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Art Influencers Alfred H. Barr Jr.
Alfred H. Barr Jr. Photo

Alfred H. Barr Jr.

American Art Historian, Founding Director of Museum of Modern Art

Born: January 28, 1902 - Detroit, Michigan

Died: August 15, 1981 - Salisbury, Connecticut

Alfred H. Barr Jr. Timeline


"Abstract art today needs no defense. It has become one of the many ways to paint or carve or model. But it is not yet a kind of art which people like without some study and some sacrifice of prejudice."
"This museum is a torpedo moving through time, its head the ever-advancing present, its tail the ever-receding past of 50 to 100 years ago."
"The truth is that modern art cannot be defined with any degree of finality either in time or in character and any attempt to do so implies a blind faith, insufficient knowledge, or an academic lack of realism."

"Sometimes in the history of art it is possible to describe a period or a generation of artists as having been obsessed by a particular problem."


Captivated by cutting edge modern art and grounded in classical connoisseurship, art historian Alfred Barr shaped the way that generations of artists and art historians studied modern European and American art. Appointed the first director of The Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 1929, the young Barr promoted the art of modernists like van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Matisse and Cézanne, creating a canon of modern art still largely adhered to today, and his retrospectives of van Gogh and Picasso helped to perpetuate the legendary artistic myths that remain in the public imagination to this day.

In his attempt to educate the public about modern art, his formalist approach was an effort to help the viewer see and understand the new art that tended to deviate from traditional naturalism. His formalism would be consequential for subsequent critics, most famously Clement Greenberg, but also drew criticisms from more socially-minded critics. It has only been in recent years that the Museum of Modern Art has come to revisit Barr's schematic, diversifying and complicating Barr's original vision.

Key Ideas

While Barr was interested in some of the most advanced art of the early-20th century, his more traditional art historical training led him to systematize the new art, just as art historians had always done. He wanted the Museum of Modern Art, one of the first-ever modern art museums, to be a place of scholarship, whose chief goal was not necessarily to discover the new but to classify the old. He tended to group eras and movements of art history into schools of thought and technique, or what are commonly called -isms, i.e. Expressionism, Cubism, etc, His schematic of modern art's progress from "-ism" to "-ism" is still prevalent today.
Barr's approach to exhibition design was quite revolutionary. Always a teacher, Barr strove to make modern art accessible and relevant to a diverse audience who was unaccustomed to such radical art that veered away from traditional naturalism. Thinking of the museum as a laboratory, Barr used innovative pedagogical techniques to formulate wall labels and installations. He relied on leading questions, juxtapositions, and even humor to engage the audience.
While Barr's formalism seems restricting and even traditional, he had a capacious view of what constituted modern art. Influenced by the Bauhaus and Constructivist workshops in Russia, Barr understood modern art to encompass not just painting and sculpture but also applied art, design, architecture, film, photography, and theater.
Barr wanted to create a permanent home for the world's greatest modern artists, a controversial idea in the early-20th century when modern art was characterized by its constantly changing nature. In that sense, "a museum for modern art" seemed to be an oxymoron. While the permanent collection did not really ever resemble a revolving door, Barr was dedicated to using the museum as a laboratory to educate and engage the viewers, bringing modern art to a wider audience.


Alfred H. Barr Jr. Photo


Alfred Hamilton Barr, Jr. was born in Detroit to Alfred Hamilton Barr, Sr., a Presbyterian minister, and Annie Elizabeth Wilson, a homemaker. The family soon moved to Baltimore, Maryland where Barr spent his childhood. He was valedictorian of his high school class, graduating at the age of 16, and then went on to study at Princeton University in 1918.

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