Sunday, March 24, 2019

“Lincoln Kirstein’s Modern”


In my youth, go back well over half a century ago, in the mid 1950’s through the 60’s I was a fan of The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York.  I knew just where to find the early Paris School paintings I enjoyed especially Picasso ‘s “Les Demoisselles d’Avignon”. Then there was  Salvador Dali’s little surrealistic painting, “The Persistence of Memory” with its clocks draped over a branch, a fossil and a wood desk. Of course, the picture that everyone must remember from those days was a painting placed on the staircase Oskar Schlemmer’s 1932 “Bauhaus Stairway”.  I also learned a great deal about photography there with their wonderful early museum exhibitions on the subject by their famous curator, Thaddeus John Szarkowski who was at MOMA from 1962 to 1991.


In later years with all the expansion and less emphasis on representational art I lost touch in many respects but their new show, “Lincoln Kirstein’s Modern” is a step into the past, unusual for MoMA.  Lincoln Kirstein (1907-1996) is best known for being a co-founder of the New York City Ballet together with the great Russian choreographer, George Balanchine, who he convinced to join him in New York.  Kirstein was also a writer and curator, as well as an impresario and general patron of the arts.  I can’t say I knew him, though I did once sit at the dinner table with him at the Century Association in New York and my wife interacted with him through Henry Geldzahler, curator of 20th century art at the Metropolitan Museum.  In other words, Kirstein touched much of the art world in New York.

Kirstein’s interest in ballet led him to donate his archive of 5,000 ballet-related books, drawings and ephemera to the museum, already in 1939.  Like many great patrons he had an influence on the museum without ever being on the staff.  This photographic portrait of Kirstein was done by Walker Evans (1903-1975) In 1931.


From MoMA’s press release,-- “the exhibition illuminates the influence of his vision, tastes, and efforts on the Museum’s collecting, exhibition, and publication history.”  It is obviously a show of great depth in the taste of a cultural icon with nearly 300 works from the museum’s collection and archives —including set and costume designs for the ballet by Paul Cadmus and Jared French, photographs by Walker Evans and George Platt Lynes, realist and magic realist paintings by Honoré Sharrer and Pavel Tchelitchew, sculptures by Elie Nadelman and Gaston Lachaise, and the Latin American art that Kirstein acquired for the Museum. Here is a typical image by George Platt Lynes.


Deborah Solomon, a New York art critic who used to write for the New York Times, in her WNYC News  review grants that it is worth reviving Kirstein’s contributions but accuses him of “questionable art infatuations” for his favoring of “figuration in the age of abstraction” since “he preferred artists who show off their technical skill, artists who can draw a hand with anatomical correctness”!  Ms. Solomon is, of course, of a younger generation. Maybe because I grew up in the Old Master world, I side with Lincoln Kirstein. In the early 50’s my father thought Abstract Expressionism was a passing fad… so much for predicting the future!

Kirstein lived in the demi-monde being Jewish and bisexual first falling in love with the artist Paul Cadmus (1904-1999) and then marrying his sister and they were married for half a century. I too love Cadmus, his paintings that is, a typical work “Greenwich Village Cafeteria” from 1934 is in the care of MoMA, on extended loan from the U.S. WPA Arts Program. The show also includes a gouache of Ballet Positions by Cadmus, appropriately one of Kirstein’s gifts to MoMA.  All images are from material supplied by MoMA.



Honoré Sharrer (1920-2009) “Workers and Paintings” from 1943 is another gift from Kirstein.  Sharrer received a great compliment from the poet and Yale English professor, John Ashbery who praised her paintings, describing their meticulous style as "a collaboration between Norman Rockwell and the brothers van Eyck."  You will see in the painting that there are old and modern masters and how “Everyman” might react to them.


So many images to choose from but I will just pick one more iconic one and that is of the famous anarchists and convicted murderers, Bartolomeo Vanzetti and Nicola Sacco,1931–32 by Ben Shahn (1898–1969).   Kirstein championed Shahn for his political engagement and This guache was a gift of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller from the estate of Ben Shahn/ VAGA at Artists Rights Society, NY.


The show was curated by Jodi Hauptman, Senior Curator, and Samantha Friedman, Associate Curator, Department of Drawings and Prints as many of the works are on paper.  I do like that the Modern is looking back at its roots and one of its great patrons. The show will be up until June 15.

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