Putting the Art in Chart

  • Posted on Mar 03, 2013 by

Every day at the library reference desk I look at a poster version of this chart. Ever since Alfred Barr composed it for the catalog cover of the 1936 exhibition Cubism and Abstract Art, the chart has been scrutinized, criticized, historicized, revised, and deliciously parodied.

Alfred Barr chart from "Research and Publications in Art Museums"
 Alfred H. Barr, Jr. Papers, 3.C.4. The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York. Quote: Alfred H. Barr Jr., “Research and Publication in Art Museums,” Museum News 23, no. January 1 (1946). Reprinted in Alfred H. Barr Jr., Defining Modern Art: Selected Writings of Alfred H. Barr, Jr.
(New York: Abrams, 1986), 205–13.

There are so many references I’ve made an ongoing bibliography with entries from the most scholarly of deconstructions to one of my favorite riffs.

My colleagues have also been scrutinizing charts lately, sparked by the exhibition Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925. Investigating early abstraction as a global phenomenon, the curatorial team used the chart as a point of departure for visualizing contact among modern artists of the period. This in turn has opened up the general topic of visualizing art history, as seen in these ongoing entries about charts on the exhibition’s in-depth blog.

The chart fascinates me in terms of something Barr wrote in 1946, arguing for popularization

through research which makes publication effective more than that which makes it true, of what might be called the pragmatic rhetoric of education rather than its data.

The “effectiveness” of the chart lies precisely its oversimplicity. Unlike even the most erudite essay, exquisite lecture, or the landmark exhibition itself, Barr’s idea is immediately graspable (effective). In this way the chart forcefully conveys an argument—however flawed—that the art world can (and continually does) push against.

Jennifer Tobias, Reader Services, Museum of Modern Art Library

This post originally appeared on the MoMA Library Tumblr.

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