Alfred H. Barr, Jr. and the Intellectual Origins of the Museum of Modern Art
Sybil Gordon Kantor
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Growing up with the twentieth century, Alfred Barr (1902-1981), founding director of the Museum of Modern Art, harnessed the cataclysm that was modernism. In this book—part intellectual biography, part institutional history—Sybil Gordon Kantor tells the story of the rise of modern art in America and of the man responsible for its triumph. Following the trajectory of Barr's career from the 1920s through the 1940s, Kantor penetrates the myths, both positive and negative, that surround Barr and his achievements.
Barr fervently believed in an aesthetic based on the intrinsic traits of a work of art and the materials and techniques involved in its creation. Kantor shows how this formalist approach was expressed in the organizational structure of the multidepartmental museum itself, whose collections, exhibitions, and publications all expressed Barr's vision. At the same time, she shows how Barr's ability to reconcile classical objectivity and mythic irrationality allowed him to perceive modernism as an open-ended phenomenon that expanded beyond purist abstract modernism to include surrealist, nationalist, realist, and expressionist art.
Drawing on interviews with Barr's contemporaries as well as on Barr's extensive correspondence, Kantor also paints vivid portraits of, among others, Jere Abbott, Katherine Dreier, Henry-Russell Hitchcock, Philip Johnson, Lincoln Kirstein, Agnes Mongan, J. B. Neumann, and Paul Sachs.
what these material phenomena reflect or what they have produced. In the history of art the student is conducted to the spirit of an epoch by his most direct sense, the eye. Art history is the history of civilization.”66 Keeping the spirit of this philosophy intact, Barr would carry it much further by including contemporary life. To the methodologies of historical scholarship that Barr acquired at Princeton, he would add the methods of connoisseurship that he learned at Harvard. In 1951, he
1925 and Burroughs and George L. Stout worked in the laboratory. By pioneering a conservation laboratory, Forbes was emulating the technical explorations of the industrial and art worlds. The Fine Arts division was developing a national stance in keeping with the aims of Harvard.46 Sachs considered Harvard’s strength to lie in integrating the technical approach with historical studies: “Technique and style cannot actually be separated as the scholar does not often possess adequate technical
would later be given to the Museum of Modern Art. Barr’s work at the Museum was informed by Sachs’s belief that a permanent collection provided a “stabilizer or measuring rod against which temporary exhibitions might be evaluated.”90 Barr learned the intricacies of the international art market from Sachs as well as techniques of museology such as care of art works, conservation, installation, lighting, acquisitions, documentation, patronage, and how to improve visual memory. Perhaps the most
straight line from the NortonRuskin-Berenson nineteenth-century dictum of “good taste.” The concept of elitism, though shifting in the decades after the 1920s to a more pejorative meaning, was a fully self-conscious position at the time, concerned with maintaining the standards of a hard-won culture. Their justification for expanding the limits of acceptable art was to awaken the uninitiated to its pleasures. Kirstein’s prodigious energy matched the sweep of his interests. More than that, he had
newspapers based in Paris or sending articles to home newspapers and journals. In their writings, they criticized, with irony and some bitterness, the lack of opportunity and support for the arts in America. The decade is known by the testimonies of men with creative intellect who were in constant touch with the cultural events of the time and who supported each other. Barr became part of the newly recognized “intellectual generation.” HOUND & HORN Reacting strongly to the outpourings of young