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Alfred H. Barr Jr. - Biography and Legacy

American Art Historian, Founding Director of Museum of Modern Art

Born: January 28, 1902 - Detroit, Michigan
Died: August 15, 1981 - Salisbury, Connecticut

Biography of Alfred H. Barr Jr.


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.


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.

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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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