Wassily Kandinsky

Wassily Kandinsky's "Multicolored Circle," from 1921. (Photo courtesy Yale University Art Gallery / January 15, 2013)

The Societe Anonyme: Modernism for America

Through July 14, Yale University Art Gallery, 1111 Chapel St., New Haven, (203) 432-0600, artgallery.yale.edu


Katherine Dreier (1877-1952), who lived in West Redding and Milford, and among whose close personal friends numbered a Who's Who of 20th-century art, was the most unlikely apostle of modernism one can imagine. With her funereal gowns, walking cane, pince-nez, sensible shoes and boxy hats, Dreier looked as if she'd just walked off the set of Murder, She Wrote. The real Agatha Christie mystery, though, is: how in blazes did such a remarkable woman become a driving force in modern art? Furthermore, how did the Yale University Art Gallery become the lucky repository for her lifetime's worth of collecting? Both mysteries beg to be solved — and then repeated throughout the world for a new millennium.

Societe Anonyme: Modernism for America, a blockbuster exhibition up through July 14 at Yale's newly renovated gallery, offers answers to these questions, and much more. If the Societe Anonyme was the first "experimental museum" in America — as Yale curators contend — then the chemical most often used in its experiments was modernism, with a soupcon of surrealism and a dash of Dada, catalyzed by the boundless energy of Dreier and her pair of fellow conspirators Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray. This trio, and then the cast of characters they attracted to the cause, opened a gallery space on E. 47th Street on April 30, 1920, and during the next 10 years they published 30 books, held 80 exhibitions and organized countless traveling shows in what the curators call a "tour de force campaign to bring modernism to America."

And it worked, to a degree. Though many people were shocked, amazed and baffled by the offerings at the Societe Anonyme gallery, they still climbed the two steep flights of stairs and paid the 26-cent admission fee by the thousands. One contemporary New York Herald critic enthused, "Many a movie at twice the price gives one less to remember."

Indeed, Dreier's collection — which she gave to Yale in two waves, first in 1941, and then as part of the Katherine S. Dreier Bequest in 1953 — is genuinely mind-blowing in its breadth, size and consistency of quality, even many decades after the works were created. Dreier didn't just gravitate to modernism for its own sake; she was a canny judge of which artists would stand the test of time. Though only a part of the Dreier collection is on view here — and yet it takes up four separate gallery spaces — the exhibition holds more than any fan of modern art could hope to find in one place. Dreier seems to have known everyone associated with the arts during her lifetime, and the exhibition includes wonderful ephemera reflecting this: impassioned letters to and from the likes of Marsden Hartley, El Lissitzky, Fernand Leger, Kurt Schwitters and, of course, voluminous exchanges with the enigmatic Duchamp, who emerges here as the ultimate shape-shifter of the century. There are also photographs, handbills, pamphlets, recordings and one stunning animated film, called The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) by Lotte Reiniger, which anticipated everything from Disney's The Sorcerer's Apprentice to "Looney Tunes."

Near the start of the exhibition is a wall filled with 30 black-and-white photographs of the Societe Anonyme pantheon, which includes kindred spirits like Hartley, Lissitzky, Leger, Max Ernst, Edward Stieglitz, Mondrian, Kandinsky, Brancusi, Hans Arp, Arthur Dove and Joan Miro. The most exciting part of this exhibition, though, is discovering artists you may have overlooked, such as naïve landscape painter Louis Michel Eilshemius, whose "New York at Night" (1910) is on view. Also worth an introduction are Morton Livingston Schamberg, surrealist/Dadaists like Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes, and wildly expressionistic artists like James Henry Daugherty, Heinrich Vogeler, the Bulgarian Georges Papazoff, Hungarian folk artist Bela Kadar, Polish artist Alice Halicka, her husband Louis Marcoussis, Adolf Erbsloh, the Uruguayan Joaquin Torres-Garcia, Kate Traumann Steinitz and the Canadian modernist pioneer Lawren Stewart Harris.

However, the exhibition's real revelation is Heinrich Campendonk, a muralist and set designer whom Dreier met in Berlin in 1920 and who would become the second-most exhibited artist by the Societe Anonyme (behind Kandinsky). In the 1930s, Campendonk, dubbed a "degenerate" artist, fled Nazi Germany and his decades-long exile in Amsterdam kept him out of the modernist inner circle. His relative obscurity was virtually assured when his studio in Germany, containing much of his work, was destroyed in World War II bombings. His work, an unusual blend of Catholicism, pantheism, surrealism, folk art and fine art, is stunning, perhaps partly because of its unfamiliarity.

In fact, there is so much on view in The Societe Anonyme: Modernism for America that more than one visit is richly rewarded.