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.
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 Abstract Expressionism giving way to Pop Art, Minimalism, and Conceptualism. It is good to see Kirstein, who was eighty-eight when he died in 1996, as part of a larger story. Yet both shows begin to wobble when it comes to the more difficult curatorial task of making sense of what has been gathered together.
At Zwirner and MoMA, portraits of Kirstein and his friends in the artistic and literary worlds are hung close together. The effect is warm and inviting and fun. “Lincoln Kirstein’s Modern,” packed with letters, photographs, books, and ephemera, has some of the quality of an archaeological dig into MoMA’s early history, but that is only a fraction of what it contains. There are masterpieces by Nadelman, the sculptor whose reputation Kirstein almost single-handedly rescued after his death in 1946 and whom I believe he was quite right to rank among the greatest artists of the century. There is a generous selection of photographs by Evans, whose early studies of Victorian architecture and first exhibition at MoMA would never have happened without Kirstein’s steady support. The show is so entertaining—so quick to showcase all the highways and byways of Kirstein’s perfervid imagination—that it ultimately becomes more than a little bewildering.
I am not convinced that Kirstein is being taken as seriously in these two exhibitions as he ought to be. What’s missing is some sense of his unifying, animating vision. At “The Young and Evil,” the deeper challenges posed by a renewed interest in the paintings of Cadmus, French, and Tchelitchew can get lost in the glittering glimpses of a midcentury gay demimonde. The question that still hangs over their work is whether they were liberated or entombed by the intensity with which they embraced Renaissance systems of perspective and anatomy. In my view Kirstein overrated these artists. What interests me is his affinity for their idealizing impulses. There was an austere and sternly philosophical side to Kirstein. Lucian Freud certainly caught the man’s gravitas in his 1950 portrait, which is included at MoMA. The curators of “Lincoln Kirstein’s Modern” are so interested in his variegated avidities that they risk missing entirely his search for the absolute. Kirstein prefaced Mosaic, the incisive but lyrical book of reminiscences of his early years that he published in 1994, with a series of definitions. He wanted readers to understand that mosaic was not only a “process of producing pictures or patterns by cementing bits of glass, stone, or wood,” but also a series of “laws issuing from the divining rod of the prophet Moses.”
Everywhere in Kirstein’s writing there is an emphasis on the struggle for the essential, the fundamental, the authentic. When summarizing Nadelman’s achievement in the catalog he wrote for MoMA in 1948, Kirstein didn’t praise him for his representational gifts but for “a rediscovery of the principle of absolute formal harmony in sculpture.” He could as easily have been writing about Brancusi. The year before, introducing a book of drawings by Tchelitchew, he commented that “the speech of Western draughtsmanship seems, on its highest levels, set and almost ageless.” In the foreword to Movement and Metaphor (1970), his diamond-sharp survey of important ballets from the sixteenth century to Balanchine’s Agon and Frederick Ashton’s Enigma Variations, Kirstein observed that among many other things the book could “be read as a cast of archetypes” that have defined the theater since the Renaissance.
“Lincoln Kirstein’s Modern” appears at a time of dramatic transition at MoMA. This June the museum will close for some four months to facilitate the completion of an enormous expansion that involves several floors of an entirely new building constructed to the west of the structure it currently occupies. As prologue to what a recent press release predicted will be not only an “expanded” but also a “reimagined” museum, the curators seem to be in something of a retrospective mood. Although the museum has not done much to publicize the fact, this year marks both the ninetieth anniversary of its founding and the eightieth anniversary of the first permanent home that the museum built, in the International Style, on West 53rd Street; its façade is still part of the Manhattan streetscape.
The Kirstein show is one of a number of exhibitions and publications that highlight MoMA’s past. Simultaneously with “Lincoln Kirstein’s Modern,” the museum has mounted “The Value of Good Design,” which revisits its series of exhibitions from the 1930s to the 1950s spotlighting and encouraging well-designed, mass-produced domestic objects. New publications from the museum include a history of the sculpture garden as it has been conceived and reconceived over the decades as well as René d’Harnoncourt and the Art of Installation, which looks at the work of a man who, although he was the director of the museum from 1949 to 1968, is often overlooked today.
Glenn Lowry, MoMA’s current director, sees his expanded museum as signaling a break with at least some aspects of its past. In his foreword to the Kirstein catalog and in various press materials, we are told that in the future we will be seeing an increased emphasis at MoMA on the performing arts, non-Western artists and art movements, and the dramatic juxtaposition of works in many different media. Kirstein, a fervently independent spirit, is being presented as something of a guide to the future, as if he were our supercool postmodern precursor. Lowry praises his “championship of an alternative modernism.” Still in his mid-twenties when he began getting involved in the museum in the early 1930s, he is celebrated as someone who was woke long before everyone else saw the light.
Although Kirstein was a member of MoMA’s important Junior Advisory Committee, his work for the museum was on an informal project-by-project basis, a situation by no means unusual in its early decades, when it was a relatively small but ferociously ambitious institution. He mounted an adventuresome exhibition dedicated to “Murals by American Painters and Photographers,” and was involved to one degree or another, sometimes deeply and sometimes only as a writer, with exhibitions of the work of the photographers Evans and Henri Cartier-Bresson, the sculptors Nadelman and Lachaise, and the surveys “American Realists and Magic Realists” and “American Battle Painting: 1776–1918.” He donated several thousand items that were the basis for the Dance Archives at MoMA. In the early 1940s, Nelson Rockefeller, who throughout his life was a strong supporter of MoMA, sent him to South America to buy contemporary works for the museum. In the 1960s, Kirstein donated an important album of photographs by Frances Benjamin Johnston of the Hampton Institute in Virginia, a school for African-American and Native American boys and girls; he wrote the introduction to a book about the album that appeared in 1966. (A new edition of the album is being published by the museum, but without Kirstein’s text.)
Samantha Friedman begins her catalog introduction by examining two pages from Kirstein’s engagement calendar. In celebrating a life lived in the fast lane—he did indeed connect with an extraordinary array of friends and colleagues in the space of six days in April 1942—she explains that she is “provid[ing] a map of the reach of this key connector and indefatigable catalyst.” As for what he was connecting and what he was catalyzing, that is not so easy to say. Friedman celebrates “the prescience of his vision—his belief in the intersection of the arts, his commitment to alternative narratives of all kinds.” In a catalog essay on photography, Kevin Moore speaks of his “destabilizing awareness of both a vaunted official narrative and an off-color drift.” In the collective portrait of Kirstein that emerges, there is too much emphasis on connecting, catalyzing, intersecting, alternating, destabilizing, and drifting. The curators seem to believe that all this doesn’t need to add up, and that Kirstein’s relevance has everything to do with his being a jack-in-the-box contrarian, with wild, fascinating tastes and opinions popping up in all directions.
I fear that contemporary curators and historians are unwilling to really grapple with the broad implications of some of Kirstein’s more unconventional tastes; they find it easiest to pigeonhole him as an anti-modernist, or a traditionalist, or a queer theorist who was ahead of his time. The MoMA catalog includes an excerpt from a famous article that Kirstein published in Harper’s in 1948, “The State of Modern Painting,” in which he described being troubled by the “lack of stable technical processes and rational craftsmanship” among the artists who were beginning to be recognized as the Abstract Expressionists. It is important to understand that this was part of a broader critique of what Harold Rosenberg would soon dub “action painting”—a critique that engaged writers including Mary McCarthy and Randall Jarrell and was certainly acknowledged by Clement Greenberg and Meyer Schapiro. It is true that Kirstein was a controversialist, with a flair for dispute and disruption that was sometimes sent into overdrive by psychological troubles that included some crippling manic and depressive episodes. But each of his arguments and animadversions was only one step in an expansive process of moral and ethical inquiry.
In 1969 Kirstein published an extraordinary essay about the photographer W. Eugene Smith entitled “Success or Failure: Art or History,” in which he worried about the way that Life and other mass-circulation magazines “glamorized” strong photographic work. In the “supremely well stage-managed, reproduced, distributed” products of the American media he saw “the rape of the innocent image.” What Kirstein wanted to establish was an overarching, unified cultural vision. What counted wasn’t that something was premodern or modern or (as we would say) postmodern, but that the artist had discovered a fresh and vital way of doing what had always been done. Everybody who cared about culture had to be on their guard against the false and debased. Despite all the historical erudition that Kirstein brought to his essays and books, what ultimately interested him was the theatrical or artistic or literary achievement that merged particulars with universals.
On every page of his great essay on Evans, published by MoMA in 1938, Kirstein demonstrated an almost philosophical reach and range. He believed that even an art that was dedicated to the quotidian had to embrace some more general system of values if it was going to matter. Kirstein praised Evans as “a conspirator against time and its hammers.” He spoke of “a way of seeing which has appeared persistently throughout the American past.” He wondered that “a powerful monument to our moment” could simultaneously demonstrate “intention, logic, continuity, climax, sense and perfection.” A photograph was nothing if it lacked the aspect of eternity.
My guess is that the curators and historians involved with these shows don’t know quite what to make of Kirstein’s lofty rhetoric, which he lavished not only on the mythopoetic imagery of Nadelman and Tchelitchew but also on Evans’s plainspoken photographs of the fading Victorian architecture in old New England towns. In writing about Kirstein and Evans in his catalog essay, Moore seems less interested in what Kirstein has to say about the photographs than in how impressed Kirstein was by what he described in his diaries as Evans’s “profound physicality.” It seems that Kirstein found himself baited by a friend of his, Muriel Draper, who asked, “Which of us shall take him to bed?” That Kirstein was bisexual, with a strong orientation toward men, has never been a secret. His wife, Fidelma, herself an artist whose work is included in the Zwirner exhibition, was Paul Cadmus’s sister. Kirstein was attracted to Paul, and although the attraction wasn’t mutual, they became lifelong friends. A long list of male lovers accompanied Lincoln and Fidelma’s complicated marriage; among them was the artist Jensen Yow, represented at Zwirner by a handsome portrait drawing by Cadmus and two of his own works, one a self-portrait and one a drawing of Kirstein.
The circles in which Kirstein moved were nothing if not richly braided and layered. Cadmus, about whose work he published a book in 1984, had affairs with the painters George Tooker and Jared French. French, Cadmus, and French’s wife, Margaret, did some collaborative photographic self-portraits for which they billed themselves as PaJaMa. The title of the Zwirner show, “The Young and Evil,” is from an experimental novel about gay life in Greenwich Village in the 1930s written by Charles Henri Ford and Parker Tyler, who were close friends. Ford was the editor of the important avant-garde magazine View in the 1940s and the longtime partner of Tchelitchew; Tyler published a brilliant biography of Tchelitchew in the 1960s as well as a pioneering book about homosexuality in the movies.
Included in the Zwirner show is a complex portrait by Tchelitchew of the photographer George Platt Lynes, whose subjects included nearly everybody in their circle, revealed in various states of dress and undress. For decades Lynes was the official photographer for the New York City Ballet. For a time he was having an affair with Glenway Wescott. One of the more interesting paintings at Zwirner is a group portrait by Cadmus of Lynes, Wescott, and Wescott’s longtime partner, Monroe Wheeler, who was an important figure at MoMA, on the grounds of Stone Blossom, the estate owned by Wescott’s brother, Lloyd, and his wife, Barbara. Portraits of Katharine Anne Porter, who dedicated her novel Ship of Fools to Barbara, are included in both the Zwirner and MoMA shows.
Both exhibitions raise the question of whether the focus on the human figure that animated so many of these artists and their supporters was precipitated by their sexual orientation. In a press release for “The Young and Evil” (a book is forthcoming), Jarrett Earnest argues that the show represents “another modernism” and says that the artists included “pursued a modernism of the body—driven by eroticism and bounded by intimacy, forming a hothouse world within a world that doesn’t nicely fit any subsequent narrative of modern American art.” In the MoMA catalog essay, art historian Richard Meyer posits a “queer arithmetic” grounded in what he sees as threesomes and triangulations in the lives and creative interests of Kirstein and his friends. He cites Cadmus’s remark that “all artists are a little queer.” Meyer goes on: “If this is so, perhaps it is because artists challenge conventional ways of understanding the world by presenting alternative, and often deeply and productively peculiar, forms of vision and embodiment.” He concludes that Kirstein’s “queer experimentation” encompassed both private sexual acts and more public artistic collaborations.
For centuries philosophers have been exploring the relationship between artistic expression and other forms of expression, including sexual expression. Cadmus and Tchelitchew certainly weren’t the first artists who wanted to represent their lovers. Of course there are works of art that are generated by deep erotic impulses. And of course our response to a work of art can be erotic. But I worry that the arguments being made here risk losing sight of the freedom of the artistic imagination and the extent to which art has a life and logic of its own. Artists who are gay do not necessarily embrace homoerotic subject matter. If there is something queer about the work of Ellsworth Kelly, for example, who was gay and lived and worked in roughly the same decades as Cadmus, it would demand an entirely different argument than we find in these exhibitions.
Need I add that midcentury representational painting is by no means necessarily homoerotic? Artists including Peter Blume, Ben Shahn, and Andrew Wyeth, who were in the 1943 MoMA show “American Realists and Magic Realists,” for which Kirstein wrote the introduction, weren’t gay, at least as far as I know. Moreover, the modern neoclassical style, embraced by Cadmus, Tchelitchew, and French, would be unimaginable without the neoclassical work that the altogether heterosexual Picasso had produced a couple of decades earlier. Some of his small, closely worked neoclassical figure compositions—executed in tempera, a medium favored by Kirstein’s friends—were exhibited at MoMA in the late 1930s.
“Lincoln Kirstein’s Modern” might leave visitors with the impression that Kirstein was the leading advocate for representational art at the museum in the midcentury years. That isn’t true. Another very important figure at MoMA was James Thrall Soby, a distinguished collector, writer, and curator. In 1935 he published a pioneering book, After Picasso, which celebrated Tchelitchew and a number of other artists who interested Kirstein. Soby considered the possibility that contemporary art was turning away from abstraction toward representation. That was an idea that for a time also interested Alfred H. Barr Jr., the founding director and guiding force at the museum into the 1960s. Although Barr is nowadays mistakenly believed to have been a formalist through and through, in the late 1930s his interest in contemporary representational painting made him an unpopular figure among young American abstract artists, including Ad Reinhardt.
Soby organized many shows at MoMA, including the Tchelitchew retrospective in 1942. He was an early collector of the work of Balthus, whom many in France and the United States saw as the most gifted of the younger artists who were celebrating the human figure and the natural world. In 1956 Soby organized a Balthus retrospective at MoMA. It opened on the same day as the museum’s first Jackson Pollock show. A decade after Kirstein had largely turned his back on MoMA, which he saw as embracing avant-garde values that weren’t his own, the museum was still navigating between widely divergent forms of contemporary pictorial expression.
If the connection between homoeroticism and representational drawing and painting is a tenuous one, the same must be said of the connection that some see between Kirstein’s homoeroticism and his lifelong devotion to dance and the art of Balanchine. Among the works featured at MoMA are costume designs by Cadmus, French, and Karl Free for some of the projects Kirstein instigated in the 1930s as part of Ballet Caravan, which was, as the dance historian Lynn Garafola explains in a fine catalog essay, “a company predicated on an idea of national identity.” From the 1940s there are sets and costume designs by Tchelitchew for Apollon Musagète and a couple of other productions and by Kurt Seligmann, a Surrealist much interested in magic and alchemy, for Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments. Certainly some of the work included here—especially Free’s costume designs for the ballet Pocahontas and Cadmus’s elegantly exacting studies of ballet positions for Kirstein’s book Ballet Alphabet—demonstrates a particular pleasure in the male dancer in his physical prime. But by including in the same gallery at MoMA a few photographs that Lynes made of dancers in costume and many more photographs of male nudes in provocative poses (which weren’t intended for public exhibition and do not appear to have been owned by Kirstein), the curators risk skewing the story.
One of the finest Lynes photographs in the MoMA show—it has been reproduced dozens if not hundreds of times—is of Lew Christensen, a very good-looking blond, in the role of Balanchine’s Apollo, which he was the first dancer to perform in America, at the Metropolitan Opera in 1937. It hangs next to another photograph of him as Apollo, one that if not unknown is certainly much less well known, in which Christensen is bare-assed, with a cape pushed over his back. Accompanying these photographs is a caption in which Kirstein is quoted as commenting that in addition to being an “ideal dancer,” Christensen “smells nice” and “sleeps sound.” (I wonder if any museum today could get away with a wall caption in which a famous female dancer was said to “smell nice.”) As Martin Duberman observes in his biography of Kirstein, Christensen was heterosexual; Kirstein’s infatuation was platonic and only deepened as he recognized the dancer’s theatrical gifts.
Christensen choreographed and starred in Filling Station, a ballet with a book by Kirstein, a score by Virgil Thomson, and sets and costumes by Cadmus that was one of the successes of Ballet Caravan. Among the great pleasures of the MoMA show is some film footage from the 1930s of Filling Station, with Christensen in the role of Mac, the gas station attendant. The costume that Cadmus designed for Christensen to wear as he performed what Thomson recalled as “twelve-turn pirouettes” was a workman’s coverall made of a translucent material, so that his body wasn’t exactly hidden. In his catalog essay, Meyer devotes a good deal of attention to this costume and a reconstruction of it created last year by a contemporary artist, Nick Mauss, but he goes a bit overboard with its queer implications. Could it be that for Kirstein Mac’s translucent coverall was just a bit of flirtatious fun that helped nudge a contemporary type into a theatrical archetype?
What visitors to MoMA may enjoy as a dazzling potpourri of sensibilities and avidities was for Kirstein something more like an odyssey that promised to transport him from the real to the ideal. In a memoir of New York in the 1930s, his friend the dance critic and poet Edwin Denby observed that for creative spirits coming of age at the time, the legacy of the Marxism that so dominated the period was a way of thinking that he called “a ferment or method of rhetoric.” You feel that dialectical ferment and rhetoric in Kirstein’s argumentative spirit. He’ll toss out a thesis. He’ll entertain an antithesis. But it’s all in the service of the search for the grand synthesis.
Kirstein emblazoned the brochure he produced for the performances of Ballet Society, the organization he and Balanchine founded in 1946, with a version of Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. The human body and the most perfect geometry are united in an image that is some four hundred years old and yet inextricably related to the latest developments in the art of dance. If there is a lesson that Lincoln Kirstein has to teach us, it is that an infatuation with the ephemeral can only be justified by a hunger for the eternal.