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The Boston Globe

Ideas

The young Wellesley professor who invented contemporary art

How one seminar in the Boston suburbs helped transform American culture

When you think of the cities that helped define cutting-edge art in the 20th century, you think of Paris, New York, maybe Berlin. In the standard histories, Boston plays a decidedly background role, with the city’s Brahmins serving as doughty cultural sentries, ensuring that the wild works by artists like Picasso, Braque, or Mondrian didn’t soil their elegant private and public collections. “Boston is very dead so far as contemporary art is concerned,” complained a young Wellesley art history instructor, Alfred Barr Jr., writing to a friend and gallery owner in New York in 1926, well after modernism had caught fire elsewhere.

New York’s dominance in producing art can’t be denied—there was no Boston Jackson Pollock, and there were significant delays before modern art hit Boston gallery walls. But Boston can lay claim to a different kind of influence, a new book argues: Some of the thinking that would shape the way that Americans appreciate modern art, helped launch it as a major public spectacle, and shifted our understanding of what could be considered “art” to begin with first took form in a classroom right in suburban Massachusetts.

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