“Traditions are beautiful–but to create them–not to follow.” – Franz Marc, motto of the Société Anonyme
Before there was MoMA, there was the Société Anonyme, an organization founded in 1920 by Katherine S. Dreier, Marcel Duchamp, and Man Ray as America’s first “experimental museum” for contemporary art. Aiming to provide a means for artists rather than art historians to chronicle the rise of modernism, the Société Anonyme eventually assembled a collection of more than one thousand artworks, many from the century’s most renowned artists–including Jean Arp, Duchamp, Max Ernst, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, El Lissitzky, Piet Mondrian, Man Ray, Kurt Schwitters, and Joseph Stella–as well as works by lesser-known artists whose contributions to modernism are substantial.
“The Société Anonyme: Modernism for America,” now on display at the UCLA Hammer Museum, is the first exhibition chronicling the history of the Société since its collection was donated to the Yale University Art Gallery in 1941. A “remarkable, treasure-laden historical survey,” according to Doug Harvey in LA Weekly, the show brings together a generous sampling of about 250 artworks, including a recreation of the group’s inaugural exhibition, right down to the rubber-ribbed matting over the floors and the lace paper doilies around the paintings’ frames.
“Hopefully this show will bring to light the history of a number of artists you’ve never seen or heard of before,” curator Jennifer Gross told Christian Science Monitor. “The group leaders realized that this was their chance to tell the history of art as artists wanted it to be told.”
“As a history lesson,” writes Harvey in LA Weekly, “as a spectacular collection of mostly unheralded treasures of modern art, and as a model of possible collective action for today’s communities of artists, the exhibit is beyond reproach.”
“The Société Anonyme: Modernism for America” will continue through August 20 at the UCLA Hammer Museum, before traveling over the next three years to Washington, Dallas, Nashville, and New Haven. The vibrantly illustrated catalog to the exhibition, published by Yale University Press, includes new archival information, a host of previously unpublished images, essays by leading scholars, and interviews with artists Robert and Sylvia Mangold about the contemporary significance of the collection.