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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
"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."
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Alfred H. Barr, Jr.
"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."
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Alfred H. Barr Jr.
"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."
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Alfred H. Barr Jr.
"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."
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Alfred H. Barr Jr.

Summary of Alfred H. Barr Jr.

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.

Accomplishments

  • 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. and Important Artists and Artworks

Pablo Picasso: Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907)

Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907)

Artist: Pablo Picasso

In 1937, MoMA acquired Picasso's little-known painting Demoiselles d'Avignon and first exhibited it in 1939 with the opening of its new building. In announcing the acquisition in a January 1939 press release, Barr wrote, "Picassos Demoiselles d'Avignon is one of the very few paintings in the history of modern art which can justly be called epoch-making.... It is not primarily for its historic importance, however, that the Museum of Modern Art has acquired this extraordinary picture, for as a work of art the Demoiselles d'Avignon remains one of Picasso's most formidable achievements." In describing it as a transitional work between Picasso's Blue and Rose periods and his revolutionary Cubist paintings, Barr cites Picasso's assertive genius in making this painting and positions it as one of the most important paintings of the 20th century.

While other artists had seen the painting in Picasso's studio and it had been exhibited in 1916, the painting remained largely unknown until MoMA purchased it. The public response was not enthusiastic and outright suspicious. As one New York Times critic put it, "The average man can see no sense in Picasso's work. There must be a trick in it somewhere, if collectors are willing to pay thousands of dollars for one of these splotchy scrawls." Barr strove, though, to educate the museum's audiences to help them appreciate the important work.

Oil on canvas - The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Henri Matisse: The Red Studio (1911)

The Red Studio (1911)

Artist: Henri Matisse

Matisse's The Red Studio entered MoMA's collection in 1949. Barr had written about Matisse in 1931 in conjunction with an exhibition at the Museum, but it was his 1951 study of Matisse that not only cemented Matisse's reputation but also constituted a major art historical achievement. As later MoMA curator John Elderfield explained, Barr's monograph "brought the big guns of North American institutional scholarship - with its special access to artists, archives, galleries, collectors, and teams of researchers - to bear on a modern subject for the first time, to a deeply unsettling effect that continues to reverberate more than half a century later."

Barr's study provided an overview not only of Matisse's entire career but also his critical reception and added previously unknown documentation to Matisse's narrative. In grounding his study in meticulous research instead of unfounded opinion, Barr produced a tome not of art criticism but of art history, an approach to modern art that had not previously been undertaken.

While Barr's reading of Matisse developed over several decades, he saw Matisse's development in cycles, starting with orderly compositions in the late 19th century, moving into more lively Impressionist compositions, and then back to a more structured orderliness. Barr would slightly amend this schema, but as Elderfield remarks, "Barr's desire to over-classify did obfuscate at times, and his wish to counter the popular, light Matisse by emphasizing his favored austere artist created an implausible early dark period and disconnected the paintings of the First World War from his preceding as well as, more reasonably, succeeding production." Despite Barr's shortcomings, Matisse entered the modern lexicon alongside Picasso, and the many examples of his work in MoMA's collection would be crucial for the young, developing Abstract Expressionists like Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, and Elaine de Kooning.

Oil on canvas - The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Wassily Kandinsky: Improvisation no. 30 (Canons) (1913)

Improvisation no. 30 (Canons) (1913)

Artist: Wassily Kandinsky

Barr discussed Kandinsky's work in his catalogue essay for the exhibition Cubism and Abstract Art. He positions him as having learned the lessons of Matisse and Gauguin and then as having outpaced them in his quest for abstraction. He pointed out that the artist's theory of art "was mystical, depending upon an awareness of the spiritual in the material, and an expression of this feeling through the material medium of paint." Barr revealed that Kandinsky's many improvised abstracts were the manifestation of a mind that knew no other way to express itself. While Kandinsky intended his Improvisations and Compositions to be pure abstract works, recognizable imagery emerges. In this case of Improvisation no. 30, one sees two canons in the bottom right corner. Kandinsky admitted their presence but insisted that they ended up there unconsciously. For this reason, Barr cites Kandinsky anticipating the later Surrealists who would embrace the unconscious in their automatic drawing process.

In writing about Kandinsky, one senses Barr's bias toward French art. In a backhanded compliment, Barr judged that Kandinsky's latest paintings "became more drily geometrical but in the last few years he has turned to more organic forms, perhaps under the influence of the younger Parisians, Miró and Arp, to whom he pointed the way twenty years before." Here, Kandinsky becomes less innovative as he began with Matisse and Gauguin and had to be shown the way back out by Miró and Arp.

Oil on canvas - The Art Institute of Chicago

Kazimir Malevich: Painterly Realism of a Boy with a Knapsack - Color Masses in the Fourth Dimension (1915)

Painterly Realism of a Boy with a Knapsack - Color Masses in the Fourth Dimension (1915)

Artist: Kazimir Malevich

When Barr was organizing his groundbreaking Cubism and Abstract Art exhibition, he visited Europe in 1935 to acquire paintings that he could include in the show. While the Nazi's notorious Degenerate Art exhibition did not happen until 1937, in 1934 Hitler had already declared that there was no place for modern art in Germany and that modern artists were "incompetents, cheats, and madmen." Barr understood the situation well enough to know that much of the modern art made and residing in Germany was now in grave danger. While in Berlin that year, he was able to smuggle several works by Malevich out of Germany, two of which he rolled up in his umbrella.

Along with Kandinsky and others, Malevich was a pioneer of abstract, non-objective art, and according to Barr's friend and colleague Phillip Johnson, "...Malevich was to [Barr]...the greatest artist of the period." The Russian Suprematists and Constructivists, in Barr's view, were doing more to advance avant-garde notions into realms of everyday life, including architecture, photography, and typography. While Barr acknowledged that Malevich was sometimes influenced by aerial photographs of the city when making his compositions, Barr focused his analysis of Malevich on his use of pure geometric forms and its influence on other abstract artists in central Europe.

Oil on canvas - The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Joost Schmidt: Staatliches Bauhaus Ausstellung (1923)

Staatliches Bauhaus Ausstellung (1923)

Artist: Joost Schmidt

For Barr, the work of the Bauhaus artists in post-World War I Germany represented a monumental step in the evolution of modern art and informed his thinking not only about MoMA's departmental organization but many of its exhibitions as well. Joost Schmidt's poster, promoting the 1923 Bauhaus exhibition in Weimar, employs an asymmetrical layout that juxtaposes geometric shapes and innovative typographies.

The diagonal thrusts and tension of Schmidt's cover design is an apt reflection of what Barr identified as the school's "gradual emancipation...from [de] Stijl domination." In other words, the Bauhaus artists were not beholden to the strict aesthetic theories espoused by the De Stijl artists of using only horizontal and vertical lines; the Bauhaus artists instead engaged in more playful and dynamic compositions. In exhibitions on Machine Art and the Bauhaus throughout the 1930s, Barr focused the "geometric beauty, kinetic rhythms, beauty of material and surface, and visual complexity and function" in his appraisals of the Bauhaus experiments of integrating fine arts and applied arts.

Lithograph - The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Pablo Picasso: Guernica (1937)

Guernica (1937)

Artist: Pablo Picasso

There's no question that Picasso was, in Barr's eyes, the great master of the 20th century, and his Guernica is largely considered to be the artist's greatest triumph and his grandest political statement. Painted in the aftermath of the destruction of the eponymous Basque town by Nazi and Italian warplanes requested by Franco, the painting brought worldwide attention to the atrocities being committed during the Spanish Civil War. Barr wrote, Picasso "used modern techniques not merely to express his mastery of form or some personal and private emotion but to proclaim publicly through his art his horror and fury over the barbarous catastrophe which had destroyed his fellow men." Barr certainly had the capacity to empathize with Picasso's fury, having witnessed the Nazis ransack museums and galleries in Stuttgart just a few years prior.

Picasso lent Guernica to MoMA on permanent loan, with the stipulation that it be returned to Spain once Generalissimo Franco was no longer in power. The painting remained at MoMA for several decades and made an important impact on the burgeoning Abstract Expressionists who imbibed all the Modern offered. After some difficulties, MoMA returned the painting to Spain in 1975, following Franco's death.

Oil on canvas - Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid

City Square (1948)

Artist: Alberto Giacometti

In 1936, Barr purchased an early Giacometti sculpture, making it the first of his works to enter a museum collection, and Barr continued to add Giacometti's sculptures and drawings to the collection over the years. Writing of the Dadaist and Surrealist movements of the early 20th century, which included the works of Max Ernst, Man Ray, and Alberto Giacometti, Barr stated, "They turned...to primitive art as a revelation of unspoiled group expression and to the art of the insane and of children as the uninhibited expression of the individual." Barr considered Giacometti's bronze sculptures of jagged little pedestrians (as well as the artist's earlier work) to be profound in their childlike simplicity, and in their bizarre, Surrealist-like "attempt to recapture the atmosphere of dreams." Of course, Giacometti's Surrealism and his confrontation of existential themes such as death and loneliness took on new powers after the horrors of World War II.

Works such as City Square would become important touchstones for artists in New York City who were struggling to understand and deal with "postwar man." As author Mary Gabriel explains, "Though Giacometti had not intended to make a philosophical statement, his figures were the ultimate Existential works.... No sculptor had ever portrayed humankind in such a way, and no one - sculptor or painter - had portrayed the human figure in the wake of war as honestly as he did." Barr's keen eye not only elevated the artists he chose to include in MoMA's collection, it also in some ways shaped contemporary artistic production by introducing these artists to to future young, aspiring artists.

Bronze - The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Biography of Alfred H. Barr Jr.

Childhood

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.

Post-World War I years

After two years, he chose Art History as his major, studying with Charles Rufus Morey - an expert on early Christian iconography - and Frank Jewett Mather, who introduced the young Barr to modern art. Barr graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Princeton in 1922, and received an M.A. the following year. After traveling in Europe in 1924, Barr enrolled in the Ph.D. program at Harvard. Between 1925 and 1928, Barr also taught art history at Princeton University and developed the first-ever course on modern art, which he began teaching at Wellesley College in 1927.

While at Harvard, Barr studied under Dr. Paul J. Sachs, the associate director of Harvard's Fogg Art Museum. Under Sachs's tutelage, Barr concentrated on connoisseurship and museum studies, and he curated the very first modern art show at the Fogg. According to his biographer Sybil Kantor, Barr's "message was clear: modern art can be approached rationally, objectively, and without hysteria or (his favorite word) prejudice." Around this time, Barr also met the architect Philip Johnson, who Barr would later appoint to direct The Museum of Modern Art's architecture department.

In 1927 and 1928, Barr traveled to Europe again to conduct something of a reconnaissance mission on modern art, collecting books, photographs, and information. His visit to the Bauhaus in Dessau, Germany would be consequential for his understanding of modern art. Founded by Walter Gropius, and home to artists such as Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, and the then unrecognized American artist Lyonel Feininger, the Bauhaus idea of combining fine arts, crafts, and architecture to create an integrated art would influence Barr's organization of the Museum of Modern Art and his future presentation of architecture and design. Through his travels, he acquainted himself with the art of the De Stijl group in the Netherlands and the Constructivists in Russia. Establishing connections with these avant-garde artists would prove to be consequential not only for the Museum of Modern Art but for the artists themselves who soon faced dire political regimes in the coming decade.

Early in 1929, Sachs, along with the philanthropists Abby Aldrich Rockefeller - the wife of John D. Rockefeller - Lillie P. Bliss, Mary Quinn Sullivan, art collector A. Conger Goodyear, and editor and critic Frank Crowninshield formed a committee to raise funds for a new museum devoted to modern art. On Sachs's recommendation, they chose the 27-year-old Barr as the museum's director-to-be. Barr's acceptance put his dissertation on hold, but he decided to devote his life to his new role.

Barr responded with detailed plans for a multi-departmental museum, complete with sections devoted to modern architecture, film, photography, theatrical design sets, commercial art, and industrial art. Under Barr's reign, the Museum of Modern Art would be more than a house for modern painting and sculpture, but the Museum's original founders did not share Barr's grand vision of a permanent home for modern art. Dwight Macdonald wrote in his 1953 profile of Barr for The New Yorker, "They had in mind nothing more complicated than an American version of the Luxembourg - a refuge for Modern art until it was 'ripe' enough to be accepted to our Louvre, the Metropolitan." But as far as Barr was concerned, if it was modern and culturally significant, it had a place at MoMA. MoMA continued adding to its collection of painting, sculpture, film, and design, but by the late-1940s, it had shuttered its Department of Theatre Arts for lack of a clear mission. The dance and theatre archives, consisting of photographs and ephemera, were transferred to various libraries and departments.

MoMA's first exhibition, Cézanne, Gauguin, Seurat, van Gogh, was dedicated to the stylistic similarities of the Post-Impressionists and opened on November 7, 1929. Here, Barr met Margaret ("Marga") Scolari-Fitzmaurice, an Irish-Italian woman who at the time was teaching Italian at Vassar College while studying art history there. The two married in 1930.

During a year-long sabbatical from the museum, Barr and his wife traveled to Germany in 1932-33 and rented a home in Stuttgart, a city known for its modern art and architecture. Adolph Hitler was elected Chancellor of Germany while the Barrs were there, and the two witnessed first-hand the closing of Stuttgart's art galleries and museums by the newly-empowered Nazi party. Not long after this experience, Barr sponsored the German-Jewish art historian Erwin Panofsky to receive a full-residency professorship at New York University after the Nazis would not let him return to Hamburg.

Shocked by what they had seen, the Barrs traveled to Ascona, Switzerland and briefly took up residency there. In Switzerland, Barr wrote a series of articles about what he had witnessed in Germany. When they returned to the U.S., Barr tried to get his articles published but to no avail. Mrs. Barr once recalled, "Everybody said he was hysterical, exaggerating - it couldn't be as bad as that!" One of the articles was printed in a small magazine called Hound and Horn, but none of the other articles saw a printing press until the entire set was published in Magazine of Art in 1945.

Groundbreaking Exhibitions

Cubism and Abstract Art was a groundbreaking 1936 display of 400 objects that occupied all five floors of the museum, the public was given a chance to contemplate the evolution of modern European art. In his easy-to-follow prose, Barr laid out how 20th-century artists faced the problem of how to paint the external world when it had been painted and refined by centuries of previous depictions. He wrote in his introduction, "The more adventurous and original artists had grown bored with painting facts. By a common and powerful impulse they were driven to abandon the imitation of natural appearance." Beginning with Cubism, Barr charted the progression towards abstraction that spurred avant-garde artists.

The title page of the catalogue includes a list of the types of art work Barr chose: painting, sculpture, constructions, photography, architecture, industrial art, theatre, films, posters, typography. His infamous chart connecting various movements, artists, and outside influences became an important touchstone for understanding the development of modern art. Barr diagrammed chronological and stylistic influences across a large swath of European art in an attempt to create an easy-to-understand narrative. The breadth of media attests to Barr's understanding of the wide-ranging nature of modern art, and yet his insistence on charting the stylistic similarities and confluences between artists drew much ire. Art critic Meyer Schapiro charged that by concentrating on formal devices, Barr stripped modern art of its historical and cultural context. Additionally, Barr's chart of stylistic influences and borrowing has a predominant French bias, which led to the roles of German and Eastern European artists being downplayed in the development of abstraction.

Barr's next consequential exhibition, Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism, was conceived as the second part of the objective and historical presentation of modern art after the Cubism and Abstract Art show. While the main purpose was to present the historical flowering of Dada and Surrealist art, the show contained drawings by children and the mentally ill, which many of the artists had claimed as influences, but it also included objects from as early as 1450. As the press release describes, works from Leonardo da Vinci, Hieronymus Bosch, Walt Disney, Marcel Duchamp, Pablo Picasso, Peter Blume, and Georgia O'Keeffe all shared exhibition space.

The response by the public and the artists included was heated. In 1937, an article written for a local newspaper in Jackson, Mississippi criticized The Museum of Modern Art: "Majority opinion in America is not friendly to modernism.... Those who stand for hours in front of paintings and rapturously exclaim they are finding new and hidden meanings therein are merely fakers and flourflushers." Barr responded with a letter of his own, exclaiming that while majority opinion may not take kindly to forms of modern art, that same majority has also been hostile "to most original and radical innovations, such as automobiles or airplanes or transatlantic cables or Protestantism or the theory that the earth is round and not flat." Barr, ever the cheerleader for modern art, wanted to help the public understand.

Collection Strategy

Barr's vision of the museum was far more radical than the founding philanthropists imagined; thinking of the museum more as a laboratory, an idea, he certainly borrowed from his visit to the Bauhaus, he wanted to include wide swaths of contemporary visual culture beyond just painting and sculpture, including photography, architecture, and even theatre. Because of the Great Depression, MoMA did not start collecting on a permanent basis until the mid-1930s, but then the collection rapidly expanded.

Barr had a penchant for drawing torpedo-shaped diagrams that described the thrust and movement of modern art and, thus, how he imagined MoMA's permanent collection. In the 1941 version, the tail of the torpedo is populated with the pioneering Cézanne and other Post-Impressionists. Connected to the tail, one sees the School of Paris and the "Rest of Europe" comprising the body of the missile, while the art of the United States and Mexico, growing out from Europe, comprises the nose of the bomb. As Barr explained, "The blunt end pushes into the advanced field of art by means of the changing exhibitions. The bulk is made of 'accepted' modern art. The tail tapers off into art which has become 'classical' and is ready for the general museum. The torpedo moves forward by acquiring an d retains its length of 70 years by giving to other museums. A strong and well-proportioned permanent collection gives body to the Museum and supplies a background to any changing exhibitions." In other words, Barr thought of the "permanent" collection in a much more fluid way than one usually does; as more advanced art was "accepted" by the public, the earlier art would be distributed to other museums, presumably more august institutions like the Metropolitan Museum. Of course, that was not to be the case, as MoMA retains much of its earliest acquisitions.

As art historian Robert Storr points out, the use of a torpedo - a bomb - to express the trajectory of modern art surely had its sources in Barr's feelings of World War II. Perhaps Barr was facing the prospect in 1941 that Europe itself - along with its art - would be destroyed, and it would be left to the U.S. and Mexico to continue the push forward.

Controversies

In 1943, MoMA exhibited a one-man show by a relatively unknown slipper manufacturer-cum-artist named Morris Hirshfield, who was referred to as a "primitive painter." A self-taught artist, Hirshfield's paintings were meticulously patterned, and the figures in his paintings were infamous for having two left feet. The exhibition was scorned by critics, and though Barr had little to do with the exhibition, MoMA's chairman of the board of directors, Stephen Clark, blamed Barr for the debacle. Clark and Barr clashed on nearly everything, and Barr was forced to resign as Museum Director that same year.

In the apocryphal account of Barr's forced resignation, Barr refused to leave, and instead secluded himself in the museum's library, running the day-to-day operations from behind the scenes. This story has since been confirmed as untrue. However, Barr was re-hired by the museum after a special administrative post was created for him, which came with a significant pay cut.

Since Barr had left Harvard to run the museum in 1929, he was never able to complete his Ph.D., but with the publication of his book Picasso: Fifty Years of his Art in 1946, Harvard accepted the book as Barr's dissertation and awarded him his Ph.D.

Soon after this, Barr was appointed to Director of Collections at MoMA, and moved back into his old office. He concentrated his energies on building up the museum's collection of paintings and sculptures. In 1960, the New York Times art critic John Canaday referred to Barr as "the most powerful tastemaker in American art today," a title which Barr protested as it suggested he was the dictator of the art world. He said more modestly, "The artists lead; the Museum follows, exhibiting, collecting and publishing their work. In so doing it tries to act with both wisdom and courage, but also with awareness of its own fallibility."

Barr and Abstract Expressionism

Before World War II, Barr was heavily criticized by many contemporary American artists and critics for not including in MoMA's collection much of the abstract art being produced in the very city Barr's museum called home. In 1940, the group American Abstract Artists, led by Ad Reinhardt, picketed The Museum of Modern Art and distributed a leaflet that opened with the provocation, "HOW MODERN is THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART? WHAT DOES 'MODERN' MEAN? Does it mean ALL THE GREAT ART OF ALL TIME? ... Shouldn't 'Modern' conceivably include the 'Avant-garde'?"

Indeed, Barr was initially reticent to accept works by the Abstract Expressionists, but the museum purchased Jackson Pollock's She Wolf in 1944, and a Theodoros Stamos painting was accepted as a gift in 1947. In 1948, the Museum also purchased one of Willem de Kooning's black and white abstractions. Even though Barr was MoMA's Director of Collections after the war, there is little evidence to suggest that he was personally instrumental in launching the museum's post-war favor toward Abstract Expressionism. In fact, it was MoMA curator Dorothy Miller's 15 Americans show that opened in 1952, which showcased Pollock, Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, William Baziotes, and Bradley Walker Tomlin, that signaled the museum's acceptance of the so-called New York School.

While Barr did personally acquire a painting by the young, little-known Grace Hartigan, the Collections Committee's prime focus, under Barr's rule, remained with acquiring and showcasing the works of the modern masters like Picasso, Braque, Matisse and Léger.

Later Years and Death

Barr continued to organize exhibitions and write catalogs on Matisse and Picasso in his last years at the Museums, and he forged a strong relationship with the director René d'Harnoncourt, who was appointed in 1949.

Barr officially retired from the museum in 1967 and settled in his Connecticut home. He fell ill with Alzheimer's disease in 1975, and passed away in a rest home six years later in 1981.

The Legacy of Alfred H. Barr Jr.

Barr was arguably the catalyst for the American public's acceptance of and enthusiasm for modern art in the latter half of the 20th century. His work with The Museum of Modern Art helped secure modern art's place as an institution, rather than just a fleeting trend. As one friend stated at his memorial service, "He did not simply show contemporary art and earlier pioneering masters in an established museum setting. Imbued with the inventive, independent spirit of the best artists of the time, he created a new kind of museum-one with an open, adventuresome policy, which participated in the outlook and interest of the artists of our time, and in many different kinds of arts which had been ignored in the older museums."

The narrative of modern art that Barr developed has endured as the canonical version of 20th-century art. Barr's legacy at MoMA constitutes the bedrock of one of the most complete collections of modern art anywhere in the world. In an attempt to address the criticism that Barr's vision of modern art was too narrow, namely too male and too white, subsequent curators and directors recently have attempted to expand the narrative that Barr helped fashion by including more women and artists of color among the ranks of important modern artists that are exhibited in the galleries. In recent years after two expansions, some critics have argued that MoMA has lost the scholarly ambitions that were so important to Barr to focus instead on what feels like more corporate concerns of selling as many high-priced tickets as possible. Barr's ambition, though, of engaging viewers and exposing them to new art forms remains a guiding principle of MoMA.

Influences and Connections

Useful Resources on Alfred H. Barr Jr.

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Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Valerie Hellstein

"Alfred H. Barr Jr. Influencer Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Valerie Hellstein
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First published on 09 Dec 2018. Updated and modified regularly
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