Philip Johnson and friends: Alfred Barr

The inaugural MoMA director shaped Johnson’s tastes - the architect repaid him by donating paintings by Paul Klee, Willem de Kooning, Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol to the museum
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Philip (left) and Alfred H. Barr, Jr. (right), Lake Maggiore, Italy, April 1933. From Philip Johnson: A Visual Biography
Philip (left) and Alfred H. Barr, Jr. (right), Lake Maggiore, Italy, April 1933. From Philip Johnson: A Visual Biography

Philip Johnson was among the most important, and occasionally controversial, figures within 20th century American architecture, not only due to his ability to shape the built environment, but also thanks to his skills when it came to scaling high society. 

Johnson managed to wield his influence in a number of ways, explains Ian Volner in our new book, Philip Johnson: A Visual Biography: “through correspondence (with everyone from Sibyl Moholy-Nagy to Nelson Rockefeller), through friendships (with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Andy Warhol and many others), and through the judicious acquisition and donation of artworks, helping to further the careers of generations of artists beginning with Paul Klee in the 1930s and continuing straight through to Keith Haring in the 1980s.” 

In Johnson’s longstanding friendship with the curator, historian and inaugural director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Alfred H. Barr, Jr., we can see all these mechanisms at work. But we also see the course of influence run both ways; Barr and Johnson’s friendship demonstrated how the architect could also be changed and altered by his cultured and well-connected friends. 

 

Portrait of Philip at his desk in his New York office in the Seagram Building, 1982.
Portrait of Philip at his desk in his New York office in the Seagram Building, 1982.

“In later years, it would be said of Barr that he was ‘the champion of contemporary things before they become respectable’” writes Volner. “Without question, Barr’s embrace of the modern in art and design—and his evangelism on Modernism’s behalf—was essential to its subsequent success in America. Philip just happened to be among his earliest converts. 

“The two had met in 1929 at Wellesley College—where one of Philip’s sisters was a student—while Barr was on the faculty there, teaching a course (the first of its kind in the United States) on new European and American painting and sculpture,” Volner goes on to explain. “The rapport between the two men was instantaneous, and within months—following Philip’s visit, at Barr’s instruction, to Modernist sites in Europe—the young acolyte was hired as the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, still being organized by Barr, as its de facto architectural curator.  

“The unofficial role was one into which Philip would have to grow: outside of what he’d gleaned during his travels, he had no formal training in the subject, and his interest rather outstripped his expertise. But his burgeoning friendships with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, J. J. P. Oud, and others put him at the forefront of the Modern movement, while his boundless energy suited an institution where the atmosphere was ‘absolutely electric,’ as Barr’s wife, Marga, described it.” 

Barr and Johnson toured Europe, and together gained a first-hand knowledge of German modernist architectural developments. However, Barr did not share Johnson’s enthusiasm for that other, less-welcome European development: fascism, and “looked on in horror”, Volner writes, as the architect turned to political zealotry.  

 

Philip Johnson: A Visual Biography

Nevertheless, once the USA was fully engaged in the Allied side in World War II, Barr helped Johnson regain his old place within American high culture. “It seems surprising, in retrospect, how easily he was able to do it,” writes Volner, “slipping back into his old ambit of designers, patrons, and academics, Philip quickly buried his prewar indiscretions beneath a heap of accolades as the East Coast elite’s favored architectural tastemaker. With the help of Barr, he finished his studies at Harvard, resumed his duties at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), and launched his own practice.” 

Indeed, one of Johnson’s most prestigious jobs came via Barr who introduced the architect to Phyllis Lambert, daughter of the owner of the Seagram company, who was charged with commissioning the company’s NYC headquarters, The Seagram Building.  

As with all good, long-standing friendships, there was a reasonable amount of give and take between Barr and Johnson, particularly when it came to collecting art. “Philip always had the taste, as well as the means, to scoop up extraordinary contemporary artworks, and his buying was further abetted by his art-minded friends,” writes Volner. “More than abetted: Barr in particular encouraged it, using Philip to acquire pieces outside the Museum of Modern Art’s (MoMA) budgetary means with a promise of future donation.” 

In total, Johnson donated more than 2,200 works to MoMA’s permanent collection, including pieces by Paul Klee, Willem de Kooning, Philip Guston, Jasper Johns, James Rosenquist, and Andy Warhol. Though he may have passed away in 2005, Johnson’s taste, foresight, fortune and influence can still be seen today on MoMA’s walls, just as his architectural sway can still be detected in America’s streets.  

For more on Johnson’s social side, and his lasting architectural legacy, as well as much more order a copy of Philip Johnson: A Visual Biography here.


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