‘Lincoln Kirstein’s Modern’
“You cannot take the full measure of American culture in the twentieth century until you have carefully considered the achievement of Lincoln Kirstein,” writes Jed Perl. “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.
“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.
“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.”
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