It’s refreshing to be reminded that New York’s Museum of Modern Art wasn’t always the formalist monolith that its pluralist detractors have made it out to be, and that its current expansion, which dedicates a healthy portion of floorspace to performance, is less a reinvention and more a return to its roots.
Lincoln Kirstein’s Modern, an exhibition organized by Jodi Hauptman, Senior Curator, and Samantha Friedman, Associate Curator, of MoMA’s Department of Drawings and Prints, revisits the years before American art became a worldwide juggernaut, when the pursuit of a cultural identity separate and apart from Europe was the foremost goal of serious-minded artists and writers. It also takes a close look at a period when patriotism was distinct from nationalism, populism did not equal demagoguery, and left-wing radicalism was the coin of the aesthetic realm.
Regarding Lincoln Kirstein himself, the museum’s press release offers this summary:
Best known for cofounding New York City Ballet and the School of American Ballet with George Balanchine, Kirstein (1907–1996), a polymathic writer, curator, editor, impresario, tastemaker, and patron, was also a key figure in MoMA’s early history. With his prescient belief in the role of dance within the museum, his championing of figuration in the face of prevailing abstraction, and his position at the center of a New York network of queer artists, intimates, and collaborators, the impact of this extraordinary individual remains profoundly resonant today.
As a bisexual and a Jew, Kirstein, whose father was the chairman of the Boston department store Filene’s, was the perpetual outsider despite his privileged upbringing. He began his career as an undergraduate at Harvard, where he curated shows of contemporary art and co-founded The Hound & Horn, a literary journal whose pages featured contributions from the likes of Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, Walker Evans, and Sergei Eisenstein.
He soon fell in with a sexually polymorphous group of artists, most notably Jared French, Margaret Hoening French, George Platt Lynes, Pavel Tchelitchew, and Paul Cadmus, whose sister, Fidelma, married Kirstein in 1941. (The gay subtext of Lincoln Kirstein’s Modern is brought to the fore in The Young and Evil, curated by Jarrett Earnest, running through April 13th at David Zwirner, which features paintings, photographs, sculptures, and drawings, many of them explicitly erotic, by these artists and others).
Kirstein’s taste in art never ran to the abstract, nor is there evidence of an interest in American figurative Modernists like Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove, or Milton Avery, whose paintings liberated color and brushwork from content. In the works of the artists he admired — Cadmus, Tchelitchew, George Tooker, Bernard Perlin, and Ivan LeLorraine Albright — we find an allegiance to pictorial finesse even as the imagery departs naturalism for social satire or Surrealism Lite.
These painters have long been considered 20th-century backbenchers, and their works, save for an occasional example here and there, have been consigned to MoMA’s storage bins. Their reemergence in this exhibition doesn’t threaten the judgment of history, but it does conjure a more inclusive, appropriately messy vision of the past, in which a painting like Cadmus’s “Greenwich Village Cafeteria” (1934), with its sprawling cast of social pariahs (including a dandy tossing a come-hither look as he pulls open the men’s room door with a manicured hand) might conceivably hang on the same walls as Piet Mondrian’s “Composition No. II, with Red and Blue” (1929, donated to the museum by Philip Johnson in 1941). If MoMA follows through on its pledges for the expansion, it will carry similarly messy mashups into its future.
The wall label for “Greenwich Village Cafeteria” states that, since 1934, the painting has been on extended loan to the museum from the Fine Arts Collection of the United States WPA Art Program, which means that Cadmus’s dim view of his fellow citizens, one that figuratively opens a door to the artist’s sexual demimonde, was funded by taxpayer dollars. This inconspicuous ownership line underscores the immeasurable importance of the Public Works of Art Project (1933–34) and the WPA (Works Progress Administration) Federal Art Project (1935–1943), two Depression-era programs based on the radical proposition that artists should be able to make a living making art.
The WPA played a hand in fostering the careers of dozens of historic figures, from the homegrown Jacob Lawrence, Lee Krasner, and Jackson Pollock to the immigrants Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, and Arshile Gorky. (A separate program, the Farm Security Administration, commissioned 11 documentary photographers, including Evans, Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks, Jack Delano, and Marion Post Wolcott, to capture the effects of rural poverty, creating an invaluable record of a crucial time in US history.)
The intersection of art and politics in the 1930s is reflected in one of the more intriguing sections of this fascinating show, a gallery devoted to Murals by American Painters and Photographers (1932), the first exhibition Kirstein curated for MoMA. Consisting of designs commissioned by Kirstein celebrating labor and industry, including some with a pronounced leftward tilt, the show anticipated the focus on public works that would become policy under the newly elected administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Along with overtly political artists like Ben Shahn and Hugo Gellert, Kirstein enlisted Modernist painters who were presumably outside the range of his own taste, given their absence from the current exhibition, such as Stuart Davis and Georgia O’Keeffe. Many of the designs on display are for photomurals by Berenice Abbott, George Platt Lynes, Charles Sheeler, and Edward Steichen, among others, commemorating modern infrastructure and the workers who built it.
The pictures by Shahn and Gellert are of particular interest, with Shahn’s contribution centering on the trial and execution of the immigrant Italian anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti — still a hot-button issue at the time, five years after their deaths. While Gellert’s submission is not on view (a wall text describes it as “depict[ing] philanthropists and politicians consorting with gangsters”), the works included here — lithographs for a book called ‘Capital’ in Pictures (1933), a visual companion to Das Kapital by Karl Marx, and silkscreened broadsheets illustrating Century of the Common Man (1943), a wartime speech by FDR’s vice-president, Henry A. Wallace — retain their polemical power.
And, tellingly, much of their political relevance: one of the most moving images in the show, despite its naiveté (or perhaps because of it), is an illustration from Century of the Common Man in which two families, one black and one white, create a symmetrical composition dominated by red, brown, and blue. The two men face each other, the African American gripping a pitchfork and his white counterpart holding a sledgehammer; their wives crouch below, each dandling a baby on her lap in a 20th-century version of the Holy Family. But the babies belong to the opposite couple — the white baby stands on the black mother’s lap, while the black baby is held by the white woman. It’s a simple exchange with resounding significance.
Lincoln Kirstein’s Modern casts a wide net, telling its subject’s story through rooms full of portraits and ephemera; ballet designs (including two drawings by the legendary dancer Vaslav Nijinsky); video clips of ballets and excerpts from Eisenstein’s unfinished Mexican film (1930–32); sculptures by Gaston Lachaise and Elie Nadelman; and paintings and photographs by the artists who were closest to him.
But among the show’s richest rewards is a selection of work that is the least personally connected to Kirstein. In 1942, he was sent to South America by Nelson Rockefeller (then a former MoMA board member) to acquire contemporary art from Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia, drawing on a cash gift (the Inter-American Fund) that Rockefeller anonymously donated to the museum for this purpose.
One of MoMA’s enduring strengths is its commitment to Latin American art, even if it doesn’t always know what to do with it (see John Yau’s well-known essay, “Please Wait by the Coatroom: Wifredo Lam in the Museum of Modern Art,” Arts Magazine, 1988), and Kirstein was present at the creation of that, too.
The works gathered here are the aesthetic highlight of the show, starting off with the smashing “New Chicago Athletic Club (Club atlético Nueva Chicago)” (1937) by the Argentine artist Antonio Berni, a large group portrait of more than a dozen characters, rendered in sparkling magic realism that strikes just the right note between monumentality and anecdote, with a clarity of perception that carries all the way through to the cluster of houses on the horizon and the weighty clouds hanging above them.
Other highlights of this collection include another cloud-filled sky rendered in extreme lucidity, “Savanah” by Gonzalo Ariza, a Colombian; a juicy self-portrait from 1933 by the Chilean Luis Herrera Guevara; a delightful grouping of set designs, some on paper cutouts, for the ballet Estancia (1941) by the Argentine Horacio A. Butler; and most startlingly, two hyperrealist portraits in watercolor and gouache from 1941 by the Uruguayan Gustavo Lazarini Terradas.
According to Lazarini Terradas’s wall label, Kirstein wrote in his travel notebook that the artist “is absolutely uninstructed as far as the world goes and has seen very few pictures,” which may explain why the work feels like a record of observed reality in its purist form. But it is just as easy to believe that it’s a thorough fiction. The power lies in the not knowing.
The use of the possessive in the title Lincoln Kirstein’s Modern is intriguing: a more conventional phrase might be Lincoln Kirstein and the Modern. The apostrophe implies that Kirstein had a such a significant role in establishing the goals and ethos of the fledgling museum that his influence rivaled that of its first director, Alfred H. Barr.
It might also indicate the opposite — that Kirstein’s take on Modernism was so personal and eclectic that it remained a private vision, not one easily transferable to an institutional culture, let alone the culture at large. As MoMA gears up to shut down for four months so that it can revise, yet again, its narrative of Modern Art, it’s a hopeful signal that a humanist avatar like Kirstein has been chosen as a sign-off.
Lincoln Kirstein’s Modern continues at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) through June 15. The exhibition is organized by Jodi Hauptman, Senior Curator, and Samantha Friedman, Associate Curator, Department of Drawings and Prints.