The Men Who Brought Modernism to the USA

Pin It
Philip Johnson and Alfred Barr, Lake Maggiore, Switzerland, April 1933© The Museum of Modern Art / Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, New York

A new exhibition at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts explores the relationship between the museum director and the architectural curator who introduced America to the Bauhaus

When New York’s Museum of Modern Art was founded in 1929 – having been instigated by Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, Lillie P. Bliss and Mary Quinn Sullivan, otherwise known as “The Ladies” – it was the only museum in America showing solely modern art, and the first to exhibit European modernism. Alfred H. Barr, Jr had been brought in as the museum’s first director, and by November of 1929 he was loaning works by the likes of Cézanne, Van Gogh and Gauguin.

Meanwhile, Barr was experimenting with modern design in his own home, furnishing his apartment with pieces in leather and tubular steel – which are now, in a cyclical act, being exhibited at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts’ exhibition Partners in Design. The show explores the impact of the work of Barr, and his colleague and neighbour Philip Johnson, who was MoMA’s first curator of architecture, and lived a floor above Barr in an apartment with an interior designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

MMFA’s exhibition, which opened last week, is organised according to several themes: the Bauhaus in America, Johnson and Barr’s apartments, the exhibition Machine Art at MoMA and the adoption of the modern aesthetic in America. We explore three below.

Alfred H. Barr, Jr and Philip Johnson
Through their domestic design decisions, and in their work at MoMA, Barr and Johnson became ambassadors of modernism in the USA. The exhibitions Modern Architecture: International Exhibition in 1932 and Machine Art in 1934 were pivotal in spreading the ideas of European modernism and igniting the transformation of the arts in an already rapidly changing city. Their research and exhibition programme put architecture, design, photography and cinema on an equal footing with fine art.

Machine Art
Identified by Barr as “abstract and geometric beauty, kinetic rhythms, beauty of material and surface, and visual complexity and function,” machine art was exhibited in the form of a compass, a self-aligning ball bearing, a microscope, toaster and cash register amongst many other objects. In a later interview, Johnson identified Machine Art as an “anti-handcraft show. The worship of the machine was an important part of it, kept over from the Futurists, but it was mostly based on the Bauhaus approach.”

The Bauhaus in America
The commissioning of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe for Johnson’s apartment design was a catalyst for the development of the design programme at MoMA. Their exhibiting of Bauhaus design came at a time of burgeoning interest in modernism in New York, and was key to the evolution of American design. Through their shows, the principles of the Bauhaus school in Dessau were broadly adopted, in a radical aesthetic that was rational, functional, machine-made and ahistorical.

Partners in Design: Alfred H. Barr Jr and Philip Johnson runs until 21 August, 2016 at Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.