The Man Who Created MOMA

By Kramer, Hilton | New Criterion, December 2001 | Go to article overview

The Man Who Created MOMA


Kramer, Hilton, New Criterion


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. Bars, Jr. and the Intellectual Origins of the Museum of Modern Art, (2) "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." 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. 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. …

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