The relentlessly busy life, aesthetic proclivities and multimedia achievements of Lincoln Kirstein — this country’s most catalytic balletomane — are in high relief right now in New York, thanks to two exhibitions, “Lincoln Kirstein’s Modern,” at the Museum of Modern Art, and “The Young and Evil” at David Zwirner in Chelsea.
In the dance world, Kirstein (1907-1996) is something of a god — if sometimes an angry, perverse one — because of his instrumental role in founding, with George Balanchine, the School of the American Ballet in 1934 and, in 1948, New York City Ballet. For years he was the school’s president and the ballet’s general manager.
Kirstein’s deep involvement with the Museum of Modern Art in its first two decades is much less known. His role, as an ex officio curator, catalog writer, all-around idea man and donor is prominent in the museum’s “Lincoln Kirstein’s Modern,” which covers his main cultural accomplishments — gallery by gallery, ballet included.
The Modern’s show, organized by Samantha Friedman and Jodi Hauptman, is symptomatic of the museum’s growing interest in all things dance- and performance-related, which is sometimes interesting but sometimes reads as simply a fear of missing out. The Kirstein show, though, reveals that MoMA’s interest in dance is nothing new; Kirstein was the main impetus behind that and the formation, in 1940, of the museum’s Dance Archive, which was briefly promoted to being the Dance & Theater Arts department.
Kirstein was also part of a circle of figurative artists, mostly gay, who he considered the greatest of his time but, who, like him, have since been marginalized. They are in the MoMA show, but are often better served in Zwirner’s “The Young and Evil,” a meticulously researched exhibition organized by the art critic and editor Jarrett Earnest working with Robert Goff of the gallery.
Alastair Macaulay, the former chief dance critic for The New York Times, and I discuss these complex, thoroughly rewarding shows here. ROBERTA SMITH
ROBERTA SMITH One thing that struck me is that the MoMA show reflects the museum’s desire to use its collections more actively, bringing out stuff you never dreamed it had, making its holdings seem apparently bottomless.
ALASTAIR MACAULAY Yes, Kirstein is an ideal figure for this multidisciplinary aspect of MoMA. Like Diaghilev, whose productions he saw in the 1920s and wrote about brilliantly, he had his finger in so many pies other than dance. He had protean diversity, Renaissance versatility, titanic energy — and bipolar extremes. Himself a poet, novelist, editor, essayist, historian, he was also a patron of the arts who played a part in the lives and careers of artists as varied as Ezra Pound, Igor Stravinsky and Tennessee Williams. He was remarkably independent minded, yet he subordinated his life to the vision of one other artist in particular, the choreographer George Balanchine.
SMITH I love your adjectives. He really was a polymath, precocious, driven, bipolar and to some extent bisexual. He had indefatigable energy, would go out several times a week and then go cruising afterward. He was sort of a wealthy Boston Brahmin — his father was a co-owner of Filene’s department store — except he was Jewish, and also what we would call a social justice warrior. In his sophomore year at Harvard he used family money to found (with Varian Fry) Hound & Horn, a literary quarterly. As a junior, in 1928, he established the Harvard Society for Contemporary Art with Edward M.M. Warburg, later a MoMA trustee, and John Walker III, the first director of the National Gallery of Art in Washington. The Society showed Buckminster Fuller, Ben Shahn and Walker Evans and influenced the formation of MoMA. And of course he knew Alfred H. Barr Jr., who had taught at Wellesley just before becoming the museum’s founding director. Kirstein’s Rolodex must have been bursting by graduation.
MACAULAY Counterbalancing all this, though, is the wild variability of his taste. This was a man who knocked Manet and Matisse while promoting Paul Cadmus.
SMITH Exactly. Early on Kirstein realized he didn’t like abstract art. He thought it was too subjective, without skills or standards. As time went on, he was increasingly dismayed by what the Modern was buying and exhibiting. His closeness with Paul Cadmus (whose sister, the tragic Fidelma, he would marry) may also have turned him against modern art (or the Modern’s art) and toward what might kindly be called “the Classic” and which was often reactionary. Ballet he had been in love with since childhood. Its sense of tradition, craft and precision and the importance of the figure ultimately set his artistic ideals.
MACAULAY Other than Balanchine — whose genius is hard to capture on museum walls — three visionaries strike me here as artists of magnitude: the sculptor Elie Nadelman, the visual artist (and stage designer) Pavel Tchelitchew and the photographer George Platt Lynes. On the evidence of this show, I don’t quite rank the esteemed Walker Evans with them, but he’s well represented here too; and all the photography here, by many hands, is rewarding. Tchelitchew, however, is an artist I need to see more of: Surrealism at its most imaginatively poetic pervades his work.
SMITH Whoa, Alastair! You must reconsider. Walker Evans is the greatest of the whole crowd, with Nadelman. But who’s ranking? As for Tchelitchew, in the late 1930s and ’40s he was considered the successor of Picasso, esteemed by Gertrude Stein, supported by Charles Henri Ford and Parker Tyler at View Magazine. The Modern bought “Hide-and-Seek” — one of the show’s centerpieces — at Kirstein’s urging in 1942, the year it was painted. I think it’s gaudy, labor-intensive kitsch, but it was considered the Modern’s most popular painting.
Anyway, Tchelitchew and the rest of them were swept aside when the Abstract Expressionists came to the fore in the 1940s. The Modern bought Jackson Pollock’s 1943 “She-Wolf” in 1944. It must have resembled writing on the wall for Kirstein.
MACAULAY I’m relieved modern painting didn’t go Tchelitchew’s neo-Romantic way — but I love his imagination. And his sense of light, space and metamorphosis transformed Balanchine’s work.
We now know that modern ballet went Balanchine’s way; and to no other artist did Kirstein wholly defer in matters of taste and vision. But things often looked different at the time. Although Kirstein had brought Balanchine to America in 1933, he spent much of his time on Broadway and in Hollywood. Kirstein seems at one point to have despaired: “Balanchine, c’est un homme perdu.” Yet he kept his ballet project going. One of the two screens here shows silent footage of choreography by American figures for Kirstein’s troupe Ballet Caravan, notably Lew Christensen’s “Filling Station.”
SMITH That and the excerpt from “Billy the Kid” nearly did me in. They were both Kirstein’s ideas, consistent with his aim to recreate ballet as an American art and, for me, cringe-worthy signs of his uneven taste. The costumes seemed fit for musical comedy and were usually better as renderings than garments.
MACAULAY A second screen in the same room shows silent excerpts from a 1946 stage rehearsal of “The Four Temperaments,” Balanchine’s most singular masterpiece of radical modernism. (Unfortunately, they’re shown the wrong way round — right-left instead of left-right — and not all in the right sequence.) They show Balanchine’s first thoughts, including the amazing pumping-heart image with which he originally ended the ballet.
SMITH This is one of the high points of the show. and wonderful to watch, because the dancers are dressed so plainly and none of the men are pretending to be riding horses — or fixing cars.
MACAULAY Yes, yes! It’s weird to think of the many tensions there must have been between Kirstein and Balanchine — who, instead of pursuing Kirstein’s line in American realism, in the 1940s made a series of dazzling pure-form masterpieces that transformed Western dance theater. The exhibition also shows us Kurt Seligman’s mock-medieval designs for “Temperaments,” which are quaint at best. Kirstein wanted Diaghilev-type fusions of the arts; it’s hard to know what he can have made of Balanchine’s increasing preference for no décor and minimal costumes.
SMITH Interesting because he was certainly vocal about his dislike of the Modern’s version of modernism.
MACAULAY Thank you for drawing my attention to “The Young and Evil” at Zwirner. Many of the same names — Tchelitchew, Lynes, Kirstein, Cadmus, Fidelma Cadmus, crop up again here; and my admiration for Tchelitchew is expanded further. Even at his most disturbing — the several “skull beneath the skin” portraits — he’s a bold, arresting spirit. But whereas “Lincoln Kirstein’s Modern” shows how passionately eclectic Kirstein was, “The Young and Evil” is about a narrow in-crowd of artists, mostly gay. They all depicted one another; it feels cliquey.
SMITH There may be something a bit inbred about the Zwirner show. But few of these artists or works are well known, so there’s been a tremendous response from the art world, where there is renewed interest in expanding figurative art styles and subjects.
And of course they all depicted one another. They were all, to a person, incredibly good-looking and their shared passion was the figure and the face. That big wall of portrait drawings and photographs at Zwirner — there’s a smaller, less effective one at MoMA — is heavy with the air of mutual infatuation and alive with extraordinary rendering skill.
Among the portraits of Kirstein is a drawing by Fidelma that is especially poignant for its psychic complexity. Tchelitchew looked the best I’ve ever seen, especially his portrait of Fidelma with a face that is an intricate mass of circuitry — raw nerves. Also here is his uncharacteristically loosely painted, multi-vignette portrait of Lynes, a wonderful period piece.
As for Cadmus, I don’t think I’ll ever like him much. The standout in either show is his “Stone Blossom: A Conversation Piece” (1939-40), a group portrait of Monroe Wheeler, the longtime director of exhibitions at MoMA; the novelist Glenway Wescott; and Lynes at Zwirner. We see them — a ménage à trois for a dozen years — on the vast lawn of the country house that they shared in New Jersey. It’s relatively subdued and composed around a fantastically large, ancient tree.
MACAULAY There are a few better Paul Cadmus paintings elsewhere. (Start with his 1937 “Fidelma” in the Wilmington Delaware Art Museum.) They don’t, however, stop my sharing your general dislike of his work.
The MoMA exhibition reminded me how industriously Kirstein investigated the art world of South America in the 1940s. I’m sorry that the artists here don’t greatly impress me. (At first, I assumed the 1937 “New Chicago Athletic Club” was another Cadmus. It’s actually by the Argentine painter Antonio Berni.) Except the landscape (or skyscape) “Savanna” (1942) by Gonzalo Ariza.
SMITH My reaction was close to opposite. There are some duds in that gallery but also some really credible paintings — including some by possibly folk or self-taught artists. For me, this gallery conveyed a strong sense of what Kirstein called his “live eye.”
MACAULAY Kirstein himself keeps cropping up in these two shows, as depicted by Cadmus, Cartier-Bresson, Evans, Lucian Freud (1945, superb), Jay Leyda, Lynes and Tchelitchew. With his large, powerful head and shoulders — his head is often lowered in these portraits — Kirstein had a stern, bull-like presence. (His head is often lowered here, too, with the strong suggestion of a frown.) You can forget many of the paintings he bought; you can’t forget him.
Lincoln Kirstein’s Modern
Through June 15 at the Museum of Modern Art; moma.org.
The Young and Evil
Through April 13 at David Zwirner Gallery, 533 West 19th Street, Manhattan; davidzwirner.com.