cover image Alfred H. Barr, Jr.: Missionary for the Modern

Alfred H. Barr, Jr.: Missionary for the Modern

Alice Goldfarb Marquis. McGraw-Hill/Contemporary, $21.95 (431pp) ISBN 978-0-8092-4404-1

Son of a Presbyterian minister from Baltimore, Barr preached the gospel of modern art with missionary zeal. Enlisted by the Rockefellers to become first director of New York's Museum of Modern Art, he helped make Picasso, Klee, Mondrian and Matisse household names here. In this superb, vivid, dynamic biography, one of America's most powerful tastemakers comes across as a sloppy administrator, an insomniac plagued by money and health problems, an urbane flatterer who could be maddeningly evasive or tactless and who often squandered his energies on trivial issues. Gangling, bookish Barr, who died in 1981, was an unlikely reformer, and Marquis, a historian at UC San Diego, shows that once his revolution in taste took hold, Barr became extremely wary of philistinism and new trends, resisting abstract expressionism. This juicy chronicle captures a whirl of museum and art-world politics rarely glimpsed by the public. (Apr.)