A work of art is an infinitely complex focus of human experience. The mystery of its creation, its history, and the rise and fall of its esthetic, documentary, sentimental, and commercial values, the endless variety of its relationships to the other works of art, its physical condition, the meaning of its subject, the technique of its production, the purpose of the man who made it—all these factors lie behind a work of art, converge upon it, and challenge our powers of analysis and publication. And they should be made accessible to other scholars and intelligible to the man off the street.
—Alfred H. Barr, Jr., 1946

Of the many museums that were founded in the United States in the course of the last century, none has exerted a greater influence on public taste, on American intellectual life, and on the life of art itself than the Museum of Modern Art, which made its debut in New York in 1929 under the directorship of Alfred H. Barr, Jr. With one exception, moreover—the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., founded by Duncan Phillips in 1921—none was so clearly the creation of a single governing intelligence. [1] The ideas and the aesthetic judgments that shaped the formation of MOMA in the early decades of its existence were primarily Barr’s. They were the ideas and judgments of a man who was not yet thirty years old when the museum opened its doors to a wary, uninformed public in the first year of the Wall Street crash.

In his own generation, the young Alfred Barr was uncommonly well-prepared to undertake the daunting task that had been offered to him. His intellectual history actually began in high school when, as Sybil Gordon Kantor writes in her forthcoming biography, Alfred H. Barr, Jr. and the Intellectual Origins of the Museum of Modern Art, “Barr’s interest in history was already piqued… when his Latin teacher, William Serer Rusk, awarded him Henry Adams’s Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres as a prize.” [2] It was in his sophomore year at Princeton, however, in Charles Rufus Morey’s course in medieval art, that Barr decided on a career in art scholarship.

Morey’s teaching methods prompted Barr’s interest in the sources, patterns, chronology, and spread of a style—an approach that he would apply to modern art, first in his teaching modernism at Wellesley in 1926–1927, and then in the very structure of the Museum of Modern Art and its multidepartmental organization. Barr later attributed his famous 1929 plan for the establishment of the various curatorial departments at the Museum of Modern Art to Morey’s course.

After Princeton, in his graduate studies at Harvard with Paul J. Sachs—himself a collector and connoisseur—the now legendary Museum Course gave Barr his first practical training in the aesthetic and administrative aspects of museum work. It was a mark of Sachs’s esteem for Barr that he also provided him with the funds he needed for further study in Europe.

Modern art was not yet, of course, an accepted subject for study in the universities.

Modern art was not yet, of course, an accepted subject for study in the universities. The pioneering course in modern art that Barr initiated at Wellesley is said to be the first of its kind in the American academy. It became a subject of lively public discussion when Barr’s remarkably comprehensive “Modern Art Questionnaire”—an entrance exam he devised to screen students for his Wellesley course—was published in its entirety as a feature in Vanity Fair, a magazine then widely read in literary and art circles.

By the time he came to occupy the first directorship of the Museum of Modern Art in 1929, Barr had succeeded in establishing himself as the country’s leading authority on the modern movements in both Europe and the United States. From the outset, his approach to the study and presentation of modernism was wide-ranging and ecumenical. It went beyond painting, sculpture, and the graphic arts to embrace architecture, industrial design, theater, movies, and, at least in principle, literature and music. Thus, among the subjects to be identified in his “Modern Art Questionnaire,” which was an inquiry into what we should now call cultural literacy, were James Joyce and Arnold Schönberg as well as Henri Matisse and Frank Lloyd Wright—though not, oddly, either T. S. Eliot or Pablo Picasso. But then, the fame already enjoyed by Eliot and Picasso may have disqualified them for the purposes of the questionnaire as too easy.

Barr’s ecumenical view of modernism was similarly to be observed in the concentration he lavished upon painting, sculpture, and the graphic arts, which inevitably, then as now, have been MOMA’s central focus. This was a more unorthodox approach to modernist art in the early decades of the twentieth century than it may appear to be today, for we are all now, albeit in varying degrees, ecumenical in our understanding of what constitutes modernism in the visual arts. In the United States no less than in Europe, however, every avant-garde movement tended to be absolute in its dismissal of aesthetic alternatives. In Paris, the Surrealists regarded Matisse as a bourgeois lightweight, while the votaries of pure abstraction looked with horror upon the literary and erotic subject matter of the Surrealists. And in New York in the 1930s, the first decade of MOMA’s existence, the art scene was deeply riven by a political as well as an aesthetic factionalism. The political left favored social realism, the populists promoted regionalism, aesthetic conservatives condemned every deviation from the conventions of realism while the underdog abstractionists struggled against all of these currents to establish their aesthetic validity.

It was Barr’s distinction that as MOMA’s first director he refused to be drawn into this factional warfare, preferring instead to search out aesthetic merit and historical significance in whichever variety of modernist endeavor he encountered. From his study trips abroad in the 1920s he was already well-versed in the politics as well as the aesthetics of the principal avant-garde movements in France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Russia. Indeed, he witnessed at firsthand the political suppression of modernist art first in the Soviet Union in the 1920s and then in Nazi Germany in the early 1930s, and wrote eloquently about these baleful developments at the time. In politics he remained an old-fashioned liberal, as immune to every totalitarian temptation as he was to the absolutism which virtually every faction of the avant garde made claim to.

In 1949, in a contribution to a symposium on “The State of American Art,” Barr made a clear statement of his liberal distaste for what he dubbed the “battle of styles.” Observing that “Abstraction and realism are crude and ambiguous terms but they have a present usefulness as indications of polarity,” he issued a salutary warning against the politicization of art which had again become an issue in the late 1940s, owing to some stupid Congressional denunciations of modernism as “Bolshevik.”

An actual “battle of styles,” as for instance between realism and abstraction, is desirable only to those who thrive on a feeling of partisanship. Both directions are valid and useful—and freedom to produce them and enjoy them should be protected as an essential liberty. There are, however, serious reasons for taking sides when one kind of art or another is dogmatically asserted to be the only funicular up Parnassus or, worse, when it is maliciously attacked by the ignorant, the frightened, the priggish, the opportunistic, the bigoted, the backward, the vulgar or the venal. Then those who love art or spiritual freedom cannot remain neutral.

For his rejection of political attacks on modernism, Barr won much praise, of course, in the liberal press. But for his refusal to be drawn into the aesthetic factionalism of the art world, Barr was roundly attacked by all sides. Lincoln Kirstein denounced him and MOMA itself for promoting the work of Matisse, of all people, and Clement Greenberg criticized him for his allegedly laggard support of the Abstract Expressionists, while Meyer Schapiro condemned what he characterized as Barr’s “essentially unhistorical” account of the origins of abstract art. [3] Yet in retrospect Barr’s disinterested and unhurried concentration on aesthetic achievement in a wide range of modernist art proved to be a key to MOMA’s success in creating the single greatest collection of modern art in the world. This was itself a considerable intellectual feat.

It didn’t help matters, either, that no collection of his writings on art was published in his lifetime.

Yet it is one of the curiosities of Barr’s pivotal career—a career largely [4] responsible for establishing modern art as a subject for serious critical and institutional attention in this country—that he has rarely, if ever, been acknowledged to have made a major contribution to American intellectual life. This is owing, in part, to the fact that for much of the twentieth century, the principal chroniclers of American intellectual life did not take much of an interest in the visual arts. But it also has something to do with Barr’s lifelong refusal to become a public personality. Both in his voluminous writings on art and in his public statements about the place of art in our democratic culture, he was seen—by his own design— to be speaking for the museum rather than for himself. And as he was neither an academic nor a journalist nor a charismatic public speaker, it rarely occurred to the chroniclers of twentieth-century intellectual life to accord Barr any attention in their historical surveys of its achievements. More often than not, it was Barr’s critics in the academy and in the press who were assumed to occupy the intellectual high ground—and thus worthy of historical analysis—while Barr himself was relegated to the faceless ranks of the museum bureaucrats. It didn’t help matters, either, that no collection of his writings on art was published in his lifetime. The splendid volume called Defining Modern Art: Selected Writings of Alfred H. Barr, Jr., edited by Irving Sandler and Amy Newman, was published posthumously in 1986, five years after Barr’s death.

Given this curious history, in which Barr’s achievements have somehow been allowed to eclipse our understanding of the man himself, the publication of Ms. Kantor’s intellectual biography must be considered something of an event. For this is the first extended account we have been given of Alfred Barr as an intellectual force not only in the art world but also in the larger cultural life of his time. Its focus is emphatically upon ideas and their consequences rather than on the private life of its subject. It examines the conflicts, both personal and institutional, which strongly held beliefs are bound to generate in the arena of cultural debate, but this is not the kind of biography that goes on the prowl for scandal or psychoanalytic revelation. This is not to say that Barr fails to emerge as a distinct personality in this book. Far from it. Ms. Kantor concentrates on character, intellectual development, and the acquisition of skills —in Barr’s case, not only the critical skills needed for making a wide range of difficult and often controversial aesthetic judgments, but also the political and diplomatic skills essential to professional survival in a milieu as highly charged with oversize egos, big money, conflicting tastes, contending ideas, and the fierce competition for power, influence, and preferment, as MOMA was in the first decade of its existence.

That Barr succeeded for as long as he did in imposing his vision of modernism, which was essentially but not exclusively the vision of an aesthetic formalist, is an amazing story, and Ms. Kantor tells it well within the limits of the scope of her study. For this intellectual biography comes to an end in 1943 when Barr was precipitously fired by the chairman of MOMA’s board of trustees, Stephen Clark. As Ms. Kantor writes:

Barr had been having difficulties for the preceding six years on a variety of fronts: his tastes were running ahead of the trustees, his writings were always behind schedule, and, in the area of administration (which he disliked), competing forces were undercutting his efforts. . . . His enemies ranged over a broad front of staff members, hostile critics of modern art in general, or adherents of one mode of art or another.

Barr had never been physically robust, and he was increasingly subject to nervous collapses, insomnia, and other ills of the body and spirit. Yet he faced down his adversaries in the museum and outside the museum with an extraordinary display of tenacity and conviction. Although he had been fired from the directorship of the museum, he refused to acknowledge that he had been booted out of the museum itself. He continued to turn up at his office and pursue his curatorial tasks. Without fanfare or argument—never mind such a thing as a lawsuit—he simply stayed on and on, continuing to meet his writing commitments, advising on acquisitions and exhibitions until, amazingly enough, in 1944 he was appointed chairman of MOMA’s Modern Painting and Sculpture department, which had always been his principal interest anyway.

There are, of course, many ways to write the history of modern art, and one of the most important, certainly, is to write its intellectual history. It is to the intellectual history of modern art that Alfred H. Barr, Jr. and the Intellectual Origins of the Museum of Modern Art makes an indispensable contribution. It is also timely, for with MOMA currently undertaking the largest expansion in its history, Ms. Kantor’s disabused account of its past gives us a needed perspective from which to judge the museum’s future.

Ms. Kantor’s disabused account of its past gives us a needed perspective from which to judge the museum’s future.

About the future of MOMA we can only speculate, of course, but certain auguries have already alerted us to what might be expected of the greatly expanded MOMA that awaits us. One, certainly, was the break with MOMA’s past—in effect, a decisive rejection of Alfred Barr’s carefully formulated conception of modernism—that was mounted in the series of exhibitions and catalogues called “MOMA2000” (October 1999–January 2001). [5] An even earlier augury was the publication of A Fine Disregard: What Makes Modern Art Modern (1990) by Kirk Varnedoe, the current director of MOMA’s Department of Painting and Sculpture, which grandly promised to bring us “an entirely new vision of modern art’s origins and its subsequent meanings.” Still further portents may be found in the kind of changes in programs and exhibitions that have lately been attempted in a number of other museums ostensibly devoted to modern and contemporary art—at Tate Modern in London, for example, and at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.

Notwithstanding certain differences in emphasis and in sheer intellectual competence, what all of these developments have in common are some sweepingly revisionist attitudes toward art and history: 1) a distaste for the fundamentals of historical chronology; 2) a refusal to accord the aesthetics of style a priority over the subject matter or “content” of works of art; 3) a bias that favors tendentious sociology at the expense of connoisseurship; and 4) an appetite for populist appeal. It is this nexus of ideas and attitudes that united such otherwise disparate exhibitions as “High and Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture,” which Kirk Varnedoe and Adam Gopnik organized at MOMA in 1990, as well as large tracts of “MOMA2000,” “The American Century” at the Whitney Museum, “Century City: Art and Culture in the Modern Metropolis” at Tate Modern, and the Guggenheim’s ill-fated turn to exhibiting motorcycles, haute couture, and the pictures of Norman Rockwell.

All but the Rockwell exhibition have been large and ambitious projects, encompassing hundreds of objects and occupying vast quantities of exhibition space as well as many hundreds of pages of catalogue text. They have been hugely expensive, too. Yet their net effect has been to render the aesthetic history of modern art incomprehensible to anyone coming to them without a firm command of the subject. Intellectually, they represent the same corruption of scholarship that has led to the teaching of art history in the universities as, in effect, a branch of the social sciences. For a broad public—Barr’s “man off the street”—they virtually guarantee historical confusion and a corruption of taste. That some of these monster exhibitions have been box-office hits is not surprising. To package art for the public on the basis of its alleged subject matter is always an easier “sell” than an attempt to instruct the public in aesthetic distinctions, for it turns every work of art into an easily apprehended illustration of something other than itself. Yet if the term “modernism” in art is to mean anything other than a strictly period classification of objects, an aesthetic comprehension of the art object itself and its relations to other objects of a similar class must be seen to be central to our experience of the art. When such objects are presented to us as illustration, however, it is no wonder that museums are tempted to embrace authentic illustration—e.g., Norman Rockwell—as a substitute for the real thing. As H. L. Mencken famously said, no one has ever lost money underestimating the intelligence of the American people.

Alfred Barr’s conception of modernism, in his installations of MOMA’s great collections and in many of the museum’s major exhibitions during his tenure, provided a coherent account of both the master currents of modern art and its minor tributaries. It was a conception that was bound to be modified, augmented, or otherwise revised in the course of time, especially in relation to subsequent developments in modern art itself and in the literature of criticism and scholarship that they have generated. Yet none of the attempts to overturn the basic tenets of Barr’s conception of the aesthetic and intellectual morphology of modernism have proved to be persuasive. Kirk Varnedoe’s attempt to provide “an entirely new vision of modern art’s origins” foundered on the debacle of “High and Low,” while Robert Storr’s attempt to rewrite the history of modernism in the section of “MOMA2000” called “Modern Art Despite Modernism” was obliged to ignore the fact that much of what he was concerned to reclaim for modernism had long before been encompassed by Barr’s ecumenical embrace of modernism’s diversity of style. Even worse, the decision to deny the history of abstract art a section of its own in “MOMA2000” and then consign actual examples of abstraction to various categories of subject matter— thus once again demoting abstract art to the realm of illustration—meant that the public for Barr’s 1936 exhibition of “Cubism and Abstract Art” was in a better position to understand the aesthetics of abstraction than the much larger public for “MOMA2000” two-thirds of a century later.

None of the attempts to overturn the basic tenets of Barr’s conception of the aesthetic and intellectual morphology of modernism have proved to be persuasive.

The truth is, the greatest monographic exhibitions at MOMA in recent decades— among them the 1980 Picasso retrospective organized by William Rubin, the 1992 Matisse retrospective organized by John Elderfield, and the current retrospective devoted to Alberto Giacometti—have all had a close kinship to Barr’s pioneering exhibitions. Yet at a press briefing in November for MOMA’s forthcoming Matisse Picasso exhibition in 2003, neither Glenn Lowry, MOMA’s current director, nor either of the MOMA curators involved in the organization of this big show—Kirk Varnedoe and John Elderfield—thought it appropriate to make a single reference to the definitive exhibitions and scholarly monographs that Barr devoted to Matisse and Picasso during his long association with the museum. They spoke of MOMA’s longstanding commitment to the achievements of Matisse and Picasso, but of the man who initiated, nurtured, and institutionalized that commitment they said nothing. For some of us in the audience at that press briefing, this startling omission said more about MOMA’s current attitude towards its own history than anything that was actually said about the forthcoming exhibition.

About what the new mammoth MOMA now under construction will bring—it is expected to open in 2005—we hear many things, and we can hope that some of them are true. One is that “MOMA2000” will not be a model for the reinstallation of the museum’s permanent collection. That would be good news, indeed. But we also hear that the entire first floor of MOMA’s expanded quarters will be devoted to contemporary art, and if true this is not such good news. For in practice—if the present and the recent past are any guide to the future—this is likely to mean a wholesale transfer of the contents of the more trendy galleries in Chelsea to MOMA’s midtown facilities. And the present is not, after all, a period that has produced artists who can be claimed to rank with the masters of modernism. Even the few exceptions to this judgment that come to mind are not, for the most part, the artists in whom MOMA’s curators take much of an interest. The very thought of a mammoth new exhibition space devoted to the overscale detritus of a post-Duchampian folly and its allegedly “postmodern” explorations of “transgressive” subjects is chilling.

My own guess is that what MOMA will do best in the future is what it has done best in the past: pay homage to the masters of modernist achievement, and thus face up to the fact that its principal mission lies in sustaining the tradition that it did so much to establish. And in the execution of that mission, the challenge will still be to meet the standards of the man who created MOMA.

Go to the top of the document.

  1. The same might be said of the Barnes Foundation, founded by Albert C. Barnes in Merion, Pennsylvania, in 1925, but for one crucial difference: the Barnes Foundation was specifically created to function as a schoolm now a museum. Its subsequen transformation into a public art museum, resulting from dubious court decisions, openly contravenes its founder's purposes and program. Go back to the text.

  2. Alfed H. Barr, Jr. and the Intellectual Origins of the Museum of Modern Art, by Sybil Gordon Kantor; the MIT Press, 472 pages $39.95. Postponed from November, it is now expected to be published in March. Go back to the text.

  3. Meyer Schapiro's criticism of Barr was occasioned by the latter’s catalogue essay for one of the most important exhibitions in MOMA’s early history, Cubism and Abstract Art (1936). Writing as a Marxist in those days, Schapiro decried Barr’s refusal to discuss the social and political aspects of abstract art. Yet, Barr himself had already addressed those issues in his early writings: see, for example, “The LEF and Society Art,” published in Transition in 1928, and reprinted in Defining Modern Art: Selected Writings. For my own analysis of Schapiro’s political perspective on modern painting, see “The Apples of Meyer Schapiro,” in The Twilight of the Intellectuals (1999). Go back to the text.

  4. For two views of “MOMA2000,” see Karen Wilkin’s “Rethinking modernism” in The New Criterion (January 2000) and my own essay “Telling stories, denying style: reflections on ‘MOMA2000’” in The New Criterion (January 2001). Go back to the text.

New to The New Criterion?

Subscribe for one year to receive ten print issues, and gain immediate access to our online archive spanning more than four decades of art and cultural criticism.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 20 Number 4, on page 16
Copyright © 2023 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com

Popular Right Now