Alfred H. Barr, Jr. and the Intellectual Origins of the Museum of Modern Art by Sybil Gordon Kantor

by D. R. Peak

27 June 2002


Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Modern Art But Were Afraid To Ask

“The trouble with a classicist:
He sees a tree, that’s all he sees—he paints a tree.”
— Lou Reed, The Trouble With Classicists

So you say you’re not a fan of modern art. You think that paint splattered canvasses should be tossed out with the trash, or that abstract is what you do with a sponge to decorate your bathroom walls. Pop Art is what clowns paint on balloons and dada is what you called your father when you were four years old.

cover art

Alfred H. Barr, Jr. and the Intellectual Origins of the Museum of Modern Art

Sybil Gordon Kantor

(MIT Press)

If that’s you, then Sybil Gordon Kantor’s book, Alfred H. Barr, Jr. and the Intellectual Origins of the Museum of Modern Art, is not for you. Actually, the past hundred years or so of all popular culture is beyond your mental grasp and you should seriously consider hiding away in a commune or a cabin deep in the woods, away from civilization, with nothing but prints of Thomas Kinkade’s nauseating landscapes to keep you company.

Because modern art is really about modern humanity’s struggle to overcome the artistic prisons of the past and you need to know that.

Other things you need to know:

Look both ways before you cross the street.
Don’t bother doing what dead men have already done unless you can beat them at their own game.
The egg came first.


Alfred H. Barr, Jr. (born 1902, died 1981) knew more about the implications of modern art than you ever could hope to.

Barr was an intellectual, thought stiff and dull by even the best of his friends, but few questioned his ability to analyze art and art forms. His theories on the history of modern art made nearly everyone in the emerging art world of the early mid-20th century stand up and listen.

“The work of art is a symbol, a visible symbol of the human spirit in its search for truth, freedom and perfection,” he once said, and hardly has anything been said since about art, both classical and modern, that was more true or honest.

Barr was schooled on art and art history both at Princeton University and Harvard in the 1920s. He traveled extensively in Europe to see for himself its multitudes of great museums and schools devoted to art. He had a lasting and impressionistic (no pun intended) love of the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh. He had an instinctive grasp of the myriad influences of artists, often charting them out in extensively detailed diagrams, showing clearly how one art form influenced another, making sense of their twisting labyrinths.

With the help of some friends and colleagues in the art world, Barr became the founding director of one the world’s greatest institutions geared towards preserving and showing the newest, best, and most imaginative works of art the world had to offer for the viewing public. That is, the Museum of Modern Art.

Barr was visionary enough to recognize how impressionists and even the surrealists grew out of the classical mode. He also understood the importance of an institution devoted to new and emerging art forms, especially the lesser critically renowned art forms such as photography and film, which were given short shrift in the college classrooms at the time, considered nothing more than “popular entertainment.”

He gave equal treatment to all practical, commercial, and popular arts. That is, an advertisement—or a photograph, or a film—were given the same consideration of being shown in an established museum as a Van Gogh or a Picasso. All these things were seen, through Barr’s discerning eyes, as equals in the world of art.

Barr’s own words, “A work of art . . . is worth looking at primarily because it represents a composition or organization of color, line, light and shade. Resemblance to natural objects, while it does not necessarily destroy these esthetic values, may easily adulterate their purity. Therefore, since resemblance to nature is at best superfluous and at worst distracting it might as well be eliminated,” still ring true today in today’s art world. Even now, half a century later, such extremes as Chris Ofili’s elephant manure Madonna, Damien Hirst and his dissected cows, Sue Coe with her riveting and disturbing imagery would all have a home in Barr’s liberal and “thinking man’s intellectual” version of modern art.

Without Barr and the work he poured into the Museum of Modern Art, we’d all be doomed to have nothing but dull still-lifes, unimaginative portraits and bland renderings of classical landscapes on the walls of our museums. Without Barr’s great eye and keen mind, modern art’s shining example would be George Rodrigue painting that same damn blue dog with its lobotomized stare over and over and over until you can’t wait to choke the life out of him.

Sybil Gordon Kantor has written a fascinating and wonderful book. Not just a biography of Barr, but a meticulously detailed history of art in the early twentieth century, its origins, influences, and the intellectual mindset that set it apart from all other periods of art history.

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