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Through a Curator's Eyes: Lincoln Kirstein's Modern at MoMA

April 15, 2019 - by Alison Durkee
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Lincoln Kirstein may be best associated with the New York City Ballet, but this spring, he’s being recognized by another iconic New York institution: MoMA. Kirstein, a writer, curator, editor, impresario, tastemaker, and patron who persuaded choreographer George Balanchine to come to the U.S., is the focus of a new exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, which explores the cultural figure’s essential relationship with the museum and its collections.

Lincoln Kirstein MoMA

Lincoln Kirstein’s Modern, which opened last month and will be on view through June 15 (when MoMA closes up for a few months of renovations), celebrates Kirstein’s wide-ranging association with MoMA through 300 works from its collection, many of which Kirstein acquired for the museum himself. Art lovers will find much to appreciate here: Kirstein served as the museum’s consultant on Latin American Art and many of his acquisitions are on display, and the exhibition includes work Kirstein championed for past exhibitions on American muralists and magic realist artists. A particular highlight is Pavel Tchelitchew’s striking painting Hide-and-Seek, which is showcased alongside rarely-exhibited studies for the work. The exhibition also showcases examples of photography that Kirstein collected for the museum, including photographs of Victorian houses by Walker Evans that made up MoMA’s first-ever monographic presentation of photography.

Of course, Kirstein is perhaps best remembered today for his relationship to the ballet. One full room of the exhibition is dedicated to dance, exploring Kirstein’s role as the founder of not only dance companies, but also MoMA’s own short-lived Dance Archives and Dance and Theatre Design department. The exhibition pulls out works from that archive, including art by legendary ballet star Vaslav Nijinsky, a “jewel casket” made for ballerina Marie Taglioni, and issues of Dance Index, the country’s first scholarly dance journal, which Kirstein also founded.

Fans of the New York City Ballet and School of American Ballet curiously won’t find much on those iconic organizations here, despite Kirstein’s prominent role in their founding. The exhibition instead puts its focus on the company’s predecessors, as Kirstein – and sometimes Balanchine – explored the idea of an “American ballet” before NYCB’s 1948 inception through the companies American Ballet, Ballet Caravan, American Ballet Caravan, and Ballet Society. The companies’ ballets are highlighted here through captivating set and costume designs, many of which were created by such top artists as Tchelitchew and Paul Cadmus, Kirstein’s brother-in-law. The works take on such quintessentially “American” subjects as Billy the Kid and the Ford Motor Company, as Ballet Caravan was commissioned to create a ballet championing the company for the 1940 World’s Fair. Thankfully, dance writer Ann Barzel captured many of these 30s and 40s-era ballets on video; a reel of excerpts on display of the exhibition is essential viewing for ballet fans, despite the videos’ rough quality.

Though there isn’t much on the company itself, New York City Ballet patrons will enjoy an early look at the Balanchine classic The Four Temperaments, which is highlighted here in its earlier iterations. Costume sketches by Tchelitchew for the 1941 ballet The Cave of Sleep—set to the same Paul Hindemith score—are displayed, as well as video footage of Ballet Society rehearsing The Four Temperaments in 1946.

Kirstein’s life is only lightly explored in the exhibition; the first room features a wall of portraits of Kirstein’s social and professional circle, and there’s brief mention given to Kirstein’s place in queer society and alignment with the political Left. The exhibition also touches on Kirstein’s personal relationship with the photography collective PaJaMa and their trips to Cape Cod and Fire Island, as well as pursuits from Kirstein’s student days like the literary quarterly Hound & Horn, which Kirstein founded at age 20. Those expecting a more comprehensive look at Kirstein’s life and career will be disappointed here, though—the exhibition largely puts its square focus on the cultural figure’s relationship with MoMA and its collections, rather than take a more expansive look at Kirstein’s contributions outside the institution’s walls.

Those hoping to learn more about Kirstein, though, can do so through a wide-ranging slate of events in conjunction with the exhibition. A film series taking place April 11-24 will spotlight Kirstein’s contributions to film culture, featuring screenings of such films as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Public Enemy, and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Upcoming gallery sessions will dive deeper into the exhibition’s themes, including PaJaMa (April 10), stories from the archives (April 5), and Kirstein’s role as an institution builder (May 1). On May 7, Public Theater artistic director Oskar Eustis will read selections from Kirstein’s diaries, which will offer further insight into Kirstein’s thoughts and cultural contributions.

Lincoln Kirstein’s Modern is currently on view at MoMA through June 15. For more information, visit

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