ALFRED H. BARR, JR. by Alice Goldfarb Marquis


Missionary for the Modern
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Breezy, cheeky biography of the man who, as director of New York's Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), dominated modern art for decades. Marquis (Hope and Ashes, 1986) does a competent job of probing beneath Barr's rather prim-and-proper exterior to explore the drives and repressions lurking beneath. The son of a Presbyterian minister, Bart apparently inherited not only his father's conventionality but also his fund-raising talents and missionary zeal. When approached by Abby Aldrich Rockefeller in the early 1930's to head a museum dedicated to contemporary art, these qualities were to stand Bart in good stead. What he lacked were administrative skills; some of the most revealing pages here deal with his attempts to compensate for this crucial shortcoming. Interestingly, Bart disparaged the accomplishments of American modernists such as Arthur Dove, Stuart Davis, and John Marin; Picasso, Matisse and Leger were more to his taste. As might be expected, this European orientation led to bitter confrontations with his associates, art critics, dealers, and rival museums. In tracing these brouhahas, Marquis manages to maintain the internal tensions of her narrative and to broaden the implications of the story. In an especially involving segment, she recounts the 1950's confrontation between Bart and New York Times art critic John Canaday. Always preferring to work behind the scenes and to project an image of being a mere "votary of art," Bart was incensed when Canaday quite rightly pointed out the role MOMA was playing in the escalation of art prices. There are few revelations to be found in Marquis' work, and several mystifying omissions, but by and large this is an involving and for the most part reliable overview aimed at the general reader.

Pub Date: April 1st, 1989
ISBN: 8092-4404-7
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