In 1920, three luminaries of the American art world—Katherine Dreier, Marcel Duchamp, and Man Ray, founded Société Anonyme. Frustrated by America’s indifference and frequent hostility to its artists, Dreier and Duchamp sought to cultivate a community of American modern artists that would inspire, through exhibitions, lectures, and eventually a permanent collection, an appreciation for modern art and induce America to support indigenous modern artists. The founders conceived of Société Anonyme as the successor to the Alfred Stieglitz 291 gallery, which, at the turn of the century, had served as the hub of the American avant-garde movement. Recognizing the loss of a forum for the exchange of ideas and support among artists when 291 closed in 1917, the three artists designed Société Anonyme as “intimate creative laboratory” for artists and as an “experimental museum” owned and directed by artists themselves that would admit works on merit rather than cater to the taste of what they perceived to be ignorant and provincial public. Through the tireless efforts of Dreier and Duchamp, Société Anonyme evolved into “an elaborate international web of correspondence and exchange among artists,” who followed and encouraged the artistic activities of their comrades through the turmoil of the interwar period.
Despite its success at creating an international community of artists, Société Anonyme struggled in its efforts to persuade the American public embrace the spirit of modernism. In a letter to Dreier, Marsden Hartley lamented, “Every other country in the world but America I am free to say—appreciates the value of its artists and does more or less s for their advancement and support…It’s too small a game here—and too played– they have no understanding of art any more than they for life.” America’s suspicion of artists was entrenched; it arose from what seemed to be permanent fixtures in the American cultural landscape—provincial nationalism, materialism, and ignorance. The assimilation of modern art into America’s cultural landscape, Duchamp wrote, would require “a confrontation of values.”
Although the Société Anonyme aggressively sought confrontation with the values hostile to modernism, Dreier and Duchamp recognized that a change in the “comprehensive state of mind regarding contemporary art” would be slower than expected. In a 1942 letter to Joseph Stella, Dreier wrote:
I am still very conscious of what pioneers we all are in spite of the thirty years of hard work, and that we are so in advance of our time that it has not alone taken all these years for the public to catch up but it will take even longer for them to realize that our group is for the 20th Century what Leonardo, Michelangelo, Titian etc., were for the 15th. There is no question in my mind but that with time our pictures will have places of honor—such as you deserve of course, now—but I hope you will bear with the whole attitude of Art in America a little longer and permit them to be the missionaries which will make possible.
Time would vindicate modern art. Hence, in the last years of the Société Anonyme, Dreier along with Duchamp as the editor, established the largest permanent collection of modern art. Soliciting works from members of the Société Anonyme as well as donating works for her private collection, Dreier amassed a collection of over 1,000 works of modern art. Apart from its sheer size, the collection is impressive because the works were chosen on individual merit and “without consideration of renown, nationality or alignment with a particular movement.” Alongside the works of famous and well studied artists such as Kandinsky, Schwitters, and Brancusi are works by artists whose contribution to modernism would have been lost to art history if not for the collection. The collection represents modern art’s own judgment of its best works.
Despite its contribution to modern art, the Société Anonyme and its collection have largely neglected by scholars. The exhibition Société Anonyme: Modernism for America and its beautifully done catalog, edited by Jennifer R. Gross, with essays ranging from the friendships among the Société Anonyme’s members to the challenges museums face in preserving and interpreting the history of modern art for its audience the aims to correct this oversight. For the first time in the 60 years since Dreier donated the collection to Yale University Art Gallery, the collection has left its home and toured America stopping at the Hammer Museum, The Phillips collection, the Dallas Museum of Art, and the Frist Center for the Visual Arts. It has just returned to Yale University Art Gallery for the final stage of its tour. The exhibition will run through July 2013.