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THE ‘PRE’ MODERN MUSEUM
In 1920, heiress Katherine Dreier founded the Societe Anonyme in New York to support and display the works of modern artists, including Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray. Just nine years later, when the Museum of Modern Art opened, its curator, Alfred H. Barr, hounded Dreier for works from her collection – and often failed to acknowledge the Societe’s influence in modern art circles. It wasn’t until the 1950s, when the Societe’s collection was donated to the Yale University Art Gallery, that Barr conceded that the Societe’s mission was a “frequent and important example” to MoMA.
The rise of the Societe is chronicled in “The Societe Anonyme: Modernism in America”(Yale University Press,252 pages, $65), an exhibition catalog and history of the group. Much of the book serves as a biography of Dreier, who grew up in New York and in the 1950s moved to Connecticut when Yale received the Societe’s collection. An essay on Dreier’s fascination with the work of Russian and Soviet avant-garde artists – written by a professor emeritus of art history at the University of California, Dickran Tashjian – includes the book’s most intriguing reproductions. Chief among them is Vassily Kandinsky’s “Improvisation No. 7 (Storm)” (1910), which pushes away from Impressionism toward straight lines and organized colors. Two gouache paintings by Liubov Popova, both called “Painterly Architectonic” (1918), add more context: geometrical rectangles and triangles of greens and yellows, with the tips of pyramids pointing out almost off the page.
Dreier was a great supporter of the artist David Burliuk, who contributed “The Eye of God” (1923-25) to the Societe’s collection. The painting, depicting a large eye surrounded by straight red rays, connected with Dreier’s vision of combining modern art with a spiritual perspective.
Together with Duchamp, Dreier built a collection of more than 1,000 works, including paintings by the Italian-American artist Joseph Stella and prints by Kandinsky. Numerous paintings and photographs by Duchamp, Man Ray, and Dreier are also included. The organization was a jumping off point for young artists from the 1920s through the 1940s.Yale’s efforts to keep the historical importance of the Societe Anonyme alive are well-received and appreciated in this catalog.