- The Washington Times - Friday, October 27, 2006

While many think the Museum of Modern Art, or MOMA, spawned the modernist muses in the United States, all too few know that the Societe Anonyme Inc. — created a decade earlier in 1920 — was the real pioneer.Now, 151 pieces from the Societe’s varied collection have surfaced in the Phillips Collection’s “Societe Anonyme: Modernism for America” as part of a national museum tour. They’re part of the collection given to the Yale University Art Gallery in 1941 by the Societe and art patron Katherine S. Dreier.

Shockingly, the Societe Anonyme works were used mainly as teaching tools at Yale and rarely were seen by the general public. Finally, this seminal collection is getting its due.

The Societe, founded by Miss Dreier and breakthrough dadaists Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray, collected about 1,000 pieces of good and not-so-good art over 20 years.

Although Miss Dreier was no Alfred Barr, MOMA’s legendary founding director, who purchased the museum’s iconic Matisses and Picassos, she still managed to build an uneven, but decent, collection starring Mr. Duchamp, Wassily Kandinsky, Franz Marc, Paul Klee, Man Ray and Fernand Leger.

Mr. Kandinsky’s early “Multicolored Circle (Mit Buntem Kreis)” is especially eye-catching with its vortex of colorful circles, diagonals and spheres. Other artists introduced with one-person shows at the time included Mr. Klee, Mr. Leger and Joseph Stella.

We can only imagine the visitors’ reactions to the Societe’s inaugural exhibition in 1920 at the group’s smallish gallery on New York’s East 47th Street. (The group’s shocking emblem was a humorous donkey.)

The exhibit was filled with works by French postmodernist Vincent van Gogh; the charmingly carved “Little French Girl (The First Step III)” by Constantin Brancusi; daringly cubist “Brooklyn Bridge” by Mr. Stella, a New Yorker; and oil-on-burlap “In Memoriam” by Jacques Villon.

However, the real interest here was, and is, not the artworks but Mr. Duchamp’s playful dada installation.

The artists originally wrapped lengths of lace-paper doilies around the paintings’ frames and fixed gray, ribbed rubber matting to the floor. Moreover, Man Ray accented the whole with cool white oilcloth walls that reflected nearby skyscrapers.

There’s one reaction we do know, however — New York Herald art critic Henry McBride’s comment (as quoted on a wall label) — “One must mount two steep flights of steps and then pay 26 cents to obtain admission to the first exhibition of the Societe Anonyme Inc., but even those to whom an outlay of 25 cents for any purpose whatever is a serious matter will probably not regret the investment. Many a movie at twice the price gives one less to remember.”

That was just the beginning. Mr. Duchamp, famous for a urinal he called the “Fountain,” weaves his anti-art, jokester attitudes throughout the show. One example is his “Box in a Valise (Boite-en-valise),” a small leather suitcase of miniature Duchamp replicas and color reproductions.

Another is “Tu m’” (oil on canvas, bottle brush, three safety pins, one bolt), which announced the artist’s turning from painting to more conceptual art projects. He said it was his last painting.

Miss Dreier’s most astounding triumph, however, was the 1926 International Exhibition of Modern Art at the Brooklyn Museum, where she showed 307 works by 106 artists from 19 countries, according to the Phillips Collection Quarterly magazine. More than 52,000 people saw the exhibit before its traveling tour.

She also juxtaposed art of different persuasions, such as the flat geometry of Piet Mondrian’s oil-on-canvas “Composition With Yellow, Blue, Black and Light Blue” and Suzanne Phocas’ dreamy, semirealistic “Child With Dog.” Also contrasted was Russian-born constructivist Naum Gabo’s transparent “Model of the Column” with Man Ray’s photolithograph “L’Impossibilite Danger/Dancer.”

Unfortunately, it marked the end of her survey exhibitions. The Great Depression and reduction in Societe membership wiped out most of her showings just two years after the Brooklyn exhibit.

Why did it take the closing and renovation of the Yale Gallery for the collection to reach a wider audience?

WHAT: “The Societe Anonyme: Modernism for America”

WHERE: Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 pm. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Thursday and noon to 7 p.m. Sunday through Jan. 21.

COST: $12 for adults; $10 for visitors 62 and older; $10 for seniors; and free for visitors 18 and younger and museum members.

ONLINE: www.phillipscollection.org

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