Before New York's venerable Museum of Modern Art, there was the Société Anonyme, America's first modern art museum. Its members were primarily European artists who were brash, oh-so modern, and revolutionary.
Founded by American artist Katherine Dreier and Marcel Duchamp, the French artist whom Dreier considered a kindred spirit, the society assembled its eclectic mix of famous and obscure art for the single-minded purpose of introducing modernism - the progressive movement that rebelled against the 19th-century historic traditions - to an early 20th-century art scene deemed conservative and overly commercial by the determined duo.
For the first time since the group's collection was donated to the Yale University Art Gallery in 1941, a show detailing the history of the Société Anonyme will travel the US, beginning in Los Angeles. "The Société Anonyme: Modernism for America" is a generous sampling of some 250 works drawn from the 1,000 or so paintings, sculptures, drawings, and other items such as letters and posters that make up the collection.
Société Anonyme (whose French title translates to "private company") held its first show in 1920. The goal of this inaugural exhibition was to assemble a representative sampling of well-known and lesser-known works for the sake of educating a benighted public, as well as preserve the power and scope of modernist thought for posterity.
Dreier and her group - which included photographer Man Ray - felt they were seeing the world through new eyes. After all, it was Duchamp who challenged the art world to regard a lowly ceramic urinal (not on display here) as a work of modern sculpture.
The show, currently at the UCLA Hammer Museum, celebrates master artists such as Duchamp, Paul Klee, Constantin Brancusi, Wassily Kandinsky, and Joseph Stella, many of whom gave their best works to the collection. But the society had a broader purpose, says curator Jennifer Gross.
"Hopefully this show will bring to light the history of a number of artists you've never seen or heard of before," says Ms. Gross as she walks through the Hammer installation, a display that includes Heinrich Campendonk's cubist-inspired portraits of a red cat and a pastoral scene. "The group leaders realized that this was their chance to tell the history of art as artists wanted it to be told."
Many of the members and fellow travelers who contributed to the group were deeply affected by the politics of Europe between the two World Wars and wanted to ensure that their work and their vision survived the chaos. "They also knew that by virtue of the fact that museums only have so much square footage, that often the real breadth of a generation's work cannot be represented," says Gross.
When Duchamp designed his inaugural production in 1920, he wanted to signal to viewers of the time that they were not in the standard "Academy salon," with its staid Beaux-Arts traditions. The curators have tried to re-create the look and feel of that exhibition, even going so far as to mimic the rubber-ribbed flooring that Duchamp used to give a sense of 20th-century industry as well as the absurdist logic of the Dada movement. He also painted out all the wood elements of the room and slipped white paper doilies around every work of art.
The show also documents what the founders felt was an equally important aspect of their mission - preservation and education. For their 1926 exhibition, they made a point of publishing extensive biographies of each artist in the show catalog. "They understood that the printed word keeps the artist alive, even when the artist's work go into storage," says Gross.
Many of Europe's biggest names in modernism, such as Klee, Kandinsky, and Leger, had their first American exposure under the aegis of the Société Anonyme. "America was a time of promise and industrial revolution," says Gross. "The country represented the future of humankind because of its innovation and industry," she says, adding that Leger wanted to have a show in America, "because he wanted his work to be shown in a context of energy and forward thinking such as the spirit in which it was created."
Over the next three years, "Société Anonyme" will travel to Washington, Dallas, Nashville, and New Haven, Conn.
• For more details go to www.hammer.ucla.edu/exhibitions/100.