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Alfred H. Barr, Jr.


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(b Detroit, 28 Jan. 1902; d Salisbury, Conn., 15 Aug. 1981).

American art historian and museum administrator who played an enormously influential role in establishing an intellectual framework for the study and appreciation of modern art: his obituary in the International Herald Tribune described him as ‘possibly the most innovative and influential museum man of the 20th century’. For most of his career Barr worked at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, of which he became director when it was founded in 1929 (he resigned this post in 1943 so he could devote more time to writing, but he continued as director of research and retired in 1967 with the title of director of museum collections). Barr was chiefly responsible for building the museum's collections and establishing its reputation. He widened the traditional concept of the art museum to embrace visual arts as a whole, including architecture, industrial design, and motion pictures, and he did much to create the modern idea of an art exhibition, through such means as special lighting, expository wall captions, and scholarly, fully illustrated catalogues (he organized more than a hundred exhibitions at the museum, including such famous shows as ‘Cubism and Abstract Art’ and ‘Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism’, both in 1936). He wrote numerous books and catalogues himself, setting impressive standards of scholarship but presenting his findings in an accessible style; his monographs on Picasso (1946) and Matisse (1951) are still considered standard works. In spite of the praise he received for his work, Barr was a controversial figure. He was attacked by sectarians within the world of modern art as well as by conservatives, and some critics thought that the museum he created had too powerful an influence in shaping—rather than reflecting—the course of modern art.

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