Alfred H. Barr, Jr. and the Intellectual Origins of the Museum of Modern Art
Growing up with the twentieth century, Alfred Barr (1902-1981), founding director of the Museum of Modern Art, harnessed the cataclysm that was modernism. In this book—part intellectual biography, part institutional history—Sybil Gordon Kantor tells the story of the rise of modern art in America and of the man responsible for its triumph. Following the trajectory of Barr's career from the 1920s through the 1940s, Kantor penetrates the myths, both positive and negative, that surround Barr and his achievements.
Barr fervently believed in an aesthetic based on the intrinsic traits of a work of art and the materials and techniques involved in its creation. Kantor shows how this formalist approach was expressed in the organizational structure of the multidepartmental museum itself, whose collections, exhibitions, and publications all expressed Barr's vision. At the same time, she shows how Barr's ability to reconcile classical objectivity and mythic irrationality allowed him to perceive modernism as an open-ended phenomenon that expanded beyond purist abstract modernism to include surrealist, nationalist, realist, and expressionist art.
Drawing on interviews with Barr's contemporaries as well as on Barr's extensive correspondence, Kantor also paints vivid portraits of, among others, Jere Abbott, Katherine Dreier, Henry-Russell Hitchcock, Philip Johnson, Lincoln Kirstein, Agnes Mongan, J. B. Neumann, and Paul Sachs.
“An important contribution to the historiography of twentieth-century American art ... intellectual and biographical history at its most rigorous.”—Daniel A. Siedell, College Art Association Reviews
“Alfred Hamilton Barr Jr. remains a figure of fascination and contention.”—Michael Kimmelman, The New York Review of Books
“It is to the intellectual history of modern art that [this book] makes an indispensible contribution.”—Hilton Kramer, The New Criterion
“This truly significant book is at times as compulsively readable as a novel. Yet the spell that the author casts does not come at the expense of rigorous argument backed up by exhaustive primary documentation and pertinent secondary references.”
—Helen Searing, Alice Pratt Brown Professor of Art, Smith College
“A worthy contribution to the literature. Kantor’s book is the most detailed and revelatory account of Barr’s approach to modern art ever published.”
—Francis M. Naumann, author of Marcel Duchamp: The Art of Making Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction
“At last, Alfred Barr’s towering stature as scholarship art historian, evangelical educator, and visionary museum director has been given its due. Meticulously documented, Kantor’s study recreates not only the formation, step-by-step, of Barr’s unique genius but also the audacious intellectual milieu of the 1920s that nurtured it.”
—Robert Rosenblum, Professor of Fine Arts, New York University