It’s deja vu all over again at the Yale University Art Gallery, where curators have recreated an exhibit that originally hung at Yale over fifty years ago. The show features 45 of the 59 paintings and sculptures that originally comprised the “1948 Directors of the Societe Anonyme Exhibition.” Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp and Wassily Kandinsky are among the artists on display.
The Societe Anonyme was a group of artists founded in 1920 by Katherine Dreier, an artist and collector, along with Duchamp and Man Ray, to promote Art (back when ‘Art’ was always in caps) and organize exhibitions.
Among the fledgling modernists whom the group sponsored were Kandinsky, Paul Klee, and Fernand Leger, all of whom had their first solo shows in the U.S. under its auspices. In its active years from 1920 to 1939, the group held over one hundred exhibitions and countless lectures and talks.
During this period, the Societe also accumulated a huge collection of international modernist art, the product of artists who had belonged to the society or exhibited with it. Dreier donated much of this collection to Yale in 1941. This initial gift, along with others directly from the artists and another gift from Dreier’s estate in the early 1950’s, forms the Gallery’s venerable Societe Anonyme and Dreier collections, which includes 1,019 objects by 180 artists.
In addition to Dreier, Man Ray, Duchamp and Kandinsky, the 1948 exhibition included works by painter Henry Campendonk and sculptor Naum Gabo. Thus, like “The Tiger’s Eye: The Art of a Magazine,” also running this month, the exhibit features a rough-and-tumble crowd of Dadaists, Constructivists, Expressionists and Realists.
But unlike the “Tiger’s Eye,” which relies for its effect on provocative juxtapositions, this show suffers from a strange feeling of isolation. One of its large partitions is emblazoned with a full-sized photograph of the 1948 exhibition. It’s clear that the current curators borrowed the structure-each artist exhibits in a separate area — as well as the art of the original. It’s almost exactly the same. The choice was no doubt deliberate, but it is nonetheless unfortunate.
The exhibition’s program promises that the show provides “an intriguing view into the generous mindset of these artists, primarily recognized today for their individualistic visions,” yet that’s all this show seems to present — a grab-bag of individuals. Outside of the temporal context, a tie that must have bound them in 1948, it’s hard to make any meaningful connections among them.
The problem is painfully underlined by divergence of their fates in the intervening time. Both familiar and fascinating, Man Ray’s “rayography,” photographs developed by exposing light-sensitive paper to sunlight, can support its own little corner. But Campendonk — who? — just seems marooned over by the windows.
Nonetheless, the show features some brilliant works and the quirky vision of Dreier and Duchamp pervades. An accompanying show of today’s young upstarts called “Language and Form,” highlights both the lasting influence and the uniqueness of these mid-century innovators.
Yet compared to Lawrence Weiner’s 1998 work, the not-so-bold vocabulary lesson/art object “An Abrogation of the Inherent Destiny of Any Object at Hand,” Duchamp’s snow shovel is an understated classic.