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Alfred H. Barr, Jr.

March 2023
1min read

Missionary for the Modern

by Alice Goldfarb Marquis; Contemporary Books; 431 pages.

When Alfred Knopf asked Alfred H. Barr, Jr., to write his autobiography in 1963, the usually humorless founding father of the Museum of Modern Art replied that other unfinished projects would “fortify” him against “the folly of autobiography.” “Should senility overtake me,” he assured the publisher, “I will keep Knopf in mind.” Now, eight years after Barr’s prolonged struggle with Alzheimer’s disease ended in death, Alice Goldfarb Marquis has undertaken the task of telling the fascinating life story Barr refused to recount.

As the guiding spirit behind MOMA for nearly forty years, Barr changed the way Americans thought of art, introducing them to the study of architecture, film, photography, and commercial design as legitimate forms of creative expression. His immensely popular shows helped build the reputations of artists ranging from Vincent van Gogh and Pablo Picasso to Salvador Dali and Andy Warhol.

Barr’s groundbreaking work brought him into conflict with political leaders such as Harry S. Truman (who told Barr that viewing modern art put him “in almost the same frame of mind as after I have had a nightmare”) and Nikita Khrushchev. Earlier, Barr’s travels took him to Hitler’s Germany, where he sought to rescue artists from the Nazi onslaught, and to Stalin’s Russia, where he warned the movie director Sergei Eisenstein of what he saw as Hollywood’s own form of censorship: “timidity, vulgarity, prudery and … a severe temptation to cheapen … art.”

Barr’s all-consuming passion for his work had its dark side. Although he enjoyed a fruitful working relationship with his wife, Margaret (“Marga”) Scolari-Fitzmaurice, their daughter Victoria received little attention from either of her too-busy parents. On the job Barr became a lightning rod for criticism both of his sloppy managerial style and of his consistent disdain for the work of American, female, and minority artists.

In her narrative Marquis makes much of Barr’s strict Protestant upbringing and family legacy of theological duty. Casting Barr in the role of a proselytizing prophet, she reveals him as both a visionary and a zealot. His pulpit was the Museum of Modern Art, and under his authority it became “a center for all that was new and provocative in the visual arts, a missionary chapel proclaiming the gospel of Modernism, loudly and persistently.”

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