A slow, painful recovery from economic recession, the rising spectre of fascism and a galvanized Left: if this sounds familiar, it might explain why the New York art world is currently so obsessed with the 1930s. Our right-wing revanchist moment resembles that pre-war period in which many of the city’s cultural venues were founded. Then, as now, technological change spurred institutional innovation despite a prevailing cultural conservatism. When the newly expanded Museum of Modern Art reinstalls its permanent collection this fall, it faces its biggest choice since then: to reinforce distinctions between genres and styles or to radically collapse them, discouraging the biases they imply.
‘Lincoln Kirstein’s Modern’ appears to provide historical justification for the museum’s surprising announcement, this past February, that it has chosen the latter course. Its curators, Samantha Friedman and Jodi Hauptman, have forgone a hagiography of one of the museum’s founding figures in order to celebrate the artists, writers and performers he brought into its orbit – offering a tantalizing glimpse at how the history of modernism might have been different, had his catholic tastes not been traded for what he considered the ‘tyranny’ of abstraction.
Lincoln Kirstein was born to a prominent Jewish family in Rochester, New York in 1907. By the time he enrolled at Harvard in 1926, the tall, precocious teen had acquired a ‘live eye’ and a passionate love of the Ballet Russes, whom he first saw perform on tour in New York in 1920. The first gallery at MoMA showcases ephemera from Kirstein’s Harvard pursuits: letters, covers and colophons from Hound & Horn, the literary magazine he co-founded there in 1927, which featured writing by T.S. Eliot, James Joyce and Gertrude Stein. In 1929, he co-founded the Harvard Society for Contemporary Art with Alfred H. Barr, Jr., which mounted ambitious exhibitions by Isamu Noguchi and Chaim Soutine as well as shows of decorative arts, pottery and set design. On display here are Tina Modotti’s elegant photograph of a Cactus (1925) and Berenice Abbott’s Hands of Jean Cocteau (1927) from a ground-breaking 1930 exhibition, as well as a 1929 lithograph by José Clemente Orozco from a show of modern Mexican art the following year.
Upon graduating, Kirstein travelled to Paris, where he met the choreographer George Balanchine, and – after considerable effort – brought the ballet master to New York in 1933. The next decade of Kirstein’s life would be consumed by dance; he helped found the extant School of American Ballet, with Balanchine at its helm, as well as the Ballet Caravan touring company. The school trained a score of young dancers whom Kirstein encouraged to choreograph ballets with American themes: in the show’s second gallery, swash-buckling scenes from Yankee Clipper (1937) are projected on hanging screens near Jared French’s sketches of campy cowboy costumes for Billy the Kid (1938), completed on Fire Island stationery. Kirstein had met French though his partner, Paul Cadmus, who designed a sheer ‘gas jockey’ uniform for Filling Station (1937). A re-creation of the costume hung like a gauzy curtain before a window at the Whitney Museum last spring, when artist Nick Mauss included it in his show ‘Transmissions’; the watercolour on view at MoMA hardly does it justice. Trafficking in ‘average joe’ stereotypes, such productions celebrated the working class men Kirstein and Cadmus often cruised for sex. Most alluring are costume designs for Balanchine’s unrealized The Cave of Sleep (1941) by Kirstein’s confidant Pavel Tchelitchew, their leotards painted with muscle tissue and laced with icy blue veins. The flayed men would have pirouetted to a score by Paul Hindemith, a scene almost too ghoulish to imagine. The gallery also includes photographs by Kirstein’s primary school classmate, George Platt Lynes, who was commissioned to take promotional stills for the ballet. Lew Christensen appears radiant in full costume as Igor Stravinsky’s Apollon Musagète (1937). In the delirious Self-Analysis (1937), a buff nude blonde stares at his reflection in a warped funhouse mirror. More curious is Lynes’s treatment of race: in a 1939 portrait, black tap dancer Bill Bailey bears a vaudevillian grin as he pushes away a white female mannequin. Kirstein and Balanchine had wanted their company to be 50 percent black; the blinding whiteness of ballet today is one measure of their failure.
Kirstein, Lynes and fellow photographer Carl van Vechten were fixtures of Harlem’s famous Cotton Club, which proved an erotic lure as much as a source of artistic inspiration. Yet in ‘The Young and Evil’ at David Zwirner, desire is uniformly white. A Grecian bust (Untitled [Archaic Head], 1955) and a kouros figure (Etruscan Man, c. 1935) by French echo the classical idealism of fascist art. The creepy paintings of George Tooker, meanwhile, are more ambivalent: are the beefy clones catching spray in Fountain (1950) enjoying their white idyll or languishing in a purgatory of sameness? The show’s primary ‘discovery’, according to curator Jarrett Earnest, is a series of erotic Cadmus drawings from the collection of the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University, depicting an encyclopaedic array of gay sex positions performed by figures who would be at home in a Boy Scout Handbook. Explicit self-portraits by Lynes and his lover Monroe Wheeler are a more surprising find, though for their historical rather than artistic merit. The show’s star painting, Cadmus’s Stone Blossom: A Conversation Piece (1939-1940), depicting the two lounging in summer grass with the handsome writer Glenway Wescott, might be the best portrait of a gay throuple in US history.
Earnest’s show is most successful when it traces these tangled relationships, whose sexual openness defied the mores of the time. In snapshots of frolics on Fire Island, not much seems to have changed since 1945. It was there that Cadmus, French and his wife, Margaret Hoening, made collaborative work as ‘PaJaMa’ – sometimes joined by Kirstein and his wife Fidelma, Cadmus’s sister, whose intriguing coloured pencil drawings are also on display here. Marriages to gay men granted these women considerable independence at a time when most had none, which they used to pursue long creative careers that deserve serious scholarly attention.
When Kirstein wasn’t at the beach or the ballet, he was busy volunteering his time at the nascent MoMA. In 1930, Barr – the museum’s founding director – invited him to join the Junior Committee, which included a young Philip Johnson and Nelson Rockefeller. Two years later, Kirstein commissioned more than two dozen artists, including Lynes, Hendrick Duryea and Charles Sheeler, to produce designs for an exhibition of American murals. Twelve photostat mock-ups reveal common themes: smokestacks and skyscrapers, gears and gantry cranes. Missing are those by Hugo Gellert and William Gropper, which – along with Ben Shahn’s portrait of the doomed anarchists Sacco and Venzetti – were deemed too politically radical for display. The wall text makes no mention of this disavowal, which almost threatened to dissolve the museum board.
Kirstein, a committed socialist, never again took such a leading role in organizing a MoMA exhibition. The conflict also put him at odds with Johnson, a fascist anti-Semite, who would go so far as to attend Hitler’s 1936 rally in Nuremberg. The curators have curiously chosen to open the show with Johnson’s model for his geometric Lincoln Kirstein Tower, New Canaan, CT (1984-5), which stands on the property of his Glass House – a red herring tribute to their relationship its wall label describes as simply ‘complex’.
Kirstein did, however, travel to South America in 1942 at MoMA’s behest to snap up local works for its collection, a large selection of which appear in the exhibition’s most astonishing section. Paintings by obscure artists from Peru, Chile and Brazil would be radical acquisitions even today; these include a jaundiced 1933 self-portrait by Luis Herrera Guevara and the magnificent St. John’s Day (1942) by Afro-Brazilian painter Heitor dos Prazeres.
Tchelitchew’s paintings, meanwhile, have not aged so well. His enormous Hide-and-seek (Cache cache) (1940-2) is a nightmare a la Google’s DeepDream, with pallid, screaming children budding from bare branches in a queasy palette of brown and chartreuse. It makes fitting company for Cadmus’s Greenwich Village Cafeteria (1934), a lurid caricature of queer bar life and anaemic Otto Dix imitation. These works may be bad, but their messiness is encoded in MoMA’s DNA, such that no amount of ‘tasteful’ abstraction can excise them.
And that is partly the point. With the rise of Abstract Expressionism, figurative art became samizdat in the 1950s. In its title, ‘Lincoln Kirstein’s Modern’ refers not just to the young museum but to the other modernisms – queer, non-white, leftist, interdisciplinary – that once flourished there. Figuration is finally back; let’s hope Kirstein’s vision is also here to stay.
Main image: Jared French, Murder (detail), 1942. Courtesy: the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, and John D. Phillips Fund