Los Angeles

View of “The Société Anonyme: Modernism for America,” UCLA Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, 2006. From left: Jacques Villon, In Memoriam, 1919; Juan Gris, Journal et compotier (Newspaper and Fruit Dish), 1916; Constantin Brancusi, Little French Girl (The First Step III), ca. 1914–18; Morton Livingston Schamberg, Painting (formerly Machine), 1916; Joseph Stella, Brooklyn Bridge, 1918–20; Francis Picabia, Prostitution universelle (Universal Prostitution), 1916–17; Man Ray, Lampshade, 1921; Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes, Jeune femme (Young Woman), 1919; Heinrich Campendonk, Die rote Katze (The Red Cat), 1926. Photo: Joshua White.

View of “The Société Anonyme: Modernism for America,” UCLA Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, 2006. From left: Jacques Villon, In Memoriam, 1919; Juan Gris, Journal et compotier (Newspaper and Fruit Dish), 1916; Constantin Brancusi, Little French Girl (The First Step III), ca. 1914–18; Morton Livingston Schamberg, Painting (formerly Machine), 1916; Joseph Stella, Brooklyn Bridge, 1918–20; Francis Picabia, Prostitution universelle (Universal Prostitution), 1916–17; Man Ray, Lampshade, 1921; Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes, Jeune femme (Young Woman), 1919; Heinrich Campendonk, Die rote Katze (The Red Cat), 1926. Photo: Joshua White.

“The Société Anonyme”

WHAT SHAPE might the narrative of modernism in the visual arts have assumed in the absence of New York’s Museum of Modern Art? Would we envision the history and evolution of modern art differently if we had not been guided for decades by the famous flowchart that MoMA director Alfred H. Barr Jr. prepared to explain the organization of his 1936 exhibition “Cubism and Abstract Art”? Here, for the first time, Barr crystallized MoMA’s paradigmatic vision of modernism as a progressive, formalist development across the European avant-gardes that could be traced along a dense network of intersecting pathways beginning with various forms of Post-Impressionism in the 1890s and culminating by the mid-1930s in “geometrical” and “nongeometrical” abstract art. So convincing was the apparent logic of this model that for many years it effectively obliterated all other versions of how the history of modern art might be told. In the past quarter century, however, some of the powerful institutional forces that enabled MoMA’s narrative to become authoritative have been exposed, and alternative histories are now emerging to challenge the singular perspective that for so long dominated the field. Curated by Yale University Art Gallery’s Jennifer R. Gross with assistance from Susan Greenberg, the current traveling exhibition of works of art and related ephemera drawn from the Société Anonyme Collection housed at Yale University is a compelling instance of this revisionist trend, offering a distinctly different standard for appreciating the artistic and collecting practices through which modernism was initially constructed and explained to American audiences during the first half of the twentieth century.

Formally constituted as the Société Anonyme, Inc., the organization founded in 1920 by the artist Katherine S. Dreier together with Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray was dedicated to supporting and exhibiting the work of contemporary artists from America and throughout Europe. Based in New York City, the Société Anonyme was conceived almost a decade earlier than MoMA as a vehicle for educating a broad (if largely uninterested) American public about modern art through exhibitions, publications, and programs that included lectures and musical performances; although it eventually amassed an impressive collection of well over a thousand works by more than one hundred artists, collecting was not its purpose. In its early years the organization actively recruited critics, museum directors, art patrons, and artists to become members, but eventually the activities of the Société Anonyme were concentrated around the eighty-five one-person and group exhibitions, including several ambitious traveling shows, that Dreier would organize between 1920 and 1941, often with substantial help from Duchamp and occasional advice from other artists. As archival documents in the current exhibition and essays in the accompanying catalogue make clear, the animating force of the Société Anonyme was the shared commitment of Dreier and Duchamp—an unlikely pair, if ever there was one.

The daughter of affluent German immigrants, Dreier was a theosophist committed to modern art as an expression of spiritual and moral values. It was as a founding member of the Society of Independent Artists in 1916 that she first came into contact with Duchamp, the Dadaist whose infamous Fountain she voted to reject (on the grounds that it lacked originality) when it was submitted for exhibition the following year. Dreier very quickly regretted that decision and within a short time was pursuing a more congenial relationship with Duchamp, her junior by ten years. She painted figurative as well as abstract portraits of Duchamp in 1918, the same year in which she commissioned what was to be his last oil painting, Tu m’, one of many works by Duchamp (including his Large Glass, 1915–23) that she owned during her lifetime.

Dreier was a crusading activist for the arts, whereas the reticent and conceptually oriented Duchamp seemed to disdain almost all forms of public engagement with the art world, a difference that came into focus after Dreier’s death in 1952. The current exhibition includes two photographs taken in 1948 in Dreier’s Milford, Connecticut, home. These show the traditionally decorated, almost claustrophobically crowded domestic environment in which Dreier displayed many masterpieces of modernism then still in her private collection. They also feature Dreier herself, a stocky and dowdily dressed matron, posing in an elevator whose exterior the perennially waiflike and handsome Duchamp had painted—in an extraordinary and presumably ironic display of decorative sensibility—with a pattern of vine leaves to match the surrounding wallpaper. The photographs can be appreciated as emblems of the enduring conundrum one encounters not simply in trying to fathom the bond that linked these two very different artistic personalities to each other for more than thirty years, but also in coming to grips with the distinctive character of the Société Anonyme collection that they formed and cared for during this period.

The idiosyncratic diversity of the collection and some of the unusual ways in which it was presented are effectively conveyed in several different aspects of this exhibition. At the UCLA Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, the Société Anonyme’s eclectic inaugural exhibition was recreated, not only by assembling many of the objects that were shown in 1920 (including a portrait by Vincent van Gogh; Dada works produced in the teens by Francis Picabia, Man Ray, and Morton Livingston Schamberg; Joseph Stella’s Brooklyn Bridge of 1918–20; and a large, expressionistic painting of nude women, titled The Island of Peace, 1918–19, by a now little-known German artist named Heinrich Johann Vogeler) but also by approximating the original installation, designed by Duchamp, in which white oilcloth was applied to the walls, electrolier lights were contributed by Man Ray, and the floor was covered with gray, ribbed rubber. The industrial feel and masculine implications of these features were mitigated by the feminizing gesture of placing lace paper doilies over the frames of each of the paintings, creating what David Joselit characterizes in his catalogue essay as a “hermaphroditic exhibition” that inevitably brings to mind Duchamp’s creation at the same moment of his alter ego, Rose Sélavy.

The depth and range of the Société Anonyme’s collection are suggested elsewhere in the exhibition by the presentation of multiple works by individual artists to whom the organization devoted one-person shows in the first five years of its existence. Here paintings and works on paper by Louis Eilshemius, Fernand Léger, Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, Joseph Stella, and Heinrich Campendonk are arrayed in monographic groups that enable the viewer to appreciate the distinctive quality of each artist’s creative output as well as the inclusive nature of the collection as a whole. The proximity in this gallery and throughout the exhibition of unfamiliar, sometimes even surprisingly peculiar, works of art to well-known objects by acknowledged masters of modernism signals the Société Anonyme’s independence from standard qualitative and aesthetic criteria, allowing visitors to imagine a history of art constructed according to criteria other than a canon of artists and styles sanctioned by the marketplace and the museum. Some of the artists collected were figures of renown even in their own lifetimes whose canonical status has long been secure. Others were artists with significant careers whose contributions to the development of modernism have also been widely recognized, even if their profiles are in some cases relatively unfamiliar to contemporary audiences. No less important—indeed, especially worthy of attention for the often high quality of their work and because of what they reveal of the Société Anonyme’s broad sweep—are those who for various reasons have generally escaped detection through the narrow lens of conventional modernist historiography: Richard Boix, Adolf Erbslöh, Lawren Stewart Harris, Finnur Jónsson, David Kakabadzé, Walmar Shwab, and a host of female artists whom the exhibition demonstrates are worthy of renewed attention, including Marthe Donas, Alice Halicka, Angelika Hoerle, Ragnhild Keyser, Erika Giovanna Klien, Hélène Perdriat, and Suzanne Phocas.

The occasionally awkward or unexplained juxtaposition of works by well-known figures such as Piet Mondrian (here represented by three paintings in their original frames, displayed without the protective Plexiglas boxes that usually prevent viewers from fully appreciating the painterly characteristics of Mondrian’s brushwork) alongside contributions by artists who never achieved a comparable level of recognition highlights some of the difficulties that Dreier herself encountered in her efforts to advance her understanding of modern art as a universal, cosmic force. When in 1926 she mounted a hugely ambitious international exhibition comprising more than 300 works by 106 artists from 23 different countries, she attempted to address the potentially chaotic appearance of the installation by creating opportunities for intimate aesthetic experience. Photographs of Dreier’s installation at the Brooklyn Museum reveal that most of the works of art were displayed in large, formal galleries with ample space between each object, thereby encouraging contemplation on an individual basis. However, one gallery was subdivided into relatively small subsidiary interiors, which Dreier described in a 1926 letter to Duchamp as “four quaint small rooms . . . [which] will make a charming intime background for certain pictures and water colors.” In order to emphasize her conviction that these works, and modern art in general, belong in the middle-class home, she outfitted these rooms with conventional furniture that could be expected to appeal to a bourgeois audience, because it was purchased at a department store where, she explained, “the big middle class Brooklynites buy.”

While it is difficult to imagine an exhibition strategy that would depart more explicitly from the installations of art and design that Barr would soon be mounting at MoMA, the Société Anonyme collection and its rich trove of archival materials provide unparalleled resources for reinterpreting the narrative of modernism that became familiar at that museum. The strategy of inclusion pursued in the current exhibition itself encourages us to question the aesthetic predilections upon which MoMA’s narrative was based, using ephemeral materials to reconstruct interpersonal relationships that united artists across generations and widely divergent aesthetic commitments—conjuring a flowchart that would look radically different from the one Barr created in 1936. Indeed, the present exhibition and its accompanying catalogue encourage us not simply to appreciate the alternative story of modernism revealed by the Société Anonyme but to take the next logical step and reexamine MoMA’s own early history. We might then better appreciate certain features of Barr’s activities that are themselves too often overlooked: his embrace of vernacular commercial culture, including department-store advertisements and window displays; the support he offered to now-neglected magic realist and neo-romantic painters; and the exhibitions he devoted to works by naive and untrained artists, which led to Barr’s dismissal from the directorship of MoMA in 1943. Reincorporating these episodes into a narrative of modernism that is not structured in terms of formal coherence, established movements, or singular artistic achievements would allow for a more nuanced and stimulating account in which the Société Anonyme might turn out to play a central, rather than a marginal, role.

Nancy J. Troy is a professor of art history at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles.