Published: July 23, 2007
No understanding of Modernism in America is complete without knowledge of the crucial role played by the Katherine Dreier and the Société Anonyme. Concerned that avant-garde art, introduced to America at the Armory Show of 1913, was losing steam in this country, around 1920 artist/patron Dreier (1877‱952) began a campaign to promote the new ideas and new art forms. In so doing, she became one of the most significant champions of Modern art.
“The Société Anonyme: Modernism for America,” an ambitious exhibition organized by the Yale University Art Gallery, celebrates Dreier’s central leadership role and documents the transformation of the organization from a driving force for the acceptance of the avant-garde to an important collection of art. Comprising some 240 works, it is on view at the Dallas Museum of Art through September 16.
The exhibition is fascinating both for its rich array of fine works by celebrated artists and often-eye-popping art by relatively unknown figures.
Tours on the continent early in the Twentieth Century made Dreier keenly aware of the latest developments of the European avant-garde. By 1916, her contacts with Modernist provocateur Marcel Duchamp (1887‱968) set the stage for a crusade to promote avant-garde zeal and creative vision in the United States.
The daughter of wealthy, socially progressive German immigrants, Dreier had trained to be an artist and was committed to experimental art. Duchamp, a highly innovative Modernist recently arrived from France, socialized with the Arensberg and Stettheimer circles of progressive patrons and artists.
Dreier and Duchamp formed an unlikely but effective partnership †she the indefatigable administrator and he the charismatic insider with a wide network of avant-garde contacts. “No art world team has ever been less likely yet has accomplished so much,” says Yale University Art Gallery curator Jennifer R. Gross.
In 1920, with the assistance of Duchamp and Man Ray (a Dada and Surrealist artist and photographer born in Philadelphia as Emmanuel Radinsky), Dreier founded an organization that, at Ray’s playful Dadaesque suggestion, was called the Société Anonyme, Inc (meaningless French for Incorporated, Inc). Colors of the rainbow converged on the nonsensical title in the organization’s signboard.
Initially established as a small art center and library on Manhattan’s East 47th Street, the Société hosted an astounding ten successive exhibitions in its early years. The inaugural 1920 show offered a broad overview of Modernism in an intimate, domestic setting. Lighted by Man Ray, it was decorated by Duchamp, who, with Dadaesque irreverence, placed lace paper doilies around picture frames. Its eclectic avant-garde display included works by Constantin Brancusi, Patrick Henry Bruce, James Daugherty, Duchamp, Juan Gris, Man Ray, Francis Picabia, Morton Schamberg, Jacques Villon and lesser-known artists.
A highlight was Italian-born Futurist Joseph Stella’s “Brooklyn Bridge,” 1918′0, a huge swirling mass of small, colored planes paying homage to what the artist called a “shrine containing all the efforts of the new civilization of America.” Stella (1877‱946) participated in Société activities and was ardently supported by Dreier.
Over the course of the next three decades, the organization promoted appreciation for Modern art through 80 exhibitions, 85 educational events and 40 publications. When Duchamp and Man Ray left for Paris in 1921, Dreier remained the moving force behind all its activities, although Duchamp continued to be a vital partner and advisor.
Early exhibitions, many introducing European artists to American audiences, included solo shows for Louis Eilshemius, Alexander Archipenko, Villon, Stella, John Storrs, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, David Burliuk, Heinrich Campendonk and Fernand Léger.
After appearing in earlier Société group shows, the highly influential Kandinsky (1866‱944) had his first solo exhibition in the United States there in 1923. Among the 14 works on view was “Multicolored Circle (Mit Buntem Kreis),” 1921, demonstrating his ideas about color and form in abstract art. Dreier, who made the Russian an honorary vice president of the Société, shared his belief in the spiritual value of painting as opposed to the materialism of the industrialized world. “The function of art,” she declared, “is to free the spirit of man and invigorate and enlarge his vision.”
One of Dreier’s most remarkable achievements was staging the International Exhibition of Modern Art at the Brooklyn Museum in 1926. With 300 works from 19 countries by 106 artists, including 28 Americans, it was the largest such display since the Armory Show 13 years earlier.
A Dreier favorite, German abstractionist Kurt Schwitters (1887‱948), exhibited several assemblages of found objects, like “Oval Construction,” 1925, made of wood, plywood, nails and paint. Picabia (1879‱953), a Frenchman who was active in the Dada movement and a friend of American art promoter Alfred Stieglitz, was represented by a later figurative painting. He utilized oil paint, feathers, macaroni and leather on canvas in a snakeskin frame in the characteristically unusual “Midi,” circa 1923′6, depicting the area where he lived.
Marsden Hartley (1877‱943), the most enduring early American Modernist, who was encouraged by Dreier to persevere during lean years, weighed in with a large, strong abstractionist oil, “Rubber Plant,” 1920. An active member of the Société, Hartley gave lectures bemoaning American provincialism in general and particularly with regard to lack of acceptance of Modern art.
Other name artists assembled by Dreier in 1926 were Archipenko, Jean (Hans) Arp, Georges Braque, Burliuk, Giorgio de Chirico, Duchamp, Raymond Duchamp-Villon, Max Ernst, Albert Gleizes, El Lissitsky, Franz Marc, Joan Miró, László Moholy-Nagy, Piet Mondrian and Villon.
Standouts among less famous artists in the Brooklyn show included Suzanne Phocas (b 1897), a Frenchwoman who combined Cubist elements in memorable naïve paintings, such as the endearing “Child with Dog,” 1925′6. Georgian-born David Kakabadzé (1889‱952) incorporated glass and metal into a sleek, painted wood shaft to create an evocative Modernist piece, “Z (The Speared Fish),” circa 1925.
Dreier managed to find time to continue painting, apparently contributing to the 1926 show an accomplished, perspective-challenging oil on canvas, “Two Worlds (Zwei Welten),” cited in exhibition materials as dating to 1930, but listed as being part of the 1926 Brooklyn International Exhibition. This interesting image reflects how she used her artistic gifts to confirm her commitment to Modernism.
The exhibition’s success demonstrated the Société’s growing importance as champion of Modern art, a reputation enhanced by Dreier’s broad-ranging schedule of lectures, concerts, film screenings, dance recitals and courses on Modern art.
In addition to working with Duchamp on the organization’s ambitious programs, Dreier was the second largest collector of his work after Walter and Louise Arensberg. Her collection included his most important works, such as “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even.” “Tu m’,” 1918, a mural that Dreier commissioned for her residence, was, in Duchamp’s words, “a kind of inventory of all my preceding works, rather than a painting in itself.”
Dreier’s striking “Abstract Portrait of Marcel Duchamp,” 1918, now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, and another likeness painted the same year, underscored her unshakeable confidence in her closest cultural ally. Duchamp, in turn, continually demonstrated his friendship and unwavering faith in Dreier’s zealous stewardship of Modernism in America.
Dreier also admired and collected works by Man Ray (1890‱976), her other close collaborator, including sculptural objects (like “Lampshade,” 1921), Rayographs, screen prints (such as the colorful “Revolving Doors,” 1926, one of a series of ten) and oil paintings.
While increasingly pessimistic about the future of Modern art in the United States, Dreier hoped that by building the Société’s collection, it could serve as a lasting resource for exhibitions and lectures long after she and her organization were gone. In keeping with the Société’s mission to stay “ahead or abreast of the times,” Dreier and Duchamp sought out the freshest Modernist work of living artists everywhere, aiming for art that would “stimulate the imagination and inventive attitude in America.”
Searching for pioneering works through the eyes of artists †rather than critics or curators †they collected both known and lesser known talents employing diverse styles †ranging from Cubism and Postmodernism to Futurism, Dadaism and Constructivism. The result was a trove unusual for its breadth and internationalism and notable not for aesthetic coherence, but for its expansive cross-section of the impulses of art of the time.
In addition to artists previously mentioned in this article, the collection contained works by such recognized talents as Umberto Boccioni, Ilya Bolotowsky, John Covert, Burgoyne Diller, Arthur Dove, Arshile Gorky, John Graham, Jacques Lipchitz, Louis Lozowick and Kasimir Malevich.
One highlight of the collection, “Model of the Column,” circa 1928, rebuilt 1938, is a fascinating abstract construction by Russian-born Naum Gabo (1890‱977). After wandering around Europe for years, Gabo settled in Middlebury, Conn., in 1946 and became director of the Société Anonyme the following year.
Belgium’s Marthe Donas (1885‱967) fell under the sway of Cubism in Paris, as reflected in “Still Life with Bottle and Cap,” 1917.
Another standout is “Room (Space Construction) (Zimmer),” 1920′1, an abstract tempera by the virtually unknown Hungarian-born László Peri (1889‱967). Peri utilized his architectural training in creating non-objective paintings and constructions.
A serious artist in diverse styles, Suzanne Duchamp (1889‱963), Marcel’s younger sister, was befriended by Dreier. Ms Duchamp’s considerable skills are showcased in an abstract painting, “Accordion Masterpiece (Chef d’oeuvre accordeon),” 1921.
When it became apparent by 1941 that Dreier could not raise sufficient funds to turn The Haven, her Redding, Conn., estate into a “country museum” to display the Société’s collection, she and Marcel Duchamp arranged to give it to Yale University. Until her death in 1952, they continued to add to what eventually numbered more than 1,000 works by 180 artists.
The current exhibition, drawn from that virtual time capsule of Modern art, serves as an overdue reminder of the vision and diligence with which Katherine Dreier made Modernism an integral part of our art history.
The 230-page catalog was edited by Gross, with contributions by six scholars, and includes new archival material. It is priced at $65, hardback, and $45, paperback.
Already seen at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, and The Phillips Collection, “The Société Anonyme: Modernism for America” travels to the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville October 26 through February 3, and the Yale University Art Gallery (2010).
The Dallas Museum of Art is at 1717 Harwood Street. For information, 214-922-1200 or www.DallasMuseumofArt.org .
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