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Lincoln Kirstein at MoMA – Tablet Magazine

Lincoln Kirstein at MoMA – Tablet Magazine

In a portrait photograph on the exhibition Lincoln Kirstein’s Trendy, which opens Friday at MoMA and runs via June 15, Walker Evans caught the youthful, undefended eyes of his topic. His head dropping ahead, his clouded expression hovering between meditation and sullenness, Lincoln Kirstein was alone together with his ideas. It was 1931 and Kirstein was lately graduated from Harvard. With frontal mild casting shadow towards the naked wall and throwing shine along the width of his subject’s brow, Evans seemed down from above and across, permitting his lens to absorb the complexities of texture: the slight fuzz of crewcut, luxuriant eyebrows, chapped lips, the imperfections of freckles and still-adolescent skin, the deep wrestle that was just turning into evident in strains breaking above the forehead. Years later, reflecting back on their early encounters, Evans remembered, “I might see he was an excellent younger man.”

For some time, the two have been good buddies. Shut in age (Evans was 4 years older), both from elite backgrounds and each bisexual, they traveled in a few of the similar circles. But Evans was, as he put it, ascetic, “since I had a genteel upbringing [I thought] that actual life was hunger.” Kirstein, however, was drawn to the bohemian world, its highs and lows, which included the dives and sailor bars the place he might be reckless. He wrote in his diary about some close calls and unexpectedly tough encounters: “my mind is often acutely aware of what the physique is doing, even urging it away from … an interest in peril that quantities to insanity.” In one other collection of pictures Evans posed Kirstein as a gangster with a bowler hat and cigarette like James Cagney in Public Enemy, which had just lately been within the movie theaters, and then, in a couple of mug photographs, as a rogue. “Lincoln, you understand he loves all types of humorous business,” Evans would say later.

That yr, Kirstein was typically in New York. He’d meet Evans for meals, choosing up the tab since he fearful his pal didn’t manage to pay for to eat. Within the spring, he invited Evans to hitch him and another pal, the Marxist poet John Brooks Wheelwright, on an expedition to watch and report 19th-century New England homes, many in disrepair; he needed Evans to take the images. For five days they drove via Boston, Chestnut Hill, Salem, and Arlington; later they went right down to Boston’s South Finish and up to Newbury Port. They have been taking a look at Greek Revival and Gothic Revival buildings as well as houses with mansard roofs and others from the Italian Villa Faculty. As Kirstein wrote about it, these have been examples of New England’s “building during its most incredible, imaginative, and impermanent period.” In the course of, he discovered concerning the exactitude of photographic method and the monotony of setup; Evans was captivated with capturing and insisted upon returning to varied places many occasions to get the suitable “exhausting and vibrant” mild. For Evans, it was the start of a lifelong devotion to structure and architectural types, an integral part of the famous pictures of rural communities that he did for the Farm Safety Administration. It also led to the 1933 present, Walker Evans: Pictures of Nineteenth-Century Victorian Homes, the primary one-man images exhibition on the nascent Museum of Trendy Artwork.

Nevertheless it was Kirstein who organized the undertaking, donated the pictures to the museum, and wrote about Evans as “a surgeon working on the fluid physique of time.” The symbiotic relationship he developed with Evans, initiated by some grand ideas and fortified by the generosity of his patronage, included a willingness to work by his pal’s aspect “like a surgeon’s assistant.” It was a paradigm for a lot of of Kirstein’s inventive undertakings, most notably his partnership with George Balanchine whom he delivered to America that very same yr. Collectively Kirstein and Balanchine would turn into directors of the Faculty of American Ballet and ultimately the New York City Ballet. Their success was delicately balanced, depending on Kirstein’s deference to Balanchine’s genius as a choreographer and his willingness to face as help, taking care of details, raising money, making sure the lights would activate and the curtains would rise. “Don’t worry about something, Lincoln,” Balanchine would write to Kirstein almost 20 years later. “Every thing is all proper.”


Lincoln Kirstein died in 1996 however his centenary was celebrated in 2007 with reveals and occasions at many establishments where he had an affectionate bond: the Whitney, the Met (during his lifetime, he gave them greater than 1,000 works from his personal collection), the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts (the recipient of his monumental personal collection of dance supplies that have been at one time housed at Harvard and MoMA), the New York Metropolis Ballet, the Wadsworth Atheneum, and the Harvard Theatre Collection. Kirstein gave to American arts organizations the best way a beneficiant mum or dad provides to a toddler. On the end of his life, he arranged for Jerry Thompson to photograph the association of objects in his house for the e-book Quarry. The text, which Kirstein wrote, served as a strategy to say goodbye to the material world, the hundreds of things he had collected and treasured, and to elucidate their connection to the life he lived. Like lots of Kirstein’s tasks, this involved synergy, since he deliberate for the guide to be used as publicity for the public sale of what was primarily all his worldly goods, the proceeds going to the endowment of the Faculty of American Ballet.

Through the centenary yr, Peter Kayafas on the Eakins Press up to date Lincoln Kirstein: A Bibliography of Revealed Writings with 575 entries of books, articles, plays, ballet libretti, catalogues, and program notes. Martin Duberman revealed a well-received and helpful biography, The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein; and the dance historian Nancy Reynolds, who carried out in the New York Metropolis Ballet and worked with him on Motion & Metaphor: Four Centuries of Ballet, edited an enthralling anthology, Remembering Lincoln by which he was variously recalled by pals and acquaintances as a bear (he was 6-foot-3), a fox, a New England seafaring prophet, a ghost, a shadow, an enigma, a tempest, a facilitator, a Cheshire cat, an enormous, an eagle, and an “virtually child-like man who sometimes came out for buddies.”

In essence, there have been two Lincoln Kirsteins. When issues have been going properly, his plentiful vitality resulted in marvelous tasks. It’s been stated that Kirstein invented the sector of dance historical past, publishing his first three books on the topic in three years when he was still in his 20s: Najinsky, an nameless collaboration with Romola Nijinsky, in 1933; Fokine, in 1934; and Dance: A Brief Historical past of Basic Theatrical Dancing, in 1935. Decade after decade, he was nonetheless going, together with his pursuits spoking out in unpredictable directions. On the age of 82, he revealed Memorial to a Marriage, a profound reflection on the story of Saint-Gaudens’ statue of Marian (Clover) Hooper Adams commissioned by her husband Henry Adams and situated in D.C.’s Rock Creek Cemetery. That very same yr, the movie Glory, influenced by his earlier ebook Lay This Laurel, gained two Academy Awards.

At other occasions Kirstein was stricken by demons so fierce that his prose would snarl into the passive voice and entangle his long, 19th-century sentences beyond the principles of grammar. Ballet college students and employees have been on alert if he confirmed up on the workplace sporting his previous military jacket (what they referred to as his Boy Scout jacket) as an alternative of his customary double-breasted black go well with with tarnished brass buttons. There were events when he needed to be hospitalized and constrained throughout full-blown episodes of manic-depression.

During much of his life, Kirstein was a social gadfly, starting at Harvard where he had lovers of both sexes and a large group of associates, together with Maurice Grosser and Virgil Thomson, Henry-Russell Hitchcock, Agnes Mongan, Alfred Barr, and Everett (Chick) Austin, as well as a circle of Boston Brahmins whom he met via his sophomore yr roommate Francis (Frank) Cabot Lowell. In New York, he got here underneath the affect of Muriel Draper and her excessive bohemian though shabby salon the place she hosted the charismatic mystic George Gurdjieff. However his group soon expanded to include a conglomeration ranging from E.E. Cummings to the gallery owner Julien Levy, and the gang that was associated with MoMA like Philip Johnson, Eddie Warburg, and Nelson Rockefeller. In London, he turned near David Garnett, Lytton and Esther Strachey, John Maynard Keynes, E.M. Forster, and lots of others. Due to Hound and Horn, the literary magazine which he and Varian Fry started in 1927; the Harvard Society for Modern Art, the gallery which he, Eddie Warburg, and John Walker founded in 1929; as well as the Junior Advisory Committee of the Museum of Trendy Art, which he joined in 1930, the yr after the museum was based; he established himself whereas he was a very young man on the eye of the hurricane that was modernism. Paradoxically, his own interests—which ranged from Napoleonic furniture to West African masks, Abraham Lincoln memorabilia, and pussycat trinkets—was typically far from trendy.

None of this might have been attainable with out the wealth and connections of his forbearing mother and father with their origins in the Jewish group of Rochester, New York (the identical group where Florine Stettheimer’s paternal grandparents settled and the place she was born). His grandparents, who got here to Rochester in the mid-19th century, read Goethe and Heine and, like different Reform Jews of their time, believed in deed over creed, considering themselves assimilated while their social lives existed inside the boundaries of their giant prolonged Jewish households and Jews of similar social standing. Boys have been circumcised on the eighth day (although, in Lincoln’s case this wasn’t carried out by a mohel but by the family physician and the outcome was virtually fatal when septicemia set in) and the lads went to the synagogue on the Day of Atonement—his father referred to as it “the day of at-one-ment.”

The grandfather on his mother’s aspect, benefiting from Civil Struggle contracts for army uniforms, established the Stein-Bloch Company, some of the profitable males’s clothes producers in the nation. In the Gramercy Park townhouse where Lincoln Kirstein lived together with his wife, Fidelma, he stored a memento from the Stein lakeside “cottage”: a gilt-bronze tree of life, commemorating a 50th anniversary, the bauble festooned with polished cabochons engraved with the names of seven youngsters, his mother, Rose, being the youngest.

Louis Kirstein, Lincoln’s father, had a spotty begin; amongst different issues, he was stated to have been a hobo and a janitor in a bordello in St. Louis. Ultimately, he rose to turn out to be vice chairman and subsequently chief government officer of Filene’s department retailer as well as president of the Boston Public Library. When he died, he was remembered as one of the crucial influential Jews in America, holding main positions in Jewish philanthropy, with ties to Felix Frankfurter, Mayor La Guardia, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt, as well as the three presidents earlier than him. Not only was Louis a big benefactor to his son’s many tasks, typically bailing him out when he was in a jam, but he also offered him with a beneficiant allowance so he didn’t want a gentle job or revenue.

The method of individuation was a particularly ugly ordeal for Lincoln Kirstein. The privileges of his wealth and schooling insulated him from the garden variety anti-Semitism his mother and father had worked around by staying inside the confines of Jewish society (their society included Justice Louis Brandeis and Rabbi Stephen Sensible). To that extent he had a free run and will choose what he referred to as “low life,” or mix with artists, writers, or the superrich like Nelson Rockefeller. But there was the issue of tips on how to face off towards his father, a person who appeared to symbolize high social rectitude and achievement. How you can strike out towards somebody who had indulged every stage of his improvement and been patient with extravagant stumbles (it took Lincoln three tries to move the Harvard entrance exams) and infatuations (Louis and Rose thought Muriel Draper was “a menace”)? How ought to he put issues together with out joining the merchant class or one of many professions? Ultimately, recognizing that he wasn’t going to make his approach as a novelist (he revealed two novels), a dancer (he took classes with Fokine), or a painter, he developed a variant model of his father’s entrepreneurship, charisma, and philanthropy, and made it his life’s work to build and help nice cultural institutions.

To a certain extent, Kirstein had a charmed life, typically discovering himself inexplicably on the proper place on the right time, starting with the accident of witnessing his unique hero Diaghilev’s funeral cortège on the Grand Canal in Venice in 1929. During World Struggle II, stationed outdoors of Washington, D.C., he was searching on the Lowdermilk bookshop and got here throughout the discarded leather-bound album containing Frances B. Johnston’s platinum prints of the Hampton Institute commissioned for the 1900 Paris Centennial Exposition (he donated it to MoMA in 1965). As part of the Arts and Monuments Commission, he and the architect Robert Posey have been the primary to discover and go into the salt mine at Altaussee near Salzburg. Collectively they unlocked the iron door of the compartment the place Van Eyck’s panels of The Adoration of the Lamb lay on the floor. At different occasions, he had the thunderous power to make things occur: When he wanted to put in two heroic-sized Elie Nadelman marble sculptures contained in the newly built State Theater at Lincoln Middle, he arranged for holes to be blasted into the just-finished theater walls.


Lincoln Kirstein’s Trendy honors his contributions as an early benefactor, adviser, author, purchaser, and exhibition organizer. Kirstein, who wasn’t an artist but an inventive presence, makes an unusual topic for a show, but there’s a logic behind the challenge. As a result of the museum will shut for 4 months this summer time earlier than reopening in an enlarged and reconfigured area, it’s an applicable time to take stock and look back to the earliest ideas for the institution and the thought of “trendy.”

It’s customary to talk about modernism as a movement that necessitated a break with the previous: Artists had come to the top of representation and replaced it with abstraction. However Kirstein had an alternate imaginative and prescient, insisting on a sequence of continuity and, the truth is, there’s a rising consensus as we speak that’s on his aspect, reminding us of a giant group of forgotten artists, typically interested in the type of the human physique, who worked in the course of the trendy interval and have been ignored. Kirstein was answerable for the 1932 show Murals by American Painters and Photographers and he had his hand in reveals on Gaston Lachaise, two Walker Evans exhibits, Latin American Portray, American Battle Paintings, Elie Nadelman, American Realists and Magical Realists, as well as the Hampton Album. A rupture occurred when he revealed an explosive article, “The State of Trendy Portray,” in Harper’s magazine, explicitly criticizing MoMA and Alfred Barr for what he regarded as a bias in favor of Faculty of Paris artists. He was bewildered by the attention swirling round motion painting and abstract expressionists.

The current exhibit consists of portraits, paintings, sketches, and pictures of Kirstein and his circle, in addition to artistic endeavors that have been within the many exhibits he helped arrange, donations he made to the museum, and a big group of paintings he bought on behalf of the museum in 1942 when he was touring via Latin America whereas working on an intelligence mission for Nelson Rockefeller. From that collection, Antonio Berni’s powerfully vibrant New Chicago Athletic Membership stands out and should be shown extra typically. One thread that runs by means of the exhibition as an entire is Kirstein’s love for craftsmanship, the artistry of the hand. You see this within the once-famous Pavel Tchelitchew’s layered and membranous “Nervous System,” part of his design for the ballet Cave of Sleep, and in addition in his monumental work “Cover and Seek,” a fantastically grotesque portray that, to my mind, is blessedly out of style at this time. After WWII, when figurative artists have been overshadowed by abstract expressionists, Kirstein championed Gaston Lachaise and Elie Nadelman, represented here with polished bronze items which are equally classical as well as trendy.

Probably the most effective a part of the Kirstein show is the massive middle room the place you’ll be able to see video excerpts from the early Ballet Caravan pieces like Billy the Child and A Thousand Occasions Neigh. Paul Cadmus’ pleasant designs stand out, particularly the see-through overalls worn by the fuel station attendant in Filling Station. Kirstein himself wrote the libretto for Filling Station. With music by Virgil Thomson, it was choreographed and performed by Lew Christensen enjoying the station attendant in 1938. If you watch it in the gallery, it’s arduous to imagine a extra American story with its truck drivers, state trooper, badly mannered family, rich woman, wealthy boy, and gangster with a gun. The burlesque, danced with delicacy and virtuosic high jinks, balances comedy and tragedy.

There’s a Flannery O’Connor undercurrent to the plot that raises questions on want, terror, strangers, and accident. These have been the themes that haunted Kirstein from earliest childhood, themes he tried to neutralize, in his approach, with artwork, with the drive of character, after which vigorously and variously with atheism and faith. In a diary he stored from his boarding-school days he wrote with self-loathing: “in chapel I prayed, which exhibits what a sniveling little coward I’m.” Later, he tried Gurdjieff’s philosophical dialect on the Institute for the Harmonious Improvement of Man at Fontainebleau. After considering Catholicism for decades, he was baptized as a Catholic when he was virtually 80 years previous and, for a while, even attended neighborhood Mass. Predictably, as he stated about Judaism, it didn’t stick.


Learn more of Frances Brent’s artwork criticism in Tablet magazine right here.

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