Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 14, 2002
Sybil Gordon Kantor Alfred H. Barr, Jr. and the Intellectual Origins of the Museum of Modern Art MIT Press, 2001. 496 pp.; 0 color ills.; 83 b/w ills. Cloth $39.95 (0262112582)

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Sybil Gordon Kantor’s book is an important contribution to the historiography of twentieth-century American art: It is intellectual and biographical history at its most rigorous. Kantor has scoured archives and primary sources to tell a story of the emergence of modernism in the U.S. through one man who was nevertheless the product of other men and women who had influenced him through their ideas, collections, and personal contacts. As today’s critics and historians bid farewell to modernism as an idea, Kantor’s book reminds us that even though ideas might be defeated or abandoned in the seminar room or at the word processor, they can live on in the material culture they produce, from buildings and collections to institutionalized behaviors, customs, and communities. Modernism is dead. Long live modernism.

While reading this book I could not help but reflect on the considerable influence that Alfred H. Barr, Jr.’s modernism has had on me as a museum curator and art historian. My first encounter with modern art was through Barr’s collected writings, Defining Modern Art: Selected Writings of Alfred H. Barr, Jr. (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1986), compiled by Irving Sandler and Amy Newman. That Barr’s vision, wrought from an Ivy League academic establishment and refined through elite east-coast culture, could shape the life of a public-school kid on the Great Plains in the late 1980s, who had spent more time playing baseball than visiting art museums, is a testimony to the power of modernism.

In the first two chapters Kantor documents Barr’s education at Princeton and Harvard Universities, including his involvement with Paul J. Sachs, associate director of Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum and founder of modern museology. Kantor’s Barr is a master synthesizer who was shaped by the “archaeological” and “contextual” model of Princeton’s Charles Rufus Morey as manifest in his famous medieval-art course, the connoisseurship and formalism of Harvard-affiliated Bernard Berenson, and Sachs’s professionalism and contacts. Kantor records an important moment in their relationship as the young and, according to Sachs, “humorless” Barr wrote a fifteen-page evaluation of Sachs’s prints course. Kantor argues that this critique led directly to the shape of Sachs’s renowned museum course, a class that—although Barr attended only occasionally while teaching at Wellesley College—would train many of Barr’s future collaborators.

The third chapter focuses attention on Barr’s role as a teacher, including his stint at Wellesley from 1926 to 1929, during which he organized his famous course on modern art, modeled on Morey’s integrated model for his medieval-art classes. In Chapter 4 Kantor discusses other manifestations of modernism at Harvard, led by Lincoln Kerstein and his magazine Hound & Horn, which followed the literary modernism of Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and another journal, the Dial.

Chapter 5 discusses Barr’s formative European trip in 1927-28. Taken during the middle year of his three-year teaching contract at Wellesley, Barr planned to “study European culture, gather material for his thesis, ‘The Machine in Modern Art,’ and produce bibliographies of books on modern art” (146). While in Europe, Barr was able to see firsthand the International Style architecture of J. J. P. Oud, Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, and Walter Gropius, whom he met on a trip to the Bauhaus in Dessau in 1927 and which was a formative and deeply influential experience. Barr’s encounter with Gropius and the Bauhaus provided him with the integrated view of modern art that he saw manifested in Morey’s Middle Ages. Barr later admitted that the Museum of Modern Art’s unique “multi-departmental plan” was “inspired by Morey’s class in Medieval art, which I took as an enthusiastic sophomore in 1920, and equally important, the Bauhaus of Dessau” (155).

Chapter 6 focuses on the emergence of modernism in the U.S., and Kantor’s study makes it clear that the Modern did not emerge ex nihilo, but from a number of precedents: from Alfred Stieglitz’s Gallery 291, Katherine Dreier’s Société Anonyme, and the Armory Show to the Harvard Society for Contemporary Art, the Newark Museum, and the Wadsworth Atheneum, many of which, particularly the Harvard Society, organized more avant-garde exhibitions than the Modern during the early 1930s. Not only did these institutions and exhibition programs pave the way for Barr’s museum, but so did a number of private collectors such as Albert Barnes, John Quinn, Walter C. Arensberg, A. E. Gallatin, Stephen C. Clark, and Lillie Bliss, among many others, who purchased work from the Armory Show and were influenced by its organizer Arthur B. Davies (106, 191). Significantly, it would be Lillie Bliss’s collection that would form the cornerstone of the Modern’s permanent collection and also be a cause of the decision to have a “permanent” permanent collection of “masterpieces” as opposed to the more fluid collection Barr had originally envisioned as revealed by his famous “evolving torpedo” model.

The next two chapters are devoted to Barr’s interest in architecture and his collaborations with Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson. These chapters constitute the core of Kantor’s study, for they reveal the defining role that architecture played in formulating Barr’s concept of modernism and his museum’s institutional patronage of modern art. Kantor writes, “At the core of Barr’s modernist aesthetic was the new architecture that had been evolving, particularly in Europe, before and after World War I” (243). Barr himself observed, “In my opinion, the Architecture Department has exerted a more active, tangible, and salutary influence in its work than any other department of the Museum” (243).

This influence consisted not merely in documenting the International Style, which Barr conceived as parallel to the “internationalism” of Gothic art (again, Morey’s course is formative), but also in controlling its reception in the U.S. with a specific agenda, that is, in defeating the “sociology” and “functionalism” of “Gropiusism” (283). Kantor observes, “Even more than Mies [van der Rohe] and Le Corbusier, Barr and Hitchcock saw international modern architecture in purely aesthetic terms. They were unconcerned with its social and political foundations despite the fact that ‘International’ had serious political connotations” (253). (Working in a building that Philip Johnson designed in the early sixties, I know all too well the affect of this particular aesthetic on all aspects of the institution.)

Although Barr aestheticized modern architecture, he understood its significance in the international avant-garde vision as the literal and metaphoric environment of utopianism, within which avant-garde painting, sculpture, and design would serve their transformative purposes. It is therefore no surprise that Barr was deeply invested in using architecture to aestheticize modern art for U.S. audiences. Indeed, one of Barr’s chief disappointments was not being involved in choosing an architect for the Modern’s new building in the late 1930s (312).

Chapter 9, entitled “The Directorship at Full Throttle,” devotes attention to four of Barr’s most important projects, Cubism and Abstract Art; Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism; and his work on Picasso and Matisse. Although Barr submitted a revision of his exhibition catalogue, Picasso: Forty Years of His Art, for his doctoral dissertation at New York University, he considered his masterpiece to be Matisse: His Art and His Public, published in 1954. Kantor also mentions Barr’s famous chart of modern art, which was published in the catalogue for Cubism and Abstract Art, and interprets it as a manifestation of his previous formalist training under Morey and Sachs.

The epilogue concludes with a discussion of Barr’s trials and tribulations with the Modern’s trustees, which ultimately led to his dismissal as director in 1943. Largely through the efforts of his friend and colleague James Thrall Soby, Barr was eventually reinstated as director of the collections in 1947 and then finally, as the director of the Department of Painting and Sculpture, which became the most influential and powerful section at the museum during the 1950s and 1960s.

Kantor tends to rely overmuch on the sheer quantity of archival evidence to make an argument, at times leaving important issues largely unexplored in any great analytical depth, such as Barr’s relationship to Meyer Schapiro and Clement Greenberg; how Barr could embrace the utopianism of the Bauhaus while distancing himself from Gropius’s “sociological” architecture; how he understood modern architecture as a metaphor for modern painting; and his concept of a fluid permanent collection of modern art that would be deaccessioned after fifty to one hundred years.

Kantor’s scholarship resembles Barr’s: it is precise, meticulous, and exhaustive. But as intellectual history, it also seems to reduce Barr to the sum of his intellectual origins. (Here Kantor is just following the director’s tendency to do the same, although I am curious as to why Barr was so quick to do that.) Kantor’s study also tends to aestheticize its subject. Just as Barr aestheticized modern art, Kantor does the same to Barr, whose cultural and social politics, religious activities, will to power, and quest for influence all seem rather irrelevant to Kantor. But for all of the author’s assumptions that the “real” Barr would naturally emerge from exhaustive archival research to defeat the those “mythic” Barrs, he remains a “missionary of the modern” and one of the twentieth century’s great “tastemakers.” Nonetheless, future historical (and historiographical) work on the development of modern art in the U.S. will rely on Kantor’s research.

Daniel A. Siedell
Curator, Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

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