Partners in Design: Alfred H Barr & Philip Johnson at the Grey Art Gallery in Washington Square is the story of two men and a whole country.
The men are the men of MoMA – the first museum with a curatorial department dedicated to architecture and design, which preached the gospel of the International Style both in New York and via touring exhibitions.
Partners in Design plots Barr’s and Johnson’s infatuation with European modern design, their advocacy of it in America, their support of exiled Bauhaus designers and their influence on post-war industrial design and museum programming. Whilst the exhibition documents in great detail the objects beloved by MoMA and Barr and Johnson, including lounge chairs and side tables, steak knives and chrome toasters, it is perhaps the history behind the duo’s partnership which is of most interest and intrigue.
Whilst teaching art history at Wellesley at the tender age of 27 in 1929, Barr received a phone call asking for him to become MoMA’s first director. With his background in architecture and design, Barr’s programme of events heavily leaned towards this discipline; MoMA was not to be another art gallery stuffed with Old Masters. Much like the Bauhaus, Barr envisioned the museum to have multiple departments for artistic disciplines.
Assisting with his endeavours, Barr employed the help and knowledge of friend, Philip Johnson. Though Johnson had no architectural training or knowledge, Barr was inspired by his enthusiasm and the two set off to Europe with a list of modern buildings to visit. From Moscow apartment blocks to the functionalist pavilions of the 1930 Stockholm Exhibition, both Barr and Johnson experienced a cultural awakening.
The exhibition also draws on both individual’s apartments; one above the other at the Southgate complex on East 52nd Street. Both apartments are distinctive and individual, despite their shared love of the modernist movement. Johnson employed Mies Van der Rohe and his companion Lilly Reich to strip down his apartment and to redesign it with a rosewood chest, a tea table and a camel-coloured Barcelona chair. On the other hand, Barr, who experienced considerable less wealth, filled his home with cheap versions; tables and chairs made from steel tubular armatures with plastic laminate surface. However, when displayed side by side with Barr’s exquisite originals, they bear no less weight and reflect a different kind of modern beauty.
Grey Art Gallery’s exhibition explores the personalities behind one of the world’s most famous museums and realises the importance of great partnerships; Barr was unable to fulfil his role without the aid of Johnson and likewise with Johnson; he was unable to develop his cultural awareness without the guidance of Barr. A match made in heaven.