Katherine Dreier and the Société Anonyme
"[America] has developed along the material rather than the immaterial,
the concrete rather than the divine."
(Katherine Dreier) 1
"The art of the new painters takes the infinite universe as its ideal,
and it is to the fourth dimension alone that we owe this new measure of
"An artist expresses himself with his soul, with the soul the artwork
must be assimilated."
Katherine Sophie Dreier (1877-1952) was born in Brooklyn, New York. Her
father had amassed a modest fortune in an iron importing business. She
had three sisters: Mary, Margaret and Dorothea, who between them combined
an active commitment to social reform, progressive politics and modern
Mary Dreier was a US labor reformer active in leadership roles in the
suffrage movement. Although independently wealthy, she won the trust of
working women and became active in the Women's Trade Union League
(WTUL). Mary walked the picket lines with strikers and was arrested and
treated just as brutally by the police. The WTUL's establishment
in 1903 drew together three important social currents flowing through
early twentieth century America: the labor movement, the Womens'
Movement, and the social reform movement of the Progressive Era. This
coalition of wage-earning and middle-class women fought for the eight-hour
day, decent wages, women's suffrage and protective workplace laws.
She was a friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, who was also active in the WTUL.
Margaret Dreier was also a labor leader and reformer and joined the WTUL
becoming president of the New York branch and playing a major role in
organising support for the strikes of 1909-11 against the garment industry.
In 1929 President Herbert Hoover named her to the planning committee of
the White House Conference on Child Health and Protection. In the 1930s
she became an enthusiastic supporter of the New Deal which - influenced
by the WTUL agenda - brought greater security to workers' lives
and seen the instigation of the WPA which nurtured the post war generation
Dorothea was a painter working in a Post-Impressionist style.
There was a strong identification with German culture in the Dreier home,
and the family often traveled back to Europe to visit relatives. Between
1907 and 1914, Katherine Dreier traveled abroad studying and buying art
and participating in several group exhibitions in Frankfurt, Leipzig,
Dresden, and Munich. In Paris she visited Gertrude Steins' salons
seeing the Fauves and Picasso and reading (in the original German) Kandinsky's
'Concerning The Spiritual in Art' in 1912 just as it was published.
This was to be a profound influence including its Theosophical dimension
and condemnation of the art market. She also traveled to Holland, buying
a van Gogh (before the Sonderbund show) which she eventually loaned to
the Armory show. 2
Her first one-person show was in London in 1911 at the Doré
Galleries, which later held the first Vorticist show in 1915, here:
"The American actress and feminist Elizabeth Robins introduced her
into a circle of artists and literati where she met and engaged Edward
Thrumbull. They returned to her family home in Brooklyn for their wedding.
The marriage was annulled soon after it was learned that Thrumbull already
had a wife and children." 3
In 1912, in New York she became treasurer of the German Home for Recreation
of Women and Children and helped to found the Little Italy Neighborhood
Association in Brooklyn. She was invited to exhibit her own work and her
collection in the influential 1913 Armory Show. Contemporary criticism
of her work reduced Dreier's status to a "decorator" locating
her within the amateur field, producing in a less sophisticated medium - despite
the decorative arts being an essential source of inspiration for many
avant-garde painters and sculptors. 4
The invisibility of Dreier and many other women who participated in the
Armory Show - and in avant-garde circles in general - begins with
criticism that dismissed women who made art works connected to the schools
of Modernism as imitative, rather than capable of assimilating theories
by canonical artists. The Armory Show was dependent on a number of women
artists who participated in the growth of modern art in New York in the
years around the 1913 exhibition, yet the critical reception of this,
such as Frank Crowninshield's 'Armory Show' in Vogue, 1940,
Mayer Shapiro's and Milton Brown's writing have conditioned
perceptions of the period to see affluent women as mere collectors because
they were the wives and daughters of the "magnates." But aspects
of patronage had began to shift from the industrial capitalists - guided
merely by a desire to amass more wealth - to a new class of 'cultural
aesthetes' who were:
"...the readers and followers of Neitzsche, Bergson, Whitman, Veblen,
and often Blavatsky. They represented a professed desire to keep the art
market autonomous from the markets for other goods where "it is not
for the maker to set the goal for art, but for the buyer." 5
They believed financial support for artists should be unconditional. An
examination of many of these early 'women collectors' at the
Armory Show (and later) reveals their own occupations as painters, sculptors
and writers, recognised by their peers and the general public as professionals.
Most accounts of these early twentieth century 'collectors'
neglect a community and reciprocity between art patronage and production,
especially in the case of women artists/collectors/organisers. Yet this
neglected ground is where modern art is often first accepted or appreciated
or contested. This blurring and erasing of distinctions will be recognised
by artists as a fore-runner of artist-run initiatives and akin to Pierre
Bourdieu's assessment of avant-garde art, as ostensibly anti-commercial
art: 'art produced for producers'.
In 1914 Dreier formed the Cooperative Mural Workshops, a combination
art school and workshop modeled in part after the Arts and Crafts movement
and the Omega Workshops of Roger Fry. The organisation, which operated
until 1917, also included the dancer Isadora Duncan. In her painting Dreier
began working toward non-representational portraiture, and in 1916 she
was invited to help found the Society of Independent Artists (SIA)
which brought her into an influential circle of European and American
avant-garde artists, most notably working with Marcel Duchamp as friend,
partner and patron.
"While her interest in modern art is often understood in relation
to her correspondence with Duchamp, her early abstractions are undoubtedly
influenced by her interest in Kandinsky's theories... Dreier's
most commonly reproduced work is her portrait of Duchamp, in the collection
of MOMA. A slightly earlier portrait of Duchamp, called Study in Triangles,
recalls Kandinsky's first chapter in On the Spiritual in Art, "The
Movement of the Triangle." Following Kandinsky's logic and Dreir's
painting, Duchamp reaches the top rung of the avant-garde ladder and becomes
as Dreier would later call him "the modern-day Leonardo."
The SIA (which continued until 1944 and also had a Mexican chapter) were
a group of American and European artists who aimed to support regular
exhibitions of contemporary art. It is thought it was based on the French
Société des Artistes Indépendants, founded
in 1884 (which had rejected Duchamp's 'Nude Descending a Staircase')
and which acted as a kind of institutionalized Salon des Refusés.
The other founders with Dreier included Marcel Duchamp, William J. Glackens,
Albert Gleizes, John Marin, Walter Pach, Man Ray, John Sloan and Joseph
Stella. The managing director was Walter Arensberg. Much the same group
had been responsible for the Armory Show in 1913, which they quickly aimed
'The Big Show' held at the Grand Central Palace in New York
in 1917 - then the largest exhibition in American history (2500 works
by 1200 artists; the Armory Show had 1200 works) - coincided with US
involvement in World War I. This underlined the SIA's 'dedication
to democratic principles as part of a larger struggle,' which seen
the group conciously adopt a no-jury policy, with the works (which extended
to film screenings, lectures, poetry readings and concerts) hung alphabetically.
Duchamp was originally the director of the installation of the show. For
$6 artists were offered an opportunity to exhibit and join the group,
regardless of style or subject-matter. This gave Duchamp an idea.
What looked like a urinal signed 'R. Mutt', arrived through
a delivery service with its six bucks. The central anti-academy philosophy
of accepting all works was easily mocked and some members took it upon
themselves to remove the work from the exhibition two days before the
opening. Duchamp made an even bigger show of resigning from the SIA. It
is slightly ridiculous that this incident has over-shadowed the rest of
the show, but it certainly divided opinion - some of Dreier's
correspondence on the matter still exists such as this one to SIA president,
"I want to express my profound admiration in the way you handled
so important a matter as you did at the last meeting when it was [decided]...that
we invite Marcel Duchamp to lecture...on his "Readymades" and
have Richard Mutt bring the discarded object and explain the theory of
art and why it had a legitimate place in an Art Exhibit... I felt that
if you had realized that the object was sent in good faith that the whole
matter would have been handled differently. It is because of the confusion
of ideas that the situation took on such an important aspect... [you]
will force Richard Mutt to show whether he was sincere or did it out of
Dreier also wrote to Duchamp asking him to reverse his resignation from
the SIA over the refusal to exhibit Mr Mutt's Fountain:
"When I voted "No," I voted on the question of originality - I
did not see anything pertaining to originality in it; that does not mean
that if my attention had been drawn to what was original by those who
could see it, that I could not also have seen it."
One of the SIA, George Bellows, supposedly became very angered (this was
100 years ago) and turned on Walter Arensberg saying: "Someone must
have sent it as a joke. It is signed R. Mutt; sounds fishy to me... It
is gross, offensive!...There is such a thing as decency. Do you mean that
if an artist put horse manure on a canvas and sent it to the exhibition,
we would have to accept it?" Arensberg responded with "I am
afraid we would." But most of these accounts are from Beatrice Wood's - who
shared a studio with Duchamp - unreliable memoir 'I Shock Myself.'
Some believe that the love triangle that developed among Wood, Duchamp
and French Diplomat Henri-Pierre Roché formed the basis of Roché's
novel, Jules and Jim, which was later made into the celebrated
film by François Truffaut. 7
'Fountain' was not seen by the public, but the joke was kept
running in the 'open submission' magazine The Blindman
which Duchamp and Roché printed (and Wood fronted till her father
got upset) to accompany The Big Show. It began as a joke and was extended
in the subsequent issue into a system of assault, following the attitude
characteristic of Picabia's earlier '391' magazine. Like
their European counterparts, first-generation modernists in the United
States depended on the word - in manifestoes, catalog essays, and "little
magazines" - to advocate and advance their art.
Duchamp's idea of 'readymades' had come from his surprise
in New York at seeing objects such as a snow shovel (which he had no idea
existed), and imagining them as ready-made sculptures just like the arrival
of ready-made clothes or cigarettes on the market. This had resonated
with his interest in Raymond Roussel's theatrical works which he
described as "the absolute height of unusualness," and Alfred
Jarry's 'Pataphysics.' It also reminded him of the 'gadgets'
he kept about his studio (and which his sister threw out) such as the
bicycle wheel (possibly a pun on 'Roussel'), which he enjoyed
looking at like flames in the fireplace "to help his ideas come out".
He would notice the spokes blurr and a curious three dimension 'optical
flicker' effect which remained with one eye shut, this reminded him
of his obscure readings on Euclidian geometry and the French mathematician
Jules Henri Poincaré.
Dreier seems among those who initially opposed the inclusion of Fountain,
but she later came to appreciate Duchamp's intentions. They struck
up a friendship that lasted Dreier's lifetime, and he introduced
her to the circle of progressive artists and poets which had formed around
Walter Arensberg's house and given rise to the SIA.
The Arensberg's West 67th Street apartment contained works by Duchamp,
Picasso, Braque, Gris, Miro and 19 Brancusi sculptures. Duchamp's
'Nude Descending a Staircase' (which the Arensbergs' bought
from the Armory Show on the last day when they just happened by) was the
centerpiece. Arensberg (a cryptology fanatic who shared mental and word
games of all sorts with Duchamp) became a pivotal centre because of his
extraordinary mind and instinctive comprehension of all that was stirring.
The apartment contained the Avant-Garde in New York. Duchamp actually
moved in to a small room and bath upstairs somewhere in the building,
living in the Arensberg place most of the time.
Every night following the Armory Show there had been an influx of prominent
French artists. Among the other members of the group were Man Ray, Picabia,
William Carlos Williams, Mardsden Hartley, Mina Loy, Edgar Varase, Charles
Demuth, Isadora Duncan and Charles Sheeler, who casts a more disparaging
eye on the influx of draft-dodging Frenchmen on the make:
"CS: Yes. Well, they had a purpose in being there, I think, of course.
Maybe that wouldn't include Duchamp but the majority of the others
it was the hope of good picking, that is I mean to say pick up sponsors,
you know....we would be in a gathering...and there was one fellow you'd
see looking up and down if there were some people there that - women
that represented means of some kind and so forth, looking up and down
deciding whether the fur coat represented anything more substantial that
might be picking, you know, sort of as taking inventory...A lot of that
went on in those days. It made me sick.
MF: You're disillusioning me. That's good. What about Katherine
Dreier? Didn't she get involved in this too?
CS: Well, she was madly in pursuit personally of...
CS: Marcel." 8
Sheeler also recounts one evening Isadora Duncan dropped by:
"...and, as she was leaving - Walter wasn't prepared for
it - she threw her arms violently around his neck and her considerable
avoirdupois and he wasn't prepared - she flattened him to the
ground, they fell on the floor and when he got up two front teeth were
missing. He was going around for several days this way with a handkerchief
up to his face 'til he got repairs. But there were silly little things
like that haven't anything to do with - of importance." 9
The Société Anonyme
"From a distance these things, these Movements take on a charm
that they do not have close up - I assure you."
(Marcel Duchamp, Letter to Ettie Stettheimer, 1921)
In response to the question "What is Dada?", posed by the press
a number of 'Dada' artists gathered at Katherine Dreier's
on East 47th Street, to try a bit of hype. Duchamp was the spokesman:
"Dada is nothing...For instance the Dadaists say that everything
is nothing; nothing is good, nothing is interesting, nothing is important.
It is a general movement in Paris, relating rather to literature than
to painting" And later in the interview, "Painting has already
begun to tear down the past - why not literature?. But then I am in
favor of Dada very much myself". Even as he was making this declaration,
however, Duchamp was distancing himself from the Paris Dada scene that
prompted the Evening Journal article. When his sister Suzanne... suggested
Duchamp send something for the Dada Salon Tzara was organizing at the
Galerie Montaigne, Duchamp responded that "exposer," sounded
too much like "épouser", and when Tzara himself repeated
the request, Duchamp sent a telegram that contained the three words "PODE
BAL - DUCHAMP" with its pun on "peau de balle" or "balls
to you." Thus, when the exhibition was mounted, the spaces reserved
for Duchamp's works were occupied by empty frames. So much for Duchamp's
participation in Paris Dada." 10
Around this time, in 1920, Dreier, Duchamp, and Man Ray met in Dreier's
apartment (the Arensberg's had escaped to the West Coast) to found
a centre for the study and promotion of of the international avant-garde.
Dreier wanted to call it "The Modern Ark," perhaps symbolising
her shipping an unrivalled collection of European Modernism over the Atlantic,
but Man Ray suggested a typically tedious Dada word game: the French term
for "incorporated," so the name would read "Société
Anonyme, Inc." which translates into "Incorporated, Inc."
Dreier added the subtitle "Museum of Modern Art: 1920." Ray's
involvement was largely inconsequential.
If anything the name emphasised Dreier's commitment to treating artists
and art movements with impartiality. Her - typically modest - concern
was with "art, not personalities." It is thought she modelled
the association on the broad-ranging events and contemporary art exhibitions
sponsored by Herwarth Walden's Sturm-Galerie in Berlin.
As with much of the avant garde they had to create their own means of
showing their work, the Société Anonyme, was used as an
exhibition vehicle for the next ten years. It organised an extensive series
of exhibitions, lectures, symposia, publications and established a reference
library and acquisitions programme: all for the support of modern artists
and the education of the general public.
Throughout the twenties Anonyme was New York's first museum of modern
art, presenting an international array of cubists, constructivists, expressionists,
futurists, Bauhaus artists, and dadaists. It hosted the first American
one-person shows of Kandinsky, Klee, Campendonk, and Leger. Société
Anonyme promoted some of the most progressive artistic experimentation
to be done in the US country at the time.
The International Exhibition of Modern Art at the Brooklyn Museum
in 1926 (the title was lifted from the 1913 Armory Show) rivalled the
SIA's Big Show of 1917 in its scope and diversity. It is arguably
one of the most successful, well-curated and highly attended exhibitions
in America in the 20th century. It also made deliberate attempts to affect
people in a more lasting manner.
"Dreier had four galleries in the exhibition made up to resemble
rooms in a house to illustrate how modern art could and should readily
integrate into an everyday domestic environment, and there was also a
prototype of a "television room," designed in conjunction with
Frederick Kiesler, which would make any house or museum a worldwide museum
of art by illuminating different slides of masterpieces with the 'turn
of a knob. Concurrent with the exhibition the Societe sponsored eighteen
lectures, fourteen of which were delivered by Dreier herself." 11
It was in fact more or less single-handedly organised by Dreier - an
astonishing effort demonstrating her work for the Société
to date. The extensive Catalogue (given free to participating artists)
was dedicated to Kandinsky's 60th Birthday and abstract art seemed
to dominate at the exhibition. The Brooklyn exhibition featured 308 works
by 106 artists from 23 countries and attracted over 52,000 visitors in
seven weeks. It travelled to Manhattan, Buffalo and Toronto and was the
first introduction in the US of Surrealism. It also offerred a larger
sampling of Soviet and German (and simply non-French) modernism that had
been included in the Armory Show (which had included out of the German
school only one Kandinsky, one Kirchner, and two Lehmbruck sculptures,
and out of the Russians only Archipenko). 12
It was also the first time Duchamp's 'La mariée mise
à nu par ses cèlibataires', or 'The Large Glass'
(1915-23), was exhibited. It seems to have been largely ignored, only
picking up attention when it was exhibited in the New York Museum Of Modern
Art after the war.
Dreier was Duchamp's main supporter, commissioning, owning and enabling
many new works, including the Large Glass itself. Dreier had an intimate
relationship to most of his output, many of which make oblique references
to her: 'T'um' was a mural commissioned for above her bookcase
based on the shadows cast by his other works in her house. 'Why not
Sneeze Rrose Sélavy' was commissioned by Dreier for her sister,
Dorothea - who didn't want it, probably repulsed by its more Benny
Hill (arroser, c'est la vie) aspects.
The major work of Duchamp's career was broken in transit to Dreier's
home in Connecticut. Dreier conveyed the news six years later, where,
over lunch, in France.
"Bearing a certain amount of responsibility for the damaged to the
Large Glass, Dreier paid for everything connected to its repair, including
materials and contracted labor. She assured Duchamp of a room in her house,
offered him thermoses of coffee, breakfasts on a tray in the mornings,
and a carpenter on hand to assist in the reconstruction. She even covered
his passage to America." 13
It is a misconception that the Large Glass had merely cracked in the patterns
one sees today, it was reduced to a pile of unattached fragments which
a newspaper described as "a 4 by 5-foot three hundred pound conglomeration
of bits of colored glass."
"A photograph from 1936, taken in Katherine Dreier's Connecticut
home...Wearing a pullover rather than his usually natty clothes, a five-o'clock-shadowed
Duchamp stands wearily next to the Large Glass (1915-23) which he had
just spent weeks reconstructing. This image...begs an interesting question.
How is it that the unconventional and often fragile works of an artist
who publicly eschewed those art world institutions that would normally
be trusted to conserve them - dealers, galleries, museums-have come
down to us in relatively fine condition, or indeed, at all?" 14
Through the support of Katherine Dreier would seem to be the answer. The
effort on the Large Glass seems to have nearly burnt him out, even the
long-suffering Dreier complained to one of her friends about the his monomania
at this time: "Duchamp is a dear, but his concentration on just one
subject wears me out, leaves me limp."
Duchamp also used this time to restore all his other works in Dreier's
collection. The Large Glass' near destruction and the draining process
of undertaking its repair galvanized his resolve to enter into the large-scale
reiteration and reproduction of his works in multiples. He first published
the Green Box (Paris, 1934). "Only then... did he restore the image
between two new plates of glass, now to be read through the foundational
grid of his writings." The artist himself admitted that "the
notes [in the Green Box] help to understand what it [the Large Glass]
could have been." 15
The eventual opening in 1929 of the New York Museum of Modern Art
reduced Dreier's hopes of the Société becoming a permanent
museum. The Société made an urgent appeal to the Carnegie
Corporation for assistance, but was refused and its headquarters in New
York closed. From this point on, it continued only through Dreier's
personal efforts in organising events, a lecture series, writing and further
accumulating the Société's collection. In 1939, as
war broke out Dreier began a plan to open 'The Country Museum'
(also known as the Haven), at her house in West Redding, Connecticut - this
merged the Société's and her own private collection.
She approached Yale University about funding and maintaining the Haven
but, because of the high costs of renovating and maintaining it, Yale
offered a compromise to take over the Société's collection
if it were moved to the Yale Art Gallery. Reluctantly Dreier agreed, and
began sending the collection in October 1941 shortly before the US entered
another war with Germany.
"In 1942, Dreier was still adamant about her desire to open the Country
Museum and to use her private collection as its basis. She continued her
attempts to convince Yale to fund her project, but when Yale gave a final
negative answer in April, Dreier decided to sell the Haven. In April 1946,
she moved to a new home, Laurel Manor, in Milford, Connecticut. She continued
to add artwork to the Societe Anonyme collection at Yale, through purchases
and through gifts from artists and friends. In 1947, she attempted to
reopen membership to the Societe Anonyme and printed a brochure, but Yale
blocked distribution of the brochure because of the ambiguous connection
between Yale and the membership campaign. In 1948, Dreier and Duchamp
decided to limit the activities of the Societe to working on a catalog
of the collection and to acquiring artwork." 16
On the thirtieth anniversary of the Société's Anonyme's
first exhibition, 30 April 1950, Dreier and Duchamp hosted a dinner at
the New Haven Lawn Club, where they formally dissolved the Societe Anonyme.
In June, a catalog of the Société's collection at Yale,
Collection of the Société Anonyme: Museum of Modern Art
1920, was published. Dreier died on 29 March 1952.
It was partly because she dared not move the fragile Large Glass monolith,
that she had considered converting her home into a Museum. Troubled by
the matter even at the end of her life, she confessed to Duchamp that
she might not leave enough money to guarantee its upkeep and safety. After
her death Duchamp acted as her executor and entered it into the Arensberg
Collection in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which contained most of
Duchamp had helped to amass the collection of the Société
Anonyme, and with Dreier gone, he tried to provide for its long-term survival,
anxious about the rapid deterioration of works. There was no money for
conservation, so Duchamp approached Mary Dreier who contributed $1,500
per year until she died. Eventually, under Duchamp's supervision,
the Large Glass would be cemented to the floor of the Philadelphia Museum
of Art amidst the Walter and Louise Arensberg Collection where it had
all began when they were young.
The Société Anonyme begun in 1920; Albert Gallatin's
Gallery of Living Art at New York University did not emerge until 1927,
most dominant of all the Museum of Modern Art was founded in 1929; and
then the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1930. The Museum of Non-Objective
Art - later to be better known as the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum - was
founded in New York in 1937. The Société Anonyme's
art collection eventually became the basis of the Museum of Modern Art
and the Guggemheim collections.
1. Ruth L. Bohan, The Société Anonyme' s Brooklyn Exhibition,
UMI Research Press, Ann Arbor 1982, p.12). Quoted from http://www.brickhaus.com/amoore/magazine/p2contents.html
2. The Armoury show has been recreated at http://xroads.virginia.edu/~MUSEUM/Armory/gallerytour.html
4. Duchamp's 'Coffee Grinder' (1911) was originally done
as a decoration for his brother's kitchen.
8. Charles Sheeler Interview, conducted by Martin Friedman for the Archives
of American Art, 1959 http://artarchives.si.edu/oralhist/sheele59.htm
10. Marforie Perloff, Avant-Garde Tradition and the Individual talent.
11. New Thoughts on an Old Series, John D. Angeline, http://www.brickhaus.com/amoore/magazine/Davis.html
12. Stuart Davis (a leading US modernist) underwent something of a conversion
with the Brooklyn show stating that "the exhibition itself was an
inspiration to me and has given me a fresh impulse." Fascinated by
El Lissitzky's work, Davis was supplied by Dreier (who had kept up
a strong appreciation for Russian modernism since 1922 when she visited
the Erste Russiche Kunstausstellung in Berlin) with knowledge which would
inform his seminal 'Egg Beater' series. She simultaneously supplied
Lissitzky with sports magazines which reflected American culture. Such
closeness between US and Soviet modernism has since been downplayed because
of the Cold War. See Angeline above. The over-emphasis on Parisian Modernism
which critics such as Harold Rosenberg note in much American art stems
from critics reflecting its predominance and over-emphasis in Peggy Guggenheim's
13. Marcel Duchamp as Conservator, Mark B. Pohlad, http://www.toutfait.com/issues/issue_3/Articles/pohlad/pohlad.html
14. Ibid. I would recommend the Duchamp magazine http://www.toutfait.com
this regularly over-turns conventional wisdom on Duchamp.
16. The Katherine S. Dreier Papers / Societe Anonyme Archive, Beinecke
Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.