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The MoMA Legend:
Alfred H. Barr Jr. and the Emergence of Modernism in America



From February 20 to September 19 2004, Berlin's New National Gallery will be showing over 200 masterpieces from the Museum of Modern Art in the only European presentation of its kind. Deutsche Bank is the exclusive sponsor of this unique event. On the occasion of the exhibition MoMA in Berlin our article series "The MoMA Legend" will be introducing individuals and works of art that have contributed towards making this institution the most famous museum for modern art worldwide.

What were MoMA's origins? Oliver Koerner von Gustorf on the Harvard spirit, the Bauhaus influence, and the visions of Alfred H. Barr Jr. , the founding director of MoMA who left an indelible mark on 20th-century museum history.

An Art Quiz in Vanity Fair
"What is the significance of each of the following in relation to modern artistic expression?" This question, formulated in August of 1927, was not addressed to the students of an art history class, but rather to the readers of the American magazine Vanity Fair, who were invited to test their knowledge of modern art in a culture quiz. Henri Matisse, George Gershwin, Gertrude Stein, Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier , The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the sculptures of Aristide Maillol, and the Suprematism of Kasimir Malevich: while the list of persons on this legendary quiz today reads like a "Who's Who" of 20th century avant-garde, it also conveys a sense of the mood of the time, a creative awakening in which art shattered borders separating disciplines, schools of thinking, and forms of expression. Moreover, it gives testimony to the fact that the public had finally become conscious of the modern movement. And something else emerges, as well - the vision of a total interdisciplinary culture that accords an equal place to fine arts, applied arts, design, architecture, and photography. It must have seemed radical indeed that the author of the quiz, the 25 year-old Alfred H. Barr Jr., included Saks Fifth Avenue's window display in his quiz as an important influence, because, as he put it, "this department store has done more to popularise the modern mannerism in pictorial and decorative arts than any two proselytising critics."



Gertrude Stein, Foto: Man Ray, 1926
©Man Ray Trust, Paris/ VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2004;
Alfred Stieglitz: From An American Place, Looking North, 1931; George Gershwin; Walter Gropius: Director´s Office, Foto: Lucia Moholy; Herbert Bayer: isometric drawing of the director´s office, 1923; Bauhaus-Szene 1926, Photo: Erich Consemüller (if not mentioned, all:
©VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2004)


At the time, no one could have guessed that only two years later Barr would be appointed founding director of the first American museum dedicated solely to contemporary art. On November 9 1929, only a few days after the great stock market crash, the Museum of Modern Art opened under Barr's direction in the rented 12th-floor rooms of the Heckscher Building on Fifth Avenue with a show of works by Cézanne, Gauguin, Seurat , and van Gogh.

As Sybil Gordon Kantor describes in her biography Alfred H. Barr Jr. and the Intellectual Origins of the Museum of Modern Art, published in 2002, Barr's personality hardly corresponded to today's standards of how a dynamic museum man is imagined to be.


Alfred Barr, Photo: Jay Leyda, 1931 - 1933
Digital Image © 2004 The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Throughout his lifetime, Barr, born in Detroit in 1902 as the son of a Presbyterian clergyman, suffered under stomach ailments and insomnia; although impeccably polite, he was a taciturn and almost cold man of petite stature who found his profession to be taxing. In 1932, a bout of exhaustion led him to take a year's leave of absence as director. Nevertheless, Barr succeeded in furthering the modern cause with more rebellion, more farsightedness, and more discipline than any of his contemporaries. He exerted a greater influence on the agendas of American museums and did more to determine the reception of 20th century art than any other museum director or curator of the time. Works of astute and illuminating art historical analysis such as Barr's books on Picasso and Matisse and the bestseller What is Modern Painting? have lost nothing more than a small fraction of their significance, even now, half a century later. In retrospect, it seems as though Barr had been preparing himself to pursue an unparalleled career from the very beginning. But what led the diligent, shy student, whose academic education had been overwhelmingly classical, to diverge from this secure path and dedicate himself to the rebellious, experimental approaches of Modernism?

"Strangeness and Apparent Ugliness"
Upon being appointed director of the MoMA, Barr wrote to his mentor, the art historian, museum expert, collector, and Harvard professor Paul J. Sachs (1878-1965): "This is something I could give my life to - unstintedly." The ambivalence that characterized Barr's personality had also been influenced by the strict code of behavior and comprehensive education at Princeton and Harvard. The two universities had founded their art historical faculties a mere ten years apart from one another, yet a trenchant discrepancy existed from the very beginning between Princeton's emphasis on the historical and iconographic and the praxis-oriented teaching policy at Harvard, where styles and techniques underwent formal investigation. Barr began his studies at Princeton in 1918 at the age of sixteen. His first professor was Charles Rufus Morey (1877-1955). Morey's courses on medieval art were, as Barr later recalled, "a remarkable synthesis of the principal medieval visual arts as a record of a period of civilization: architecture, sculpture, painting on walls and in books, minor arts and crafts were all included." Morey's influence on Barr can be discerned in the charts Barr drew up, both throughout his years of studying and subsequently as MoMA director. Barr employed detailed diagrams to visualize the development of various art movements and styles and to classify the sources and influences of Modernism into a historical context. Princeton had supported the precision in Barr's approach to modern art, in which he disregarded national and regional constraints while systematically connecting movements that initially seemed intrinsically different from one another; later, this precision found its expression at the MoMA, as the various interdisciplinary departments were founded. Barr's concept of exhibiting the collection in a sequence of white-box galleries to enable a dramatically charged and historically ordered story to unfold was to become a model for modern museums around the world.

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