Barr, Alfred Hamilton, Jr.
As the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City (1929–40), Alfred H. Barr Jr. played an unparalleled role in promoting the public and scholarly understanding of twentieth-century art. If Cubism first came to the United States in the early 1910s through the efforts of a few pioneering artists and dealers, it was Barr who deepened the comprehension of its historical significance through important exhibitions at MoMA, most notably Cubism and Abstract Art
(1936) and Picasso: Forty Years of His Art
(1938), the latter of which marked the arrival in New York of the artist’s mural-scale work Guernica
In 1924 Barr began graduate studies in art history at Harvard University. He planned to write his dissertation on either “primitivism” or the machine in modern art. During his time at Harvard, he taught at Wellesley College, including what is now considered the first university-level course on modern art, “Tradition and Revolt in Modern Painting” (1926). He traveled throughout Europe and the Soviet Union in 1927–28, where he established connections with many avant-garde artists. In August 1929 Barr became the first director of MoMA. He shelved his dissertation (completed in 1946) and began an ambitious program of acquisition and exhibition for the institution. During his years at MoMA Barr only acquired works for himself that were rejected by the museum’s trustees and never accepted personal gifts from artists.
Cubism was at the center of Barr’s narrative of modern art history, a fact visualized in his famous flow-chart for Cubism and Abstract Art. The chronological narrative represented in the chart, and argued for in his exhibitions and books, situated Cubism as the link between nineteenth-century post-Impressionism and the most recent developments in abstract art. But perhaps most important from today’s vantage point, is the degree to which Barr’s exhibitions traced Cubism’s influence to design objects, architectural models and plans, typography, and other cultural phenomena outside the typical purview of “high art.” After the end of his tenure at MoMA, Barr actively began acquiring art for his personal collection, including Gris’s Checkerboard and Playing Cards (1915; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Promised Gift from the Leonard A. Lauder Cubist Collection), which he purchased in 1948.
For more information, see
Barr, Alfred H., Jr. Cubism and Abstract Art: Painting, Sculpture, Constructions, Photography, Architecture, Industrial art, Theatre, Films, Posters, Typography.
Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1936.
Barr, Alfred H., Jr. Picasso: Fifty Years of his Art. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1946.
Kantor, Sybil Gordon. Alfred H. Barr, Jr. and the Intellectual Origins of the Museum of Modern Art. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2002.
Meyer, James. “Young Professor Barr (1927).” In What Was Contemporary Art? Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013.
For an extensive collection of Barr’s correspondence, unpublished writings, and documents related to his professional activities at MoMA, see: “Alfred H. Barr, Jr. Papers,” Museum of Modern Art, New York, accessible by clicking here.