Société Anonyme: back from the dead

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// WEEKEND

The Yale University Art Gallery’s exhibition “Société Anonyme: Modernism for America” is what some might call “all over the place.” And it is so — in the best way possible. Showcasing the collection and projects of Société Anonyme, Inc., an arts organization started in 1920 and dissolved in 1950, the exhibit attempts to capture the zeitgeist of the modernist movement. It is not a celebration of any particular artist so much as homage to the organization’s founders — Katherine S. Dreier, Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray — who made the arts more accessible to the public.

The first room recreates the Société Anonyme’s first exhibition, which was held in New York. Dadaism, Futurism, Surrealism and Abstraction all find their place side by side on the gallery’s walls. Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes’s curious “Young Woman,” which shows discs, pliers and a furnace-like grate all loosely connected, appears near one of Joseph Stella’s hard-lined, angular depictions of the Brooklyn Bridge. On the other side of the room hangs a large, almost alarmingly colorful painting in which a round-hipped figure emerges from a chaotic jumble of hues and shapes: James Henry Daugherty’s cheekily titled “Wall Decoration — The Risen Christ.”

Though the diverse mix of artists included in the show had very different roots, they all attempted to claim new ground. Mostly due to the efforts of Dreier and Duchamp, the Société Anonyme amassed over a thousand works, which were given to Yale in the ’40s and ’50s. If the ones exhibited are any indicator, the collection succeeds in embodying the organization’s motto, as stated by Franz Marc: “Traditions are beautiful — but to create them — not to follow.”

In line with its attempts to reproduce the original exhibitions of the organization, the YUAG exhibit dedicates part of a wall to each of the artists lucky enough to have had one-man shows in the Société Anonyme’s New York gallery. Both big-name international artists and their less celebrated peers made their American debuts at the venue. Louis Michel Eilshemius was the first to have a solo show there; his hazy, small-scale nature scenes hang in the front room. Wassily Kandinsky’s bright, bold abstract work is just around the corner — his slightly crazy “Multicolored Circle,” which is arresting, with bizarre shapes that seem to float within the canvas, is arresting. Heinrich Campendonk, Fernand Léger and Paul Klee also each have a place in the gallery.

Another room highlights the famous 1926 “International Exhibition of Modern Art” at the Brooklyn Museum, which showcased the work of over a hundred artists, in addition to other works that are representative of the rest of the collection. A non-functioning optical illusion machine made by Duchamp dominates the space, along with the elegant, shell-like, marble “Yellow Bird,” by Constantin Brancusi. Other notable pieces include Kurt Schwitters’s beautiful ensemble of found objects, called “Oval Construction;” a dark yellow work by Joan Miró with a funny mustachioed stick-man drawn above the word “Hoo!” and some typical Piet Mondrian pieces. The similarly varied last room’s most impressive element is perhaps Duchamp’s “Tu m’,” in which an accusational hand emerges from a lantern-like shadow, and a bottle brush extends about a foot out of a hole in the center of the painting.

The YUAG stresses that the Société Anonyme was not only the organizing force behind many exhibitions, but also a community of thinkers and an educational institution. It hosted lectures, concerts, film screenings, and poetry readings; it published pamphlets, books, and catalogues; and, with the help of Dreier, it took some of its art on the road for other audiences to see. In the narrow, red-walled space between the first two major rooms, postcards, memos, invitations and other Société Anonyme memorabilia lie on display. A television shows “The Adventures of Prince Achmed,” the oldest preserved animated feature-length film, which is made with beautiful, intricate paper silhouettes. Three headphones each play a recording: a stormy, agitated modern piano composition; a sound poem, in sonata form, that bridges the spaces between speech, song and unintelligible, slightly lunatic utterances; and a radio interview with Dreier in which she attempts to explain to her rather skeptical interviewer what modern art is.

“What is the difference between a sketch by an ultra-modernist and one by an insane person?” the interviewer asks her, in reference to a confrontation between Dreier and the Museum of Modern Art.

“The mad may produce the fantastic — but they cannot produce art,” Dreier says. She defends abstraction — color freed from form — and says, “We play with the imagination of the beholder.”

Indeed, the entire exhibit plays with your imagination, whether or not you like all of the artists’ experiments. It explores every niche of modernism, and attempts to fulfill the Société Anonyme’s vision of bringing art to the public sphere, where everyone who takes the time to look can learn about it.

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