everyday objects from the five-and-ten. “The genius and skill which have gone into the adornment and perfecting of familiar household objects,” Dana wrote, should “receive the same recognition as do now the genius and skill of painting in oils.”

The words might almost be Barr’s. Or d’Harnoncourt’s: in 1950, d’Harnoncourt spent a week roaming the housewares aisles at Scruggs, Vandervoort and Barney, the St. Louis department store, giving lectures and talking on local radio about a Modern show that had traveled to the store, called “Good Design.” “Of every 100 persons who come to the museum we estimate that no more than 10 actually accept a geometric abstraction by Mondrian as valid,” d’Harnoncourt explained, “but when principles of good design permeate a home, the occupants tend to be more tolerant, more receptive to ideas in art.” D’Harnoncourt was merely echoing the admiration for Saks Fifth Avenue that Barr expressed in his questionnaire in Vanity Fair. Paul Sachs had written to Barr when he was in Russia in the late 1920s that

there has been great progress here in America during the year of your absence…. All that is connected with modern art and modernized art has greatly increased—witness what is going on at Lord & Taylor’s, at Jordan Marsh, and elsewhere.

About Barr’s interest in everyday objects, one might say that the analogy for his own organization of the Modern, notwithstanding the Bauhaus, was with a department store. The museum, although frequently compared to a cathedral, with its canon and saints, in its early years sent many of its exhibitions to department stores, which were the only places in some cities that would exhibit modern art, and presented playful and profane shows like “Photographs for $10,” which had a sign at the entrance:

Each of these photographs is one in an edition of 10, expressly made for sale at $10. They may be purchased at the first floor desk. The prints have been framed by Plohm and Company, 10 East 9th Street. Orders will be taken by the museum for transmission to Plohm.

Add to that “Silk Screen Prints Under $10,” “Paintings Under $75,” and, starting in 1938, the series of “Useful Household Objects Under $5” copied from Dana, which over the years evolved into the “Good Design” exhibitions of the 1950s that brought d’Harnoncourt to St. Louis. Their layout even resembled that of department stores, with model rooms mixing modern furniture with modern art.

The Modern was chartered in 1929 by the State of New York to encourage and develop “the study of modern arts and the application of such arts to manufacture and practical life.” The second part of that sentence seems a clear reference to the South Kensington Museum, later the Victoria and Albert, in London, which was the outgrowth of the great London World’s Fair of 1851 and its Crystal Palace, whose practical purpose was to improve the arts in Britain and thereby enhance the quality of British goods and the tastes of the rising mass of middle-class consumers. This idea belonged to that strain of nineteenth-century liberal political philosophy that sought to marry commerce with culture. American museums like the Metropolitan and Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts were established during the second half of the nineteenth century to carry forward this ambition but changed course by the start of the twentieth century under the influence of conservative tycoons like J.P. Morgan, who became the Met’s president, concentrating more on amassing masterpieces and less on outreach and education. The Modern revived the original vision of the populist American museum.

In this respect, Barr was both forward- and backward-looking. Aside from his brilliance as a tastemaker and interpreter of modern painting and sculpture, he established an educational institution for the marketing of modernism. Its openness and esprit tend to be underestimated. As much as for the canon it enshrined, the museum was distinguished for having introduced a climate of cultural experimentation in America that increasingly altered what the public thought and what other museums did. It made serious new art popular through the 1950s and into the 1960s, when he retired.

Lucian Freud also said this about Barr: “His generosity toward different kinds of art had nothing to do with being laissez-faire. It was to do with an open mind. I don’t particularly like saints but Barr was a saint.”

This Issue

November 20, 2003