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Lincoln Kirstein, "To See Deeply"

A legendary dance patron had a keen eye for art.

Photograph Courtesy of the School of American Ballet, Photograph by Jerry L. Thompson
Pavel Tchelitchew, Portrait of Lincoln Kirstein, 1937

New York would not be the cultural capital we know and love if not for Lincoln Kirstein (1907--1996), best known as cofounder of the New York City Ballet and the School of American Ballet, with George Balanchine. But he also championed visual art. To celebrate the centennial of his birth, there is a slew of Kirsteiniana around town, including an intimate show at the Whitney of five artists—Paul Cadmus, Walker Evans, Gaston Lachaise, Elie Nadelman and Pavel Tchelitchew—whose work the patron collected and wrote about (his essays are excerpted on wall labels).

Kirstein’s peripatetic career included stints as a novelist, dance historian, poet, playwright and curator. Throughout, his taste in art remained essentially conservative, focused on figurative work at the expense of the avant-garde abstraction that history has deemed far more important.

Kirstein was, however, an early supporter of Walker Evans, at a time when photography was still proving itself as art. In 1931 he encouraged Evans to photograph Victorian houses in New England, a project that was later exhibited at MoMA in 1933. Several small prints from that series—iconic shots of antiquated architecture, with crisply delineated details and subtle gradations of tone—present Evans at his most gorgeously limpid, an American Atget.

In 1937, Tchelitchew painted a portrait of Kirstein in which he appears three times: as his balding self in an athletic jacket, in the nude wearing strategically positioned boxing gloves, and sprawled out reading a newspaper. It’s an appealingly literal attempt to embody the multifaceted sitter, but not a great example of portraiture, Surrealism or even the artist’s own style. A more visionary canvas is Anatomical Painting (1946), in which a transparent man, delineated in hues of red, yellow and blue, faces a corpuscular background—psychedelia avant la lettre!

Nadelman is represented by a modest selection, including the carved cherrywood Tango (circa 1920--24), a stylized couple in formal dress in the midst of a sprightly pas de deux. It is utterly charming, unlike the ponderous enlargements in marble (like Stay Puft Marshmallow Men) of the Nadelman figures that Kirstein placed inside Lincoln Center in the early 1960s.

The show devotes an entire room to Cadmus’s meticulous variations on Social Realism. They are still compelling, in large part because of the frank portrayals of gay subjects and sensibilities. This no doubt also appealed to Kirstein, who was (as Martin Duberman demonstrates in his engrossing new biography, The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein) vigorously, though not publicly, bisexual. However open Kirstein may have kept the door, he wrote about Cadmus (whose sister he married) from the closet. He described The Bath (1951), an intimate image of a gay male couple, as a picture of “chums” and all but ignored the cruising between two hot bicycle boys in Speedos—one with a suggestive baguette balanced on his handlebars—in Finistere (1952).

“To See Deeply” presents a portrait of a man with impeccable, if idiosyncratic, taste. It’s fitting as homage and true in its limited way. But Kirstein was engaged with art for more than 60 years, and his interests extended far beyond the five artists on view; for the ballet he commissioned works by Joseph Cornell and Isamu Noguchi. The Whitney’s selective hindsight leaves one wanting a more complete picture.

Whitney Museum of American Art, through Aug 26