on viewMuseum of Modern Art
Lincoln Kirstein's Modern
March 17 – June 15, 2019
The contents of Lincoln Kirstein's Modern sprawls over a lifetime, with work reflecting Kirstein's myriad interests and varying levels of involvement with cultural institutions. Curators Jodi Hauptman (Senior Curator) and Samantha Friedman (Associate Curator, Department of Drawings and Prints) dissected Kirstein's career and laid out a panoply of artifacts as graphic evidence of his many obsessions. It is as multifaceted and complex as the man himself, comprising art, dance, film, and more.
Kirstein was foremost an impresario—someone who connected creators who interested him to one another and supported their work. (Today, his life's work might be called a diverse, multi-platform brand.) He was a frustrated visual artist before becoming a curator and a prolific writer, thus the exhibition materials require more contextualization than your typical museum show. Much of the ephemera is archival—correspondence to and from Kirstein: letterhead designs for Hound & Horn, a literary journal he founded; copies of the journal itself; and bulletins from the Harvard Society for Contemporary Art, which he organized and where he curated shows. The printed materials evince Kirstein's knack for marketing, which no doubt helped gain institutional and public support for complicated ideas and art.
Several series of photographs marked not only artists whose work engaged him—Walker Evans, George Platt Lynes—but also included photos of Kirstein himself. Evans shot a group of striking architectural photos that formed a book proposal suggested by Kirstein; it was never published. Platt Lynes is represented by a series of dramatically posed, mostly naked men. (Kirstein was married to a woman named Fidelma, but had affairs with others, including men.) Both Evans and Platt Lynes photographed Kirstein; these portraits seem as if their subject snuck into the frame only after standing around behind the camera. You can feel Kirstein's passion seeping into every gallery of MoMA's exhibition as images of the impresario—an imposing physical presence—hover between "backstage" and "onstage," and the presumed osmosis between professional and personal. Artist Paul Cadmus embodied this crossover—he was Kirstein's brother-in-law who illustrated sets, costumes, and etched academic diagrams of ballet positions.
Kirstein organized exhibitions for MoMA, and scouted and acquired Latin American works of art for the museum, which appeared in an exhibition, The Latin-American Collection of the Museum of Modern Art (1943). His taste for abstraction—at least as reflected in Balanchine's astringent modernism—is famous. So it is surprising to see that many of the artworks Kirstein favored fall under the rubric of realism and magic realism—primarily representational, often heavily symbolic. One shared characteristic between the dance and visual art Kirstein championed is the portrayal of a scene in which some kind of drama could potentially take place. Perhaps an abstract ballet conjured enough flesh and blood—interhuman action—to eschew a narrative, as in the knotty key duet in Agon. In visual art favored by Kirstein, the reverse seemed true: the figurative paintings beg for the potential to tell a story (Paul Cadmus, Greenwich Village Cafeteria, 1934).
Of course, Kirstein is best known as co-founder of New York City Ballet with Russian-born choreographer George Balanchine. Kirstein recruited Balanchine, then in London, and brought him to New York. They established the School of American Ballet, which became, and remains, a rich source of modern ballet dancers proficient in Balanchine's thoroughly American modernism. This channel of Kirstein's life surfaces only immoderately in the MoMA exhibition—in commissioned costume designs for ballets, in a video installation showing clips from ballets. Some of the voluptuous marble Elie Nadelman sculptures in the Koch Theater lobby reflect another strand of Kirstein's interests; MoMA presents a number of the artist's drawings and maquettes.
Dancers from New York City Ballet performed excerpts from four of Balanchine's ballets over three days at MoMA in conjunction with the exhibition. The nature of the performances emanated a sort of "ballet for the people" aura; admission was free with a museum ticket, and the limited seating (and standing room) was largely unreserved. The mezzanine space, below the soaring atrium, served as a makeshift stage; viewers sat and stood around three sides, or peered from windows on upper floors as I did for a bit. Unable to hear either the introductory remarks by dancer Silas Farley, or the live piano accompaniment, these circumstances even further abstracted the already abstract ballet, but fortunately I was familiar with all the works performed—Four Temperaments and Agon, both paradigms of Balanchine's modernism; Orpheus, a mythic tale with Isamu Noguchi designs; and Concerto Barocco, one of Balanchine's most musical ballets. Watching them from a bird's eye view provided a glimpse at the diagrammatic patterns woven by Balanchine. Down at stage level, the yawning space dwarfed the dancers, sounds bounced around haphazardly, and viewers fidgeted and came and left. But then again it wasn't really about the purity of performance, but more about the intersection of interests in one man's life and work. And while the exhibition can at moments be dry and didactic, the varying facets add up to a rich biography.