A 20th century giant

14 May 2019 | 03:31

    Like Abraham Lincoln, after whom he was named, Lincoln Kirstein (1907-1996) was a tall, imposing figure, “a giant sequoia,” as dance critic Arlene Croce wrote in his obituary. Photographer Walker Evans, a friend, captured the force of his personality and intellect when he commented, “He invaded you; you either had to throw him out or listen to him ... [he had] a really penetrating intelligence about an articulation of all esthetic matters and their contemporary applications.”

    Indeed, Kirstein considered all the arts his domain, with dance, painting, sculpture, drawing, writing/editing, poetry and film his pets. He leveraged his wealthy pedigree (his father was a partner in Filene’s Department Store), his Harvard education (class of 1930) and his elite social and professional circle (he was part of an influential network of queer artists, writers and dancers) to support and promote a dizzying array of cultural ventures in the last century.

    His multi-disciplinary approach resonates especially today, now that MoMA is expanding and re-thinking the organization of its galleries, which will include a performance space. Says senior curator Jodi Hauptman: “Sometimes the best way to look forward is to look back, and to dig into moments of our history when we were doing interesting work around the connections between the visual and the performing arts. Lincoln Kirstein offers a kind of lens through which we could look at this earlier period at the Museum and understand his ambition for dance to play a key role.”

    The exhibit, “Lincoln Kirstein’s Modern,” which runs through June 15, includes some 300 works from MoMA’s collection and focuses on Kirstein’s creative output and aspirations in the 1930s and 1940s. He may be best known for collaborating with Russian-born choreographer George Balanchine to establish the School of American Ballet in 1934 and the New York City Ballet in 1948. But he was also an ardent champion of literature, the fine arts, photography and cinema, from a young age.

    A Man and a MuseumUpon graduation from Harvard, where he co-founded a literary journal and a contemporary arts society, Kirstein turned his considerable energies to the development of the collection at the newly opened MoMA.

    He served on the Museum’s junior advisory committee and other subcommittees, indefatigably pitching ideas for exhibits, writing catalog text, donating and acquiring new works for the collection and jump-starting the “Bulletin of the Museum of Modern Art” (1933-1963) and “Dance Index” (1942-1948). He also established the now-gone Dance Archives and Dance and Theatre Design department, all the while tending to performance ventures such as Ballet Caravan, a touring group he formed in 1936 to promote the work of American choreographers and set designers.

    Colorful drawings of costumes and sets for such quintessentially American works as “Filling Station” (1937), “Pocahontas” (c. 1936) and “Billy the Kid” (1938) are on view, with snippets of dances projected on big screens.

    Associate curator Samantha Friedman notes the importance of American painter Paul Cadmus’s designs for “Filling Station”: “In those designs you see realized Lincoln’s desire to create a uniquely American ballet based on American themes. You have the setting of the gas station as a place where people of all types and social classes come together, but then you get the eroticized male body in a kind of transparent jumpsuit that Mac, the gas station attendant, is wearing. They’re beautiful drawings that embody a lot of what Lincoln was after.”

    Devotion to American ThemesKirstein’s intense commitment to creative pursuits outside the performing arts, however — like photography and painting — is one of this show’s many revelations. In 1931, he persuaded Walker Evans to join him and a poet friend on a road trip through New England and New York to photograph Victorian houses for a (never-realized) book.

    Kirstein donated the images to MoMA, where they became grist for the Museum’s first presentation of the work of a single photographer in 1933, “Walker Evans: Photographs of Nineteenth-Century Houses.” As the catalog’s meticulous time line records, Kirstein wrote in his diary: “At least a part of my life consists in filling up the ledger of the indigenous past ...”

    Kirstein’s devotion to American themes extended to his taste in painting, drawing and sculpture. He promoted realist and magic realist works, favoring figuration and painterly precision over abstraction. Hauptman elaborates: “In his version of the modern, it’s an art scaled to the human. And one of the reasons may be because he is really interested in dance and what the body can do.”

    When he was named consultant on Latin American Art for MoMA in 1942, he traveled to South America to purchase works for the collection. Argentine artist Antonio Berni’s “New Chicago Athletic Club” (1937) epitomizes Kirstein’s preference for hyper-real art with social relevance.

    Says Hauptman: “The painting gets to a question that the exhibition raises around what it means to be ‘American,’ and proposes links across the hemisphere, a pan-Americanism. The painting shows a team of multi-ethnic kids joining together to play their favorite sport. It is a ragtag group — some are dressed better than others, some have their soccer boots and others are barefoot — so Berni shows us connections across social class as well.”

    Kirstein’s idea of the “modern,” which prizes representation, social content and continuity with tradition, allows another way to think about modern art.