The Making of a Cultural Giant



Lizzie Bliss had a magnificent collection of paintings by modern masters, but she had no place to show them. For most of her life, this shy, wealthy woman took care of her invalid mother, who disapproved of Lizzie's unconventional tastes in art. She was allowed to hang her 11 Cezannes in the living room of her New York house, but all her other paintings had to be in a storeroom upstairs. When connoisseurs came to admire them, she would have to send a handyman to fetch them down in the elevator one at a time. "We'll have the Modigliani this time, please, Richard..."

Abby Aldrich Rockefeller (Mrs. John D. jr) shared her friend Miss Bliss's tastes and her frustrations. John D. jr. could not stand the sight of his wife's pictures. She had to hang her Picasso in her bathroom in the Rockefeller townhouse on 54th Street and her great collection of prints in a gallery on the eighth floor to which her husband never ascended.

In 1929 these two genteel women were touring in the Middle East and met by chance in Jerusalem. They had lunch at an orphan asylum there, and while Abby's young son David at one end of the table was showing off the jar full of beetles he had picked up along the Nile, the two began talking seriously of a project that had often been urged on them by Arthur B. Davies, the American painter who had done most to shape their aesthetic outlook. He wanted them to subsidize an institution, a gallery where they could show their collections to a wider public and where the art could find a permanent home instead of being broken up at auction when the collectors died. Davies had died the previous years, and they decided it was time to take action on his suggestion

On the ship back to New York, Mrs. Rockefeller ran across another old friend and an admirer of Davies, Mary Quinn (Mrs. Cornelius) Sullivan. This vivacious woman was much less rich than the other two, but she had a sizeable collection and would later open a gallery of her own.      

Back in New York, the three ladies carefully scouted the field for a man to head their new institution. Their choice fell on A. Conger Goodyear, a lumber baron and brigadier general in the National Guard, a knowledgeable collector who had been bounced from his post as s president of the Buffalo museum because he had recommended purchasing a Picasso. When he as invited to lunch by Mrs. Rockefeller, whom he did not know, he hurried out to buy a new gray suit, and in it he made such as impression on the women that they asked him to head up an organizing committee on the spot. He accepted after the briefest of reflections, and he provided them with a name for their project: the Museum of Modern Art.

"Modern" was not generally considered a term of praise when applied to art in 1929. And there were only about a dozen other major collectors in the country who were interested in anything produced after 1900. Sweet-tempered and iron-willed, Abby Rockefeller corralled most of them for the board of trustees of her new museum. Goodyear went to Europe to persuade collectors and museums to provide paintings for the first show devoted to four ancestral figureso of modern art: Cezanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin and Seurat.  Two thirds of a floor were rented in the Heckscher Building at the corner of 57th Street and Fifth Avenue.

By then the problem of finding a director, someone who would actually run the place, had already been solved.

The choice fell on Alfred H. Barr jr, 27,an associate professor at Wellesley, where he was then teaching the only college course in modern art being offered in the United States. Barr had a frail aesthetic look that made kindly trustees want to fatten him up. He was learned, soft-spoken, keen-eyed. Blanchette Rockefeller, Aby's daughter-in-law and later president of the museum, describes his face as that of a sensitive eagle.

Like an eagle, he was prepared to fly high. He believed passionately that the 20th century marked one of mankind's great outbursts of creative energy, and he was prepared to spend his life expounding and celebrating it. His ambitions went far beyond those of the trustees, who would have been content with a quiet show-room.  He wanted something more dynamic, "a torpedo through time" he called it, a combination of theater and college and laboratory where all the new ideas of a seething period could be displayed and studied and tested. And his view of art was much broader than was common in those days. In his course at Wellesley, he had sent his students to the five-and-ten to picked out what they considered the best-designed articles there. In his museum he wanted everything that was fresh and excising to pass in dazzling flow, everything that was modern not only in painting and sculpture but in architecture, dance, movies, furniture design, industrial design.

Few men since Petronius Arbiter at the court of Nero have had such a pervasive influence on the taste of their times. For more than four decades, what Alfred Barr said was modern was modern. He never put on weight or airs: he never raised his voice; he lived on a merest salary and walked to work each day so that he could watch the birds in Central Park. But his power was dictatorial. Schools and isms and careers flourished or withered at his touch. A nod of approval from Barr could mean fortune as well as fame.

The museum opened only a few days after the Wall Street crash in 1929, and a shortage of money would plague it for decades afterward. Everything was on a small scale at the beginning. The staff numbered five people. And the permanent collection consisted of one drawing and eight prints. Modern Art, it is true, was cheap in those days. Barr would go to Europe in the summer looking for new works to borrow or acquire, and sometimes a trustee would give him a private purse of one or two thousand dollars for additional purchases. Then, as Mrs. Barr recalls, "we would arrive in Paris like princes," and perhaps pick up a dozen works signed by major names.

From the start, running the museum presented difficulties. Barr was a scholar with few administrative talents. He had a disconcerting habit of turning aside his head during a conversation and plunging into a rapt silence. But when he did speak barely above a whisper, his words carried conviction, and in the end he almost always managed to have his way. Talking, writing, going to endless white- and black-tie parties and dinners, pleading, cajoling, deftly using what Goodyear called his fine Italian hand, Barr got his museum built his way with room for many things - items ranging from corkscrews to Laurel and Hardy films - that the trustees would never have expected to see in any museum, let alone their own. 

Barr's tastes were catholic, and as each new revolution in the arts was  announced, each new school tearing down the dogmas of the previous decade or year and creating new ones, he was always in the forefront, expounding the innovation with elegant enthusiasm.  Sometimes he went too fast for the trustees who would balk at what they regarded as outrageous pieces of mischief. Clark threw a fit at his first sight of a Giacometti that Barr had acquired. And both Goodyear and another past president of the museum stalked out of a meeting when Barr showed them a Rothko he proposed to buy.

Goodyear was a man of legendary irascibility - he was said to kick his Sealyham terrier across the floor of his office to distract himself  from cogitating mayhem on his human collaborators. Barr, who was incapable of open rages, would choke every time he saw the Sealyham trailing along at his master's heels right under the No Dogs Admitted sign.

Stephen Clark, chairman of the board, was less cranky than Goodyear, but more high- handed. If he saw a picture he didn't like  put up in an exhibition, he would yank it off the wall. On one catastrophic day in 1943 Barr admired and purchased a painting by the owner of a shoeshine parlor in a subway station, and hung it on a museum wall as a charming example of naive or folk art. For Clark naive art was no art at all, and he ordered it taken down at once, and sent Barr an angry memorandum suggesting that he spend more time on his writing - in effect, firing him as director. Barr could not bear to abandon the work he had created, and eventually he agreed to continue in a subordinate post under a new director, René d'Harnoncourt, an Austrian aristocrat of immense sagacity and tact.

In the long run the taste of the trustees always did catch up with Barr's, along with the taste of the public in general. For he had a unique gift for seeing where the waves of change would run, indeed he was sometimes accused of setting them in motion himself. William Paley, head of CBS and an expert in such matters, admired Barr's  "automatic feeling for what would be appreciated," the new and sometimes startling works which would one day hang on the walls of Paley's place and those of other private collectors.

Eliza Parkinson, Lillie Bliss's niece, is one of the few survivors who can recall the frantic, improvisational, adventurous days when the museum was first taking shape. She came to the museum herself as a fund raiser when she was young and interested mainly in fox hunting; in time she became a connoisseur, a collector, and eventually a very popular and effective president of the museum. Mrs. Parkinson has a huge Rothko casting a roseate glow in her bedroom.

Once, she recalls someone got the idea that the museum should encourage a revival of the moribund art of mural painting. There was a competition, and a number of artists were asked to bring in a vertical panel to be placed around a big room where the board of trustees was to meet. The members were so excited by the project that no one had paid much attention to what was on the panels. Old Sam Lewisohn, a major collector who used to doze through meetings except at dramatic intervals, opened one eye in the middle of the discussion and pointed a finger at a panel which showed John D. Rockefeller, J. P. Morgan and other plutocratic figures lined up beside Al Capone the Chicago gangster, firing submachine guns on the hapless working classes. "I thought this museum needed money," said Lewisohn. There were mutters and howls and agonizing reappraisals, but the decision was made to run the show as scheduled. The paintings were so mediocre, noted Goodyear smugly, that no one paid any attention to them anyway, and no members of the Rockefeller, Morgan or Capone families took offense.

The same could not be said for other shows. The museum thrived on controversy and abuse, and on the publicity they stimulated. In those early days modern art itself still had the power to enrage people. Congressmen denounced as Communistic. To Harry Truman it was nothing but "ham and eggs." A he-man director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, no less, once described the MOMA staff as "that bunch of pansies on 53rd Street." [When the previous sentence appeared in the text of the typescript I had submitted to Life Magazine, I was informed that it had to submit to textual revision because it contained a word which was offensive if not actionable. I assumed the word was "pansies," but I was quickly corrected, it was "he-man."] It all helped increase attendance and spread the museum's message far beyond the confines of New York.

 One day in 1933 aa young woman named Elodie Courter, 21, with 21 hours of art history corpses to her credit at Wellesley, turned up asking for a job. In the informal spirit of its youth, the museum hired her at $12 a week and put her in charge of arranging and shipping traveling shows, exhibits that could be lent to other museums, schools and colleges. This was unprecedented in the museum world, there were no rules to follow, and Elodie made them up as she went along, so well that they are the standard followed by all the hundreds of traveling exhibitions that crisscross the world today. There were a few delicate touches, such as including a pair of white workmen's gloves with each shipment as a reminder that the contents should be handled with care.

The traveling shows vastly increased the museum's audience. They spread the message of the Modern to corners of the land where contemporary art had never penetrated before. The Van Gogh show of 1935, which went to five major cities and was seen by more than a million people, spawned a sunflower print over every third American mantelpiece.

And its influence seeped into more humble homes as well. Barr once asked for a study of the linoleum floorings offered in Sears Roebuck catalogues and was pleased to learn how they had changed over the years. In the early days they were made in imitation of woven carpets, all flowers and birds. Then Mondrian entered the American consciousness, courtesy of MOMA, and gradually linoleum floors turned bright, angular, abstract, certifiably modern.

A house was definitely not a box when Philip Johnson put on a show of boxy new architecture in 1932. The spare puritanical works of what Barr labeled the International Style were generally derided and their builders got very few commissions in the Great Depression of the 1930's when very few buildings were being put up anyway.. But after World War II when the world began to build again, Americans began to live and work in glass boxes, just as MOMA had insisted they would.

As its influence spread, the museum grew. The tiny staff, the carefree amateur style, gave way to a huge institution, its staff was numbered in the hundreds, its members in the tens of thousands, its visitors in the millions, the value of its collected works in the billions.

Can an unwieldy structure like this keep up with the volatile world of art? Some would say No. In advanced circles the very term "modern art" has come to mean old-fashioned art, a style perhaps admirable but definitely a style of the past, like Renaissance or Baroque or Romantic, neatly categorized into substyles like Cubism, Fauvism, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism and the rest, which flamed upon the world before coming to rest and hanging limply on museum walls.

MOMA is crammed to the rafters today with works in what it certifies as modern style, to be gawked at more or less comprehendingly by hurrying tourists, or smiled at condescendingly by devotees of the now fashionable Contemporary Style, which is condemned by its very name to fall out of fashion the day after tomorrow.

Doesn't this make the Modern Museum a mausoleum?  Of course, says Philip Johnson with a touch of the old mischief, that is what it should be.