Alfred Barr: Design & Exhibition Techniques

Alfred H. Barr grew up in the 20th century. He experienced modernism since its genesis and was partly responsible for its triumph (Kantor, 2002). Founding director of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City from 1929 to 1940, Barr played a crucial role in promoting the public understanding of 20th-century art.

Barr believed in an aesthetic based on the intrinsic traits of a work of art. It is by Sibil Kanton’s biography of Alfred Barr that we can get a sense of how the MoMA director expressed his formalist approach not only on his organizational structure, but on the exhibition design of the museum itself. His manner of presenting artworks — painting in particular — was so significant that has become of conventional use in galleries and museum in New York and worldwide. MoMA’s introduction of a multidepartmental plan was also due to Barr innovative vision for a museum with one of the most diverse audiences in the country.  

He “departed from traditional display methods of treating painting as room decor” and presented them “skied”, at approximately eye level and in spacious design arrangements (Staniszewski, 1998). Artworks at the MoMA were installed on pale grey walls, not exactly white, usually disposed in chronological order. Barr also introduced informative labelling of painting in MoMA’s 1935 Vincent Van Gogh exhibition (Staniszewski, 1998). Didactical labelling was used so that people would get a sense of what they were seeing in the context of the room or the entire exhibition. 

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Installation view of the first exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art, “Cezanne, Gaugin, Seurat, van Gogh.” 1929 Image © MoMA, The Museum of Modern Art, New York

In particular, Barr expanded the comprehension of Cubism and its historical significance through exhibitions such as “Cubism and Abstract Art” (1936) and “Picasso: Forty Years of His Art” (1938) (Stark, 2015). After a trip to Germany, he remained impressed by the exhibition design of the Folkwang Museum in Weimar. Barr’s later extensive use of the “monk’s cloth” colour for painting rooms is in fact directly inspired by the German museum design.

However, Barr’s static approach to displaying works presumed a specific type of viewer of a certain stature. By not taking into account for different categories of viewers — e.g. children or disabled individuals — he failed to create “immersion” between the viewer and the artwork. The experience of artworks was reshaped by designers like El Lissitky and Frederick Kiesler, who both focused on the relationship between the viewer and the artwork, and between this and the space in which is contained.


Bibliography: 

Kantor, S. (2002). Alfred H. Barr, Jr. and the intellectual origins of the Museum of Modern Art. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Metmuseum.org. (2015). [online] Available at: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/libraries-and-research-centers/leonard-lauder-research-center/programs-and-resources/index-of-cubist-art-collectors/barr [Accessed 15 Oct. 2018].

The Power of Display. A History of Exhibition Installations at the Museum of Modern Art, by Mary Anne Staniszewski. Published by The MIT Press, 1998.