Thu, Oct 26, 2006 - Page 15 News List

Lights from the dawn of modernism

An exhibition of works collected originally by Katherine Dreier provides new insight into the early history of modern art

By Roberta Smith  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , WASHINGTON

Life With Bottle and Cup by Marthe Donas.

PHOTO: NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Dreier and Duchamp. Duchamp and Dreier. As dynamic artist duos go, the pairing of Katherine S. Dreier and Marcel Duchamp does not have the familiar ring of Picasso and Braque, or Johns and Rauschenberg. But it should, and The Societe Anonyme: Modernism for America at the Phillips Collection here may begin to make it so.

The show presents about 150 objects, all from the amazing 1,000-work art collection that Dreier assembled with Duchamp's help and gave to the Yale University Art Gallery in 1941. It was organized by Yale and had its premiere at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles in a larger version. Rife with unfamiliar names, this exhibition is both a Who's Who and a Who's That? of modernism that can change the way you see it and history in general.

Duchamp (1887-1968), of course, you know well: the aristocratic lapsed painter, dedicated chess player, intermittent cross-dresser, sometime art adviser, and sardonic, unsentimental pioneer who, as Donald Judd put it, invented fire — that is, he found the first found object.

Dreier (1877-1952) was a painter, collector, and patron with a small private fortune, a passion for Modern art, and a fashion sense that rivaled Eleanor Roosevelt in dowdiness. Her parents were well-off German immigrants in Brooklyn, New York, who reared their children to be movers and shakers. Dreier's two older sisters were leaders in the women's labor movement. Dreier, active in women's suffrage, made art the object of her similarly formidable brains, energy, and organizational skills.

In 1919, with Duchamp as her muse, Dreier more or less invented the concept of the modern-art museum, which she envisioned as an institution of international scope dedicated to making the art of the moment comprehensible to the public, through exhibitions, publications, lectures, concerts, and a library. She would later, somewhat painfully, watch Alfred Barr bring the idea to fruition in the 1930s with the Museum of Modern Art, helped by a more diplomatic personality and substantially more financial support. (Dreier was no Rockefeller.)

Dreier and Duchamp both exhibited in the 1913 Armory Show but did not meet until 1916. Their friendship deepened the next year, after Duchamp's urinal was rejected by the Society of Independent Artists, which Dreier had helped found. No one knows the extent of their intimacy.

Before 1920, Dreier divided her time between America and Europe, studying, making and collecting art; exhibiting; and establishing a network of artists and dealers. Determined to make the US more receptive to the new, she joined with Duchamp and the American artist Man Ray to form an organization she initially called the Modern Ark, until Man Ray suggested the Societe Anonyme.

On April 30, 1920, Societe Anonyme opened an exhibition and a library in two small rented rooms on East 47th Street in New York. Dreier appended to the name of this fledgling organization The Museum of Modern Art: 1920.

The Phillips show opens with a re-creation of the society's first show, which combined serious art and Dada insouciance. In a mixing of masculine and feminine that was typically Duchampian, the floor was covered with rather institutional-looking gray rubber, and the paintings were framed in paper lace doilies. It looks great. Included are nearly all the works that were in the original: by Brancusi, Gris, Duchamp, Man Ray, Francis Picabia, Morton Schamberg, and Joseph Stella.

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