Picasso’s War: How Modern Art Came to America by Hugh Eakin

In 1911, Alfred Stieglitz exhibited 83 of Picasso’s Cubist works on paper at the 291 gallery, in New York. Each was priced at $12. He sold exactly one and bought another for himself. After the show closed, Stieglitz offered the remaining 81 drawings to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for $2,000. (Marking up unsold material 200 percent to an institution was apparently different then.) There was nothing hopeful—or polite—about the Met curator Bryson Burroughs’s rejection: “Such mad pictures would never mean anything to America.”

A century on, Leonard Lauder promised 78 Cubist masterpieces to the Met. Its then director, Thomas Campbell, put the “transformational” gift into context: “Although the Met is unique in its ability to exhibit over 5,000 years of art history, we have long lacked this critical dimension in the story of modernism.” How American taste for the moderns evolved from incredulity to veneration is the story of journalist Hugh Eakin’s first-rate, if misleadingly titled, Picasso’s War: How Modern Art Came to America.

Eakin’s cast of characters is necessarily small. At the head of America’s determined minority were the lawyer and collector John Quinn and the Museum of Modern Art’s priest-like founding director, Alfred H. Barr Jr. Where Quinn left off, Barr picked up.

A man of deep learning—said, surely exaggeratedly, to “[consume] books at a rate of nearly a thousand a year, from many of which he could quote verbatim”—social range, and professional attainment, Quinn wished to be “of my own day and time.” By which he meant, paradoxically, not what was popular or common but rather what was new and challenging—Conrad and Joyce, Duchamp and Picasso.

“Many people, in literature as in art,” he observed, “look with fear on what is new. They shudder at the idea of any fundamental change.... Growth is life; stagnation, the failure to grow, is the great tragedy of art.” True to form, Quinn brought Yeats to America, mounted the crusade to overturn tariffs on foreign contemporary art, and, with Walt Kuhn, Arthur B. Davies, and Walter Pach, organized the pioneering Armory Show (officially, the International Exhibition of Modern Art) in 1913.

Featuring more than 1,200 works of art, including Matisse’s Blue Nude (1907) and Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (1912), the Armory Show, so-called because it was held in New York’s Beaux-Arts 69th Regiment Armory, at 68 Lexington Avenue, riveted the few who shared its planners’ outlook—and bewildered or maddened virtually everyone else.

Benighted scorn is, of course, integral to the Armory legend. Theodore Roosevelt called participants the “lunatic fringe”; the critic Royal Cortissoz plumped for “foolish terrorists.” Brancusi’s marble head, Mlle Pogany (1912), was dismissed as “a hard-boiled egg balanced on a cube of sugar.”

A truncated version of the show made two further stops, with increasingly bleak results: “The International Exhibition of 1913 surprised New York,” reflected Frederick James Gregg, the Armory’s chief publicist, “disgusted Chicago, horrified Boston.” (Blue Nude, later acquired by Quinn, was burned in effigy on the steps of the Art Institute of Chicago—by students!)

Visitors admire Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon at the Museum of Modern Art, 1939.

“Loan Exhibition of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist Paintings,” the Met’s initial foray in modernism, in 1921, fared little better. Quinn’s collection was well represented (though his Cubist pictures were declined by the intransigent Burroughs). He was, in turn, the focus of reactionary, often anonymous attacks in print.

Undeterred, Quinn envisioned the creation of New York’s first museum of modern art, which would “purchase and receive bequests of examples of the work of living artists” and “act as a feeder to the Metropolitan in much the same way as the Luxembourg does to the Louvre.”

Limitations of time and budget put paid to the idea. Quinn’s financial backing of Harriet Bryant’s Carroll Galleries ran aground on similar difficulties. His art, assembled with the help of Henri-Pierre Roché, might have served as the nucleus of the sort of institution he aspired to create. When Quinn died, of liver cancer in 1924, however, it was dispersed in several record-breaking sales. As the destruction of Penn Station would do for preservationists, the shock of this missed opportunity galvanized Quinn’s admirers.

Barr’s progress from tweedy Princeton undergraduate to tweedier 27-year-old director of the Quinn-inspired Museum of Modern Art—established in November 1929, 10 days after the stock market’s Great Crash—and his struggles throughout the 1930s with competition from dealers, conservative audiences, and unreliable lenders form the better-known Part II of Picasso’s War.

In 1931 and 1932, Galerie Georges Petit—with support from the renegade MoMA trustee Chester Dale—staged landmark retrospectives of Matisse and Picasso, respectively, scuppering Barr’s own long-gestating Picasso show. Barr’s Surrealist survey in 1936 was attacked even by allies. A. Conger Goodyear, MoMA’s chairman, derided “a number of things that are ridiculous and could hardly be included in any definition of art.”

Eakin’s achievement lies in making the sum of his overlapping narratives considerably richer than its parts. Quinn’s faded glory and the career of Paul Rosenberg, Picasso’s interwar dealer, are seen in the widest setting. To appreciate Barr’s anxieties in 1939 about disruptions to shipping and insurance—which will seem inconsequential in the scheme of the world’s wartime concerns—you have to understand everything that had come before.

Picasso: Forty Years of His Art, Barr’s 1939 blockbuster, is the fitting climax of Picasso’s War. (The war was Quinn’s, Barr’s—anyone but Picasso’s. The title may also confuse readers of Russell Martin’s Picasso’s War: The Destruction of Guernica, and the Masterpiece That Changed the World, from 2002.) Featuring more than 360 works across periods, bookended by Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) and Guernica (1937), Forty Years of His Art lacked only in sculpture and an appearance by Picasso himself. Barr’s triumph was definitive, if Pyrrhic. He would be fired in 1943.

The effect on the museum-going public and the generation of artists coalescing in New York was seismic. De Kooning found the Picasso show “staggering.” Bourgeois was unable to paint for weeks: “Complete shut down.” Krasner remembered Pollock once throwing his copy of the catalogue across his studio in defeat: “God damn it! That guy missed nothing!”

Max Carter is vice chairman of 20th- and 21st-century art at Christie’s in New York