The Museum of Modern Art has exhumed its diverse archive of Lincoln Kirstein-iana in a new exhibition, Lincoln Kirstein’s Modern. We see his love for ballet, for art, for theater, for film, for photography, and for left-liberal causes.
I was in a class of 8 year olds at the school of American Ballet and it was Kirstein’s words in the brochure which had convinced my mother that a ballet career could, in the proper hands—e.g. Balanchine and his Russian Mesdames—be the equal of law or medicine.
He wrote he had his first coup de foudre for dance in the person of Tilly Losch who performed in Errante in a green satin evening dress with a twelve-foot train. A well-to-do, only semi-closeted Bostonian who became obsessed with ballet, Kirstein finally went to Europe as a young man, gathered his nerve, and asked Balanchine to open a school in America while at his fancy London hotel, far away from his family, surrounded instead by white-robed English beauties with plumes in their hair getting ready to be presented at Court.
But MoMA is eager to show the man in full. Besides being an impresario, he was also a polymath, a renaissance man, a multi-disciplinary scholar, and a fierce advocate for the creations and artists he cared about. He seized upon MoMA not long after its opening as the perfect repository for his many enthusiasms. This is both the exhibition’s unifying theme and its challenge. Kirstein was not as gifted a talent spotter in every medium as he was a ballet agent. Even there, it was the collaboration with Balanchine which made his work in that discipline so important. His passions did not always allow for the best judgment, in fact then-Director Alfred Barr was sometimes at pains to rein him in. Kirstein pushed MoMA in directions they may not at first glance have anticipated including a Dance and Theater department, not long-lived—which now, however, seems prescient as performance has entered the curatorial mandate at MoMA and at many museums..
He made many subsequent donations including a large collection of George Platt Lynes beefcake. As the very interesting catalog and the many costumes and designs showing off buff male torsos makes plain,homosexual connections were the genesis of some of Kirstein’s most important collaborations. (As a young summer intern in the Publications Department at MoMA, I did not know for example that former department head Monroe Wheeler had once lived in a threesome with Lynes and writer Glenway Wescott. Kirstein himself had lived in a threesome with his wife Fidelma and dancer Jose Martinez. Etc.)
The discursive and lively exhibition, curated by Jodi Hauptman and Samantha Friedman, can feel a bit kitchen-sinky by the last gallery. But it accurately reflects a febrile mind from which sprang much curiosity ,encouragement and leadership—backed up by dollars. Would that the patrons of today had the foresight and stick-to-itive-ness of this brilliant man.