Curator Jennifer Gross on the Société Anonyme
Following the post on the exhibition catalog, a Q&A with Jennifer Gross, Seymour H. Knox, Jr., Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Yale University Art Gallery and editor of The Société Anonyme: Modernism for America.
What specifically prompted Dreier and Duchamp to found the Société Anonyme? What are some similarities and differences between the art world climate during their time and the one that exists today?
The Société Anonyme was founded to fill the gap left by the closing of Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 Gallery in 1917. The avant-garde desired a place where they could exhibit modern art and, equally importantly, a place to gather to discuss their work and ideals. As their enterprise of exhibitions continued into the twenties and thirties, the critical and economic support for these artists did not materialize, partially due to the xenophobia that was prevalent following WWI and the economic hardship manifest in the Depression. Dreier and Duchamp and their cohort became despondent about their educational and social enterprise.
Their circumstance has startlingly little in common with the robust contemporary art market, museum, and alternative space network that exists today for contemporary art. While today’s contemporary art community may want for more time to gather and support one another, primarily due to the voracious nature of the commercial system, there is also not a singular locus for conversation. The art world is vast; in New York alone there are multitudes of sub-communities with which to engage and contend. Ironically, many younger artists today continue to operate in the isolation of this diffuse international art scene. One of the compelling examples that the artists of the Société Anonyme set for artists working today is their investment in the work of others and an ideal beyond their own practice. This genuine excitement about the forceful energy of a generation of artists is what gave their enterprise its vitality and longevity. In fact, I do believe to a certain extent that their efforts absolutely paved the way for the broader reception for contemporary art that exists today. Their efforts contributed much to making the modern a part of America’s cultural identity.
How do you see the legacy of the Société Anonyme and its collection evolving?
The legacy of the Société Anonyme lies within the collection at this point. Now that their history is more fully integrated into the history of art of the twentieth century, the resource that is the collections at Yale, in the Katherine S. Dreier Archives / Société Anonyme Archive at the Beinecke Library and the collection of art works at the Yale University Art Gallery, is available for scholars and general audiences to learn more about the artists in this collection and appreciate their work. The Gallery is committed to continuing the Société Anonyme legacy of loaning works from the collection which Dreier and Duchamp gathered so diligently during their lifetimes and to keeping works from the collection on view. The most exciting prospect for the future of the Société Anonyme is in the potential for scholars to now access and research the numerous lesser known artists’ works that are in the collection. In many cases, it is in this collection alone that their work, and any record of their history exists, so it gives future scholars an exciting foothold into rediscovering and rewriting the history of the early twentieth century.
It has been about seven years since you were at work on the beautiful catalogue for this exhibition, which has at long last come home to Yale. Have the intervening years, or the critical reception of the show at any of its stops leading up to its current New Haven installation, given you new insight into the project?
The years since the inception of this project have only deepened my awe at having the opportunity to work on such a project where a significant piece of art history had yet to be fully exhumed. The public response to the show in the press and through individuals only confirmed how unfamiliar its history was, and how radical was the Société Anonyme enterprise: artists making their own museum and writing their own history. It continues to be a remarkable privilege to honor the vision and hard work of these artists through the care of the collection. On many an occasion, I feel accountable to Dreier, Duchamp, and their cohort, to fight for their ideals and steward their hope for the continued influence of the art in this collection and the unique history of their experience of modernism it represents.
Jennifer Gross is Seymour H. Knox, Jr., Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Yale University Art Gallery.