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Art Review

Lincoln Kirstein, impresario and tastemaker, at MoMA

Ben Shahn’s “Bartolomeo Vanzetti and Nicola Sacco” (1931-32)
Ben Shahn’s “Bartolomeo Vanzetti and Nicola Sacco” (1931-32)(Estate of Ben Shahn/VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY)

NEW YORK — Lincoln Kirstein (1907-1996) led one of the great imperial lives of the American cultural century. He had a head like a Roman bust, the ego of a Roman proconsul, and a Roman candle scowl: all heat and light, minus any sputter.

“He invaded you,” the photographer Walker Evans once said of Kirstein. “You either had to throw him out or listen to him.” “Lincoln Kirstein’s Modern,” which runs at the Museum of Modern Art through June 15, includes a half-dozen portraits of him. Among them are photographs by Evans, George Platt Lynes, and Henri Cartier-Bresson and a painting by Lucian Freud. (One way to judge a man isn’t just by his portraits but who did them.) You can see what Evans meant. With his severe features and unsmiling expression. Kirstein is clearly someone who got things done: the invader as conqueror.

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An American Diaghilev, Kirstein led an unclassifiable life. Impresario? Tastemaker? Aesthetic grandee? Benefactor? Institution builder? All of those, the last one especially. Those institutions included The Hound & Horn, the influential literary magazine he cofounded while still a Harvard undergraduate (Ezra Pound and Marianne Moore were among the contributors), the Harvard Society for Contemporary Art, and the Museum of Modern Art. During its early years, he curated shows, purchased art, and even established departments.

Above all, there was the series of dance organizations — the School of American Ballet, American Ballet, Ballet Caravan, American Ballet Caravan, Ballet Society, Dance Index — that culminated in the New York City Ballet. It was Kirstein who brought George Balanchine to America. Maybe here was his chief role and the most enduring: enabler.

Plainly, Kirstein did very well by institutions. At least one institution did well by him. The family fortune came via Filene’s, the Boston department store, where his father was vice president. The Boston Public Library’s Kirstein Business Branch began with funding from the senior Kirstein.

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That final word in “Lincoln Kirstein’s Modern” has a double meaning: “the Modern” being a common way of referring to MoMA; and “modern” as shorthand for Modernism, the artistic avant-garde, and the cultural imperative to “make it new,” as Pound urged.

But just as Kirstein went his own way within the culture, he went his own way within the avant-garde. In certain respects, his was a conservative sensibility (hence the affinity for institution-building). He was a radical traditionalist, a not uncommon category in High Modernism, with Stravinsky, T.S. Eliot, and even Picasso as prime examples. Championing the new, Kirstein did not hide his enthusiasm for the old, ignored, or seemingly passe: Victorian architecture, contemporary South American art, ballet. An attachment to representation in the visual arts underlay his advocacy for photography no less than his interest in technological innovation did.

Aesthete that he was, Kirstein believed in art for art’s sake, but not exclusively so. Apolitical he was not. Kirstein gave MoMA the famous Ben Shahn rendering of the anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti. It’s among the nearly 300 items in this splendidly varied and expansive show.

There are photographs, paintings, set designs, letters, magazines, books, brochures, dance films. “I have a live eye,” Kirstein said. That liveliness, and unpredictability, can be seen in the artists whose reputations he promoted. Featured prominently are works by Evans, Lynes, Pavel Tcheitchew, Paul Cadmus (Kirstein’s brother-in-law), Elie Nadelman, Gaston Lachaise. Kirstein, who wrote a forceful, gun-metal prose, contributed the text to Evans’s classic “American Photographs” (1938).

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Named for Abraham Lincoln, Kirstein bore his first name with self-aware pride. The architect Philip Johnson described him once as “a great poet and a great citizen.” He was half right, though Kirstein’s “Rhymes of a Pfc” has its admirers. Modernism was the International Style (a term Johnson helped popularize). Yet Kirstein was forthrightly patriotic as well as vigorously cosmopolitan. Despite being in his 30s, he enlisted in the Army during World War II (hence the title of his volume of verse), and a quarter century later he participated in the march from Selma to Montgomery.

Artistry and activism conjoined can be seen here to moving effect in the copy of Frances Benjamin Johnston’s “Hampton Album” (1899-1900), with its photographs of the Hampton Institute, a historically black college. Kirstein donated it to MoMA in 1965, a decade after Johnston’s death and long after she’d been largely forgotten. The liveliness of that eye never left him.

A few items in the show are from the ’20s, the latest is from the early ’70s (a Richard Benson photograph, commissioned by Kirstein, of the Shaw Memorial, on Boston Common). Most are from the ’30s and early ’40s. So there’s a continuity with “The Value of Good Design,” which also runs through June 15 and consists of well over 300 items. Some date to the late ’30s. Some are as late as the ’60s. But it’s the 15 years or so after the end of World War II that dominate.

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The Kirstein show highlights when the Modern was still modern , meaning new and contemporary, neither mainstream nor quite (for lack of a better word) institutional. However unintentionally, “The Value of Good Design” is a tribute to when the Modern was becoming a key engine of taste-making. Newness embraced was well on its way to being newness branded, as we now might say.

The exhibition has been arranged so that the first thing a visitor sees is a Fiat 500f city car, designed in 1957. A sub-subcompact (if there isn’t such a category there should be), it’s cuter than any number of bugs in any number of rugs. On the wall behind it, one sees the words “Good Design.” They’re all caps — GOOD DESIGN — and the font is, of course, sans-serif. Point taken.

The elements of good design, as expressed here, are functionality, affordability, recognizabiilty (design that conceals an object’s purpose is poor design). Inventiveness in materials comes into play. Earl S. Tupper (of Tupperware fame) is among the designers with work on display.

There are items by far starrier names — Isamu Noguchi, Eero Saarinen, Russel Wright, Charles Eames — but fame is incidental. The emphasis is on the dispersal, or diffusion, of design principles into everyday life. To be sure, some items here are more everyday than others: a Slinky, yes; a stag-hunting bow, no (though its near-Euclidean elegance is impressive). In a class of its own is a child’s race car, an East German design from 1950. Made of wood, it becomes a small rocking chair when upended.

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MoMA will be doing some upending of its own this summer. It closes for four months to complete a $400 million renovation by the architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro (the firm that designed the Institute of Contemporary Art’s Seaport building) in collaboration with Gensler. The museum reopens on Oct. 21. Ever since the last MoMA renovation, the first-floor concourse has been nearly as unpleasant a New York public space as Penn Station is. And Penn Station doesn’t charge $25 admission. So, fingers crossed: The value of good design really does begin at home.

LINCOLN KIRSTEIN’S MODERN

THE VALUE OF GOOD DESIGN

At Museum of Modern Art, 11 W. 53d St., New York, through June 15. 212-708-9400, www.moma.org


Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.