This will be the last entry in my series on Alfred H. Barr, Jr. ("Elitism, Egalitraianism, and American Modernism") Part V: The Barr Chart.
Alfred Barr’s conception of twentieth century art was never better expressed than in the famous Barr chart- the diagram he designed in 1935 for the exhibition “Cubism and Abstract Art.” His scheme, expressed in a traditionally scientific diagram, was made into visual gospel. It articulated his particular interests in both the high and low aspects of art. The chart is the overall symbol of the two aspects of Barr’s character: the aesthetic elitist and the egalitarian for the arts.
The imagery of the chart and the chart’s viewers engage in a process of reciprocal definition. The viewers assign imagery to the un-illustrated terms of the chart, while the chart offers equally abstract connections and definitions. The flow of the chart is a construction of “isms” arranged by a linear chronology.
In the spring of 1936, Barr presented one of the most influential shows of modern art when he curated “Cubism and Abstract Art.” The exhibition mirrored the chart in that it deconstructed and ordered the many different art movements which composed the art of the 1930s, both organic and geometric abstract art. The chart was designed as the poster for the exhibition, as well as a press release, catalog cover, and was to be an artwork in itself.
The chart avoided discussion of relationships between the development of modern movements and the cultural history of the period, choosing rather to portray each of the modern movements as independent. Cubism, abstract art, and their dependants were self-reflexive; they were composed of similar isms, though borne of separate roots.
The image of the Barr chart was provocative and powerful. It declared, through the language of a graph more familiar to science than art, an evolution. Barr transformed the language of family trees and evolutionary diagrams. The whole image presents a pure, threadbare clarity described in the most impersonal way possible. Avoiding historical facts and familiarity, the chart is thrilling: it’s a re-invented format describing newly developed visual movements. The graph and its use is unfamiliar, as new to audiences as the new art of the 1930s. He did not only describe these terms for future historians and modern museum visitors, but he also forged a revolutionary formal and objective language which was to communicate, without obscure pedagogy and with brief specificity, the actual geometric forms of the new art.
The chart itself is intellectually complicated and simultaneously over simplified. It appeals to an elite, formalist aesthetic while also functioning as an introduction to cubism and abstract art. There is also the problem of intent of the chart as high and low art, as it functioned as the main advertising image for the exhibit.
The Barr chart has no legend: is this to simplify the concepts for novices or to snobbishly imply the prior knowledge of the viewer? Barr made the choice of neither annotating the chart nor providing examples, and there is scant emphasis given to strength between connections and the waxing and waning of the relationships over time. In the diagram Barr created, all the tools of a cartographer, genealogist, and academic are utilized together. It’s a map, a family tree of abstraction, an essential intellectual property. The chart is the result of many years of reflection on his part.
These two diverse aspects to Barr’s character, the elitist and the egalitarian, make him a complicated, though pivotal, figure in the history of modernism. And, without Barr’s curatorial and leadership skills the history of American art would be very different.
At the height of his influence in the 1950s, few scholars could rival Alfred Barr in his understanding of modern art. Barr was a great publicist for modernism in the face of the American public. He provoked a revolutionary degree of acceptance among diverse audiences, critics and casual museum-goers alike. Though he was hired initially by wealthy New York aristocrats to promote their tastes by creating a museum for their art, Barr made the MOMA a creation solely of his making. He had incredibly refined tastes, and his initial selections for the museum collections formed the canon of modernist scholarship in the United States. Throughout his tenure as MOMA director, Barr commanded respect for modernism and posed ideas which shaped the explanation of modernism for all the generations of audiences which have followed.