Chance meetings can dramatically alter the course of history, but that cliché is rarely as richly illustrated as in the case of the introduction of artist Marcel Duchamp to Katherine Dreier, a Connecticut artist and heiress, at the New York salon of Duchamp’s patrons, Walter and Louise Arensberg, in the late 1910s. After striking up a friendship, they joined with Man Ray in starting the Société Anonyme, Inc. (i.e., Corporation Incorporated) in 1920 to present modern artists to a skeptical American public a full nine years before the Museum of Modern Art was founded.
“Société Anonyme: Modernism for America,” an illuminating show spread across the three buildings of the recently renovated Yale University Art Gallery, which holds the Société’s collection, tells the story of that fruitful friendship. It includes artworks by more than 100 pioneers of modernism in the U.S. and Europe (some superstars, many completely unknown today) that Duchamp and Dreier amassed with the aid of critics, curators and artists who joined the Société. A perfect accompaniment to MoMA’s current, and similarly superb and wide-ranging, exhibition “Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925,” it is almost guaranteed to offer art historical lessons to even the most seasoned experts.
The group at first attempted to promote modernism through exhibitions and lectures. A 1921 invitation to a 50-cent talk by Dreier and painter Marsden Hartley at the Société’s short-lived Manhattan galleries asked, “Do you want to know what a dada is?” After a year, however, they shifted to organizing traveling exhibitions (a young Alfred Barr caught the group’s 1923 Wassily Kandinsky show at Vassar; soon he would be competing for money and artworks with the Société as MoMA’s first director), providing encouragement to far-flung figures like Kurt Schwitters and, when financially feasible, collecting work directly from artists. (Duchamp helped broker gifts.)
The collection includes a smattering of choice pieces by Piet Mondrian (Dreier converted Duchamp to his charms), Paul Klee, Kandinsky and, of course, Duchamp (the snow shovel, and his enigmatic final painting, Tu m’ (1918), commissioned by Dreier, which has a bottle brush jutting out from the canvas), as well as sublime oddities like a circa 1923-26 beach scene by Francis Picabia made with oil, feathers (palm tree foliage) and macaroni (tree trunks), and a trove of work by figurative painter Louis Eilshemius, an outsider artist avant la lettre who died in obscurity, despite Duchamp’s support. As she does in MoMA’s show, Duchamp’s little-known younger sister, Suzanne, also appears as an interesting figure, with a machine-flavored geometric abstraction that complements Dreier’s more organic abstract mode.
Rich with lesser-known names and strange pieces, the collection could be the subject of an entire class, and of countless dissertations. Artists should plunder it for ideas. It also serves as a reminder that culture is made not just by masters and masterpieces but by multitudes of striving artists. Today’s artists—and, for that matter, curators and collectors—would do well to follow Duchamp’s advice to his brother-in-law, the artist Jean Crotti, quoted by curator Jennifer Gross in the show’s excellent catalog: “Do less self-analysis and enjoy your work without worrying about opinions, your own as well as that of others.” (Through July 14, 2013, in New Haven, Conn.)