WHAT SHAPE might the narrative of modernism in the visual arts have assumed in the absence of New York's Museum of Modern Art? Would we envision the history and evolution of modern art differently if we had not been guided for decades by the famous flowchart that MOMA director Alfred H. Barr Jr. prepared to explain the organization of his 1936 exhibition "Cubism and Abstract Art"? Here, for the first time, Barr crystallized MOMA's paradigmatic vision of modernism as a progressive, formalist development across the European avant-gardes that could be traced along a dense network of intersecting pathways beginning with various forms of Post-Impressionism in the 1890s and culminating by the mid-1930s in "geometrical" and "nongeometrical" abstract art. So convincing was the apparent logic of this model that for many years it effectively obliterated all other versions of how the history of modern art might be told. In the past quarter century, however, some of the powerful institutional forces that enabled MOMA'S narrative to become authoritative have been exposed, and alternative histories are now emerging to challenge the singular perspective that for so long dominated the field. Curated by Yale University Art Gallery's Jennifer R. Gross with assistance from Susan Greenberg, the current traveling exhibition of works of art and related ephemera drawn from the Societe Anonyme Collection housed at Yale University is a compelling instance of this revisionist trend, offering a distinctly different standard for appreciating the artistic and collecting practices through which modernism was initially constructed and explained to American audiences during the first half of the twentieth century.
Formally constituted as the Societe Anonyme, Inc., the organization founded in 1920 by the artist Katherine S. Dreier together with Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray was dedicated to supporting and exhibiting the work of contemporary artists from America and throughout Europe. Based in New York City, the Societe Anonyme was conceived almost a decade earlier than MOMA as a vehicle for educating a broad (if largely uninterested) American public about modern art through exhibitions, publications, and programs that included lectures and musical performances; although it eventually amassed an impressive collection of well over a thousand works by more than one hundred artists, collecting was not its purpose. In its early years the organization actively recruited critics, museum directors, art patrons, and artists to become members, but eventually the activities of the Societe Anonyme were concentrated around the eighty-five one-person and group exhibitions, including several ambitious traveling shows, that Dreier would organize between 1920 and 1941, often with substantial help from Duchamp and occasional advice from other artists. As archival documents in the current exhibition and essays in the accompanying catalogue make clear, the animating force of the Societe Anonyme was the shared commitment of Dreier and Duchamp--an unlikely pair, if ever there was one.
The daughter of affluent German immigrants, Dreier was a theosophist committed to modern art as an expression of spiritual and moral values. It was as a founding member of the Society of Independent Artists in 1916 that she first came into contact with Duchamp, the Dadaist whose infamous Fountain she voted to reject (on the grounds that it lacked originality) when it was submitted for exhibition the following year. Dreier very quickly regretted that decision and within a short time was pursuing a more congenial relationship with Duchamp, her junior by ten years. She painted figurative as well as abstract portraits of Duchamp in 1918, the same year in which she commissioned what was to be his last oil painting, Tu m', one of many works by Duchamp (including his Large Glass, 1915-23) that she owned during her lifetime. …