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Through August 20, 2006 at Hammer Museum, West Los Angeles

by Elenore Welles

Artist unknown, Katherine S. Drier and Marcel
Duchamp in the library at The Haven, her estate
in West Redding, CT., 1936. Note--Above the
bookshelf is Duchamp's "Tu m'," installed in 1931.

Marcel Duchamp, "Rotoreliefs (Optical Disks)
(Play Toys)," 1935, six disks printed on each side
in offset color lithography, in circular holder
consisting of two black plastic rings.

Joseph Stella, "Brooklyn Bridge,"
1919-20, oil on canvas.

“Société Anonyme” recreates the seminal exhibits that were the  brainchild of wealthy  patron and artist Katherine S. Dreier.  Formed in 1920 in collaboration with Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray, the Société’s  explicit  aim was to bring attention and appreciation to a broad spectrum of modern art.    

Dreier, impressed by the rejection of past conventions she had seen in the 1913 Armory Show, was determined to encourage an international exchange.  Not only did the Société  feature the works of many of the most influential figures in the history of modernism, but exposed the American audience to a diversity of lesser known artists as well, including Dreier herself.  

Daunting in scope and ideas, their programs of art as educational outreach included well over eighty exhibitions of contemporary art, thirty publications and at least eighty-five public programs.  Since they believed in the integration of all arts, these included poetry, dance, musical recitals and lectures.  

This “Société Anonyme” exhibit presents works from their inaugural show, as well as the 1926 Brooklyn International Exhibit.  First and foremost, it re-acquaints us with many historically significant artists and movements.  The overwhelming range includes Dadaism, Cubism, Russian Constructivism, Bauhaus and Surrealism, all encompassing a diversity of political and spiritual ideologies.

During the 1920s and ‘30s, artists were responding to the architecture and machinery of the modern world, exemplified most eloquently by Joseph Stella’s signature painting,  “Brooklyn Bridge.”  Spanning cables and wires that fan out from a soaring, Gothic-like tower evoke the technological and engineering tour de force of American progress.

Italian Cubo-Futurist attitudes toward movement influenced artists such as Jacques Villon and Francis Picabia.  But the frenzied motion of spinning wheels in Erica Klein’s “Factory” is a particularly arresting example.  One of the defining principles of modernism was Cubism, a far reaching movement that often rendered artists indistinguishable one from the other.  Among the most prominent Cubists represented are Georges Braque, Juan Grís and Fernand Léger.

Cubists explored the tensions that exist between the architectonic and the naturalistic.  Though varied in style and content, their overarching aim was to reconcile three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional surface.   As seen in Albert Gleizes’ multihued “Landscape” and Kasimir Malevich’s “The Knife Grinder,” it was achieved through geometry, faceting, and overlapping planes of color.

Duchamp, who was one of the most perceptive theorists of the modern (not to mention post-modern) movement, posited that art can be about ideas as well as things.  His desire to go beyond text and imagery resulted in signifying activities.  This is notably achieved in “Rotary Glass Plate, (Precision Optics)” where kinetic optical effects are central to the art experience.  

Paradoxical to the machine aesthetic was the art of the mystically inclined, and Dreier was attracted to this.  Even Man Ray, who shared Duchamp’s penchant for expressing ideas, eventually reacted to modernism by turning from theorist to fantasist.  Some members of Germany’s Blue Rider group of Expressionists based their aesthetic on Eastern European folklore and Theosophy.  The folksy, dreamlike  aura of Heinrich Campendonk’s paintings, for instance, epitomize that inclination.

Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky, on the other hand, were theoretical spiritualists.  They used their experience with Bauhaus abstract traditions to tap into universal forces within--Klee  through moderated spontaneity, Kandinsky with elaborate theories.  Kandinsky’s essay, “Concerning the Spiritual in Art,” which had been read by Dreier, detailed the symbolic values of design and color,  In groundbreaking works such as “Multicolored Circle,” powerful lines of force and color burst with energetic abandon.  

Conversely, Piet Mondrian, who adhered to the pseudo-religious theories of the Theosophist’s, strove for spiritual calm.  It was his belief that super-realities could be conveyed through a measured examination of space and a limited palette.  This spare aesthetic is evident in his “Compositions in Blue, Yellow and Black.”  

The focus of Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley and John Marin was on the sublime in nature.  Their organic depictions, such as Dove’s lyrical “Sunrise,” transmitted ideas expressed by classic American transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Thoreau.  

The Russian avant-garde during the 1920’s brought about art that was truly modern, but they were in conflict with their regime’s demand for socialist art.  Determined to bring viewers into dynamic interaction with their art, they managed to stoke the fires of modernism by branching out into the fields of fashion, literature, music and theater design.  El Lissitzky’s  lithographs, for instance, depict mechanical figures for the Cubo-Futurist opera, “Victory Over The Sun.”  One can’t help notice the dearth of women artists in most of these movements, yet the Constructivists were forward looking, and some of their most significant contributions were made by women.

Wassily Kandinsky, "Multicolored Circle
(Mit Buntem Kreis)," 1921, oil on canvas.

El Lissitzky, "Proun 99," ca. 1923–2, water
soluble and metallic paint on wood.

Marthe Donas, "Still Life with Bottle
and Cup," 1917, lace, sandpaper, cloth,
netting, and paint on composition board.

Like an explorer’s journey into the past, this collection yields inextricable links to the present.  Propelled into the excitement of an era that instituted broad innovation with significant consequences for art of the past century, “Société Anonyme” immerses you in an extensive range of modernism’s creative purposes.