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.
It occurred thanks to that young Wellesley instructor, who in the 1926-27 academic year began teaching an extraordinary seminar to the daughters of New England’s wealthy families at Wellesley College. Barr was still just a graduate student at Harvard at the time, but the inventive thinking about art that he championed in his course—with an emphasis on bridging the gaps between high and low culture—would shortly explode in influence when he was hired by the new Museum of Modern Art in New York. And his class, small as it was, launched a generation of his students into prominent roles in the art world, helping to spread the gospel of contemporary art as curators, journalists, and critics.
The art historian Richard Meyer, in a book published this year, “What Was Contemporary Art?,” argues that Barr’s class represents one of the overlooked turning points in the story of modern art in America. “Barr’s insistence on looking very widely, and thinking about art in terms of all these other forms of cultural production, both high and low, is extremely relevant both to what’s going on in the global art world and also in how the most interesting scholarship is thinking about art,” Meyer says.
Boston has seen its own renaissance in contemporary art recently, symbolized by the ICA’s striking cantilevered building in South Boston, and extending to the Boston Art Commission’s selection of edgier artists for public art displays than in the past. For Bostonians, it may feel like a departure for a sometimes stodgy city. But intellectually, at least, it taps into deeper historic roots than we may realize. The story of Barr’s class, and how its influence percolated from academia out to the art world, offers a reminder of how the ripples that start within even tiny intellectual communities can make surprisingly large and lasting waves in American culture.
Modern art’s first big splash in the United States occurred in New York, where the famous Armory Show in 1913 introduced Americans to the revolution in art wrought by Van Gogh, Cezanne, Gauguin, Duchamp, and others. In Chicago, meanwhile, a different aesthetic revolution was underway: Architects like Louis Sullivan were embracing forms that showed off new industrialized building methods rather than burying them under architectural styles forged in earlier eras.
Boston’s museums may have been largely shuttered to such thinking, but it galvanized Harvard University’s art students at the time, especially those gathering around the art historian Paul Sachs. Sachs, who had left the family firm Goldman Sachs to help run the Fogg Museum and teach about art and museum management, had ties to virtually every important collector and scholar in the world. Although not an active champion of modern art, he attracted students who were, including A. Everett Austin Jr., who became the first director of Hartford’s important Wadsworth Atheneum (whose Picasso retrospective preceded MoMA’s by five years), and Lincoln Kirstein, the future ballet impresario, who cofounded the Harvard Society for Contemporary Art while still an undergraduate.
Barr, who studied with Sachs as a graduate student, advised the society—which upstaged the university’s stodgier Fogg Museum by bringing Constantin Brancusi’s “Golden Bird” sculpture to Boston for the first time, displaying works by Man Ray and Joan Miró, and highlighting the early wire sculptures of Alexander Calder.
In 1926, Wellesley College hired Barr to teach courses on Italian painting and modern art. Though he hadn’t yet finished his PhD, he seized the chance to lay down a new path for what a modern art course could be. In a letter to his parents, he set out a list of ambitions for his course that must have sounded more alarming as it went on: “Pictorial organization. The place of subject matter. The achievement of the past—especially the nineteenth century. The 20th century, its gods and –isms....Fashionable aesthetics: fetish and taboo. Painting and modern life. The Future.”
His course was titled “Tradition and Revolt in Modern Painting,” hinting at his belief that the new aesthetic revolution was more deeply connected to the history of art than many people appreciated. He also saw it as broader. To get into the course, students were given a quiz asking them to explain the importance of a remarkably diverse group of artworks, cultural figures, and institutions: the photographer and collector Alfred Stieglitz; surrealism; Petrouchka (Igor Stravinsky’s 1911 ballet); George Gershwin; “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” (the 1920 German silent horror film); Saks Fifth Avenue (for its window displays); the architect Le Corbusier. The quiz drew national attention when it was reprinted in Vanity Fair, a New York-based arbiter of the au courant.
“Dazzling in its multidisciplinarity,” Meyer writes, Barr’s course comes across as one of the greatest art history courses ever taught—“a laboratory for the study of a culture very much in the making.” Barr called the 11 students in his course “faculty,” as if they were peers, and he sent them out to research subjects like jazz, or the history of film, to report back to the class. He had musicians play Stravinsky and Schoenberg for his students. Field trips were key. He took students to see the Necco factory in Cambridge, a form-follows-function structure he considered among “the most living and beautiful buildings in New England.” He took them to the National Automobile Show.
“He believed that there was a kind of central expression of his age that influenced how music was written, how architecture was designed,” says Patricia Berman, a professor of art history at Wellesley. “He wasn’t just trying to get students to think about painting, but across media, to understand the age.” He was also influenced by the Bauhaus, the German art school whose creed included smashing barriers between “low” crafts” and “high” arts.
Barr chafed at the conservatism of local life. He lamented that even lowly Worcester was ahead of Boston in the actual business of displaying modern art, and tried to rectify this with a couple of challenging exhibitions at Wellesley. “Progressive Modern Painting from Daumier and Corot to Post-Cubism” included 35 original works, and in an article in the Wellesley College News, Barr made the case that they showed painting no longer had to be “subordinate to the church, to illustration, to portraiture, to interior decoration.” As other media took over the business of recording day-to-day life, what they represented was an “emancipation” of painting. That essay was a response to an article in the newspaper that perhaps better captured the spirit of the culture he lived in: “Seniors Find Modern Art Queer and Incomprehensible.”
Barr wasn’t long for the academy. He taught his course only twice, with a sabbatical year in Europe in between, and in 1929 was plucked for what would become the most important job in American modern art: director of the new Museum of Modern Art. Sachs had helped broker the connection between him and such New York cultural players as Abby Rockefeller. It was Barr’s job to figure out how a museum of modern art should be organized, and he shaped American taste with such shows as “Cubism and Abstract Art,” a Matisse retrospective, “Modern Architecture” (which promoted the International Style of Mies van der Rohe), and “Machine Art.” (Only in 1947 would he be awarded his PhD by Harvard, for his book “Picasso: Fifty Years of His Art.”)
Many of the exhibitions he mounted at MoMA had roots in the work he had taught at Wellesley. He had sent his students out to five-and-dime stores and told them to bring back the most interestingly designed cheap objects they could find; at MoMA, he mounted the attention-grabbing exhibition “Useful Household Objects Under $5.” He showed his Wellesley students the affinity between African masks and post-Impressionist depictions of the human form; at MoMA, with a similar intent, he mounted a show featuring reproductions of prehistoric cave drawings.
“I would say that MoMA owes its departments, and in many ways its ethos, to Barr’s work at Wellesley,” says Wellesley’s Berman. And that’s not just hometown pride: Barr himself said that in organizing MoMA with departments of film, design, and architecture as well as painting and sculpture he was basically cribbing the subject headings of the Wellesley course.
Given how small his Wellesley classes were, a striking proportion of his students also became influential figures. Helen Franc began at MoMA as an editorial assistant and rose to be a senior editor in its publications department; Ernestine Fantl worked as an assistant to Philip Johnson in the architectural division, became a curator herself, and crossed the Atlantic to become style editor of the (London) Sunday Times. Katharine Sterne became an art reviewer for The New York Times. Barr’s brief stint at Wellesley rippled through the art world for decades.
Barr served as director of the museum for 14 years, before being pushed out in a complex management dispute that concluded with his still serving as “director of museum collections.” Boston, meanwhile, got its own branch of the museum, the Boston Museum of Modern Art, which soon turned on MoMA in a fight over the future of “modern” art (see sidebar).
Now that Barr’s way of seeing and valuing contemporary art is omnipresent, it can be difficult to comprehend the cultural shift that Barr and his cohort helped to bring about. A generation earlier, asking serious people to view dime-store products as “art” would have been unimaginable. Today, a painting of a soup can is classic, and artists like Glenn Ligon freely combine elements drawn from advertising, comedy, and technology as well as the painterly tradition.
Looking at the art world today, Meyer even worries about how total that transformation has been. New York’s dominance has, if anything, increased, and a cash-fueled global market has created unprecedented attention to the newest art. “Contemporary art is in danger of shifting things so radically to the present moment that we may lose any sense of the historical past,” he says. Today some 80 percent of art history dissertations are written on living artists, he and others estimate.
Given Barr’s role in waking America up to contemporary developments, Meyer’s book suggests a perhaps surprising lesson from his approach at Wellesley: that what matters isn’t only understanding the zeitgeist, or the “now,” but how the now connects to what came before. Barr’s innovations in his astonishing Wellesley course allowed his students to step back and consider a contemporary object as historically significant in its own right. In that sense, those innovations can also be seen as an argument for keeping alive the history in art history—as, Meyer hopes, can his own book, by revisiting the Wellesley episode.
Great art offers “an invitation to slow down, to think more deeply about things,” says Meyer. So can studying key moments in the fast-changing history of contemporary art. What made Barr important, Meyer suggests, is that he never lost sight of the deep continuity of art, even as he gazed into a disorienting future.
Christopher Shea is a contributing writer for the Chronicle of Higher Education and a former Ideas columnist.