January 13, 2008

The Société Anonyme: Modernism for America at the Frist

The creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the
work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its
inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.

--Marcel Duchamps, “The Creative Act”
(Jennifer R. Gross, The Société Anonyme: Modernism for America, Yale University Press, 2006, pp.29-30)

This past Thursday evening, Liz and I finally decided to head over to the Frist Center for the Visual Arts to see The Société Anonyme: Modernism in America. It had been up since October, but for whatever reason, we had not yet seen it. What had we been waiting for? It is a pure delight.

Incorporated by the artists Katherine S. Dreier, Marcel Duchamps, and Man Ray in 1920, The Société Anonyme opened a (short-lived) “Museum of Modern Art” in Manhattan almost a decade before MOMA. The first room recreates a portion of the inaugural exhibition of The Société Anonyme, the works widely spaced upon blue oilcloth walls, their frames covered with lace doilies – a Duchampian touch that is utterly charming.

Duchamps and Dreier would go on to build an extraordinarily diverse collection of art that was eventually donated intact to Yale University in 1941 and much of Dreier’s personal collection was bequeathed to the university after her death in 1952. The entire gift consists of over one thousand works, of which some two hundred are on display in this traveling exhibition. The show contains its fair share of big names including Kandinsky, Malevich, Schwitters, Klee, Joseph Stella, Mondrian, Brancusi, Picasso, and Matisse among others, but also several now-forgotten artists whose work still evokes the intense creative ferment of the 1920s and 30s.

In addition to mounting exhibitions, The Société Anonyme pursued a variety of educational activities including concerts, lectures, dance performances, and numerous publications. Photographs, letters, and other ephemera displayed in glass cases illuminate this wide ranging activity and the deepening friendship between the utopian Dreier and the enigmatic Duchamps. It is truly an inspiring and touching story.

This is such a supremely satisfying exhibition and the catalog is so fascinating that I have decided that I need to see it at least once more before it closes on January 27.

Good stuff!


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