Yearning for the Absolute

Lincoln Kirstein’s Modern

an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York City, March 17–June 15, 2019
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Samantha Friedman and Jodi Hauptman
Museum of Modern Art, 207 pp., $55.00

The Young and Evil

an exhibition at the David Zwirner Gallery, New York City, February 21–April 13, 2019


You cannot take the full measure of American culture in the twentieth century until you have carefully considered the achievement of Lincoln Kirstein. This is no easy task, for Kirstein was a polymath whose activities—as institution builder, advocate for artists, and literary figure in his own right—were so various as to defy quick or easy definition. He is most often associated with George Balanchine, with whom he founded the School of American Ballet and the New York City Ballet. In addition to being a theatrical impresario, he was a magazine publisher and editor, a curator, a poet, a novelist, and a master of the art of prose, as well as a hedonist, an ascetic, a mystic, a pragmatist, an essentially liberal spirit, and a wealthy man. During World War II he was a member of the US Army arts and monuments commission, the group of soldiers tasked with recovering art stolen by the Nazis in Europe and known as the Monuments Men. In 1965 he marched for civil rights in Selma, Alabama. He was also for many years a regular contributor to these pages.

Portrait of Lincoln Kirstein by Lucian Freud
Private Collection/Lucian Freud Archive/© 2019 Lucian Freud Archive/Bridgeman Images
Lucian Freud: Portrait of Lincoln Kirstein, 19 3/4 x 15 1/2 inches, 1950

Two ambitious new exhibitions offer opportunities to crack open the Kirstein case. “Lincoln Kirstein’s Modern,” at the Museum of Modern Art, focuses on the 1930s and 1940s, the first decades of the museum’s operations, when Kirstein had a hand in organizing exhibitions and shaping some collections. “The Young and Evil,” at the David Zwirner Gallery, focuses on a group of artists—among them Pavel Tchelitchew, Paul Cadmus, Jared French, and George Platt Lynes—who were Kirstein’s friends and sometime collaborators and about whom he wrote a good deal; it includes five portraits of Kirstein. Both exhibitions shed light on his outspoken advocacy for an art grounded in the human figure, whether the exacting realism of Cadmus and French, the phantasmagorical magic realism of Tchelitchew, the sculpture of Gaston Lachaise and Elie Nadelman, the photographic experiments of Walker Evans, or the investigations of the possibilities of movement offered by the art of dance.

The curators of these exhibitions—Samantha Friedman and Jodi Hauptman at MoMA and Jarrett Earnest at Zwirner—are offering some sketches or studies for a revisionist history of mid-twentieth-century art. They have gathered together little-known or little-seen material that makes for fascinating historical shows. The MoMA exhibition includes some terrific rare film footage of dance performances in the 1930s and 1940s. The Zwirner show includes homoerotic photographs that were discovered among the personal effects of the novelist Glenway Wescott. This is very different from what until recently was the official but far from accurate history of those years, with heterosexual painters holding forth at the Cedar Tavern, less-is-more dominating the Museum of Modern Art, and…

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