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Alfred Barr, Philip Johnson and Margaret Barr, Cortona, Italy, 1932.
The Museum of Modern Art Archives, NY: Margaret Scolari Barr Paperes.


While he held a lecture on modern art in his final year, 1922, for the Club of Art Journalists, open conflict arose in the course on modern painting given by his professor Frank Jewett Mather (1868-1953). The course began with the Renaissance masters and concluded, to Barr's great disapproval, with the Impressionists. Mather, a former art critic of the New York Evening Post, regarded the Modernists with profound contempt. Although his stylistic analyses were brilliant, he was unable to liberate himself from his conservative views in historical judgment. Like many of his colleagues, he felt that an "strangeness and apparent ugliness" lie at the heart of the works of the avant-garde. Although he conceded that Cézanne possessed a high degree of intellectual competence, he dismissed him as an "amateur." The modernist program seemed to him spoiled by exaggerated impulsiveness and hyperbolic intellectualism - "in plainer words, … either crazy or cranky."

Paul Cézanne: Der Badende, ca. 1885, © The Museum of Modern Art, New York Erworben durch: Lillie P. Bliss Bequest Marcel Duchamp: Fahrrad-Rad, 1951, © Succession Marcel Duchamp/ VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2004


Even though Barr continued to maintain friendly contact to his professor, respectfully according him a "philosophical objectivity," it seems as though conflicts of this kind only served to strengthen his will to pursue an individual path. In the early twenties, Modernism was still highly controversial in America. Only a few years before MoMA opened, New York's Metropolitan Museum was still debating whether Impressionism, at the time already half a century old, was something "invented in the absinthe shops of Paris," as Roland Redmond, the Met president, sniffily put it. MoMA's great exhibitions on Cubism, Surrealism, and Dada would only take place later, in 1936, after Cubism was already thirty years old and the Dada revolt had long since subsided. The American public had a hard time with this kind of art. Barr's genius not only consisted in his strong-mindedness, but also in his keen sense for advertising and his talent for influencing people. Years after finishing his education, he was to become the first director to employ a PR staff member in his museum.

A Modernist and Gentleman
Barr's graduation from Princeton in 1923 was followed by a "five year plan." In order to secure his education, he planned to earn money teaching in annual intervals and then to study and travel in between. During his first teaching assignment at Vassar College in 1923, he met a patroness of modern art at a Kandinsky exhibition who was to take on great importance throughout the course of his long career. Supported by Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp , Katherine Dreier (1877-1952) founded the Société Anonyme, a group that constituted a forum for avant-garde artists from America and Europe. In many respects, the Société Anonyme can be regarded as a "prototype" of the MoMA. The organization maintained a reference library with contemporary catalogues and writings from all around Europe and initiated exhibitions throughout the country at universities, museums, and galleries. In addition, it sustained its own collection, organized symposia and lectures, and published books and pamphlets. The society's first exhibition opened on April 30, 1920 with works by artists such as van Gogh, Francis Picabia, Juan Gris, and Constantin Brancusi. In 1922, Dreier visited the First Russian Art Exhibition in Berlin and purchased works by Kandinsky, Malevich, Popova, and Naum Gabo. These were shown at the Société, as were the representatives of de Stijl and Bauhaus.

Early on in his studies, Barr's interest in modern art was primarily aroused by illustrations in newspapers and books; over the years, he came into more and more frequent contact with modernist works and with a network of collectors, artists, and European dealers that acquainted him directly with the movement, for example the emigré J.B. Neumann, who exhibited the German avant-garde surrounding Max Beckmann and Paul Klee in his gallery, Alfred Stieglitz with his gallery 291, and the collector Albert Barnes, who showed the works of Matisse, Picasso, and Derain in his Pennsylvania foundation side by side with the Post-Impressionists. Barr's ideas did not spring out of thin air. In the mid-nineteen-twenties, modern art was becoming increasingly institutionalized and was gaining support in the United States, as well; the hour of its breakthrough was imminent. The catalyzing effect that Barr was to exert as the founding director of MoMA was based on his ability to look forward while simultaneously gazing back at the past.



Paul J. Sachs, Courtesy of Museum of Modern Art

Up into the nineteen-thirties, thinking at Harvard, where Barr resumed his studies after a trip to Europe in 1924, was marked by the codex of "genteel tradition," a refined behavior that allowed for anything as long as art retained its "good taste" and "morality."(more here) Part of this tradition was also the educational mission art was expected to fulfil. As Sybil Gordon Kantor remarks in her biography on Barr, "the concept of the museum functioning as an educative tool was democratic in aim and peculiarly American." The ideas of European Modernism, particularly those of the Bauhaus, which Barr advocated vehemently, were also to reanimate this original version of the populist American museum - and Barr couldn't have found a better person to learn the necessary skills from than Paul J. Sachs, professor and Associate Director of the Fogg Museum at Harvard. While Barr brought Modernism closer to Sachs, the latter introduced the young student to museum life. It seems that Sachs was the opposite of Barr in every sense: a stocky, lively man with a propensity for outbursts, both of rage and joy, who set great store by conviviality. He had ended a long career on Wall Street at the age of 37 in order to dedicate himself entirely to his passion for art and collecting. As a financier and a partner of the family business Goldmann Sachs, he brought not only his extensive knowledge of art to Harvard, but also the business prowess of a banker, which he quickly applied to his activities in the art world.

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