The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein
By Martin Duberman
(Alfred A. Knopf, 723 pp., $37.50)
Who was Lincoln Kirstein? He will always be remembered for bringingGeorge Balanchine to America and nurturing the glorious exploitthat was the New York City Ballet. But he was also a creativespirit in his own right, the author of audaciously imaginativebooks about sculpture and dance, as well as of several enduringexperiments in the art of autobiography. Kirstein, who died in 1996at the age of eighty-eight, was an activist and an artist, equallydrawn to the life of engagement and the life of reflection.
What united his variegated activities--he wrote poetry in additionto prose and founded several magazines--was a determination todefine the timeless forces that fueled the rapid-fire artisticdiscoveries of the modern century. On more than one occasion,Kirstein's fascination with tradition led to accusations that hewas a conservative, even a reactionary. And the truth was thatKirstein sometimes welcomed and even provoked such attacks. Hedelighted in what he surely saw as the vulgarity of his detractors,who could not believe that his avidity for the past wasinextricably related to his faith in the future--who did notunderstand that modernity was in fact tradition's double.
This life was almost incredible in its richness. Kirstein grew up ina wealthy Jewish family in Boston and went to Harvard, where in hisearly twenties he founded and co-edited a now legendary avant-gardemagazine called Hound and Horn and organized the Harvard Societyfor Contemporary Art, which is widely viewed as a precursor to theMuseum of Modern Art. His energy and drive, which sometimes seemedalmost superhuman, were eventually complicated by periods of acutemental distress, some of which climaxed in hospitalizations. Andhis personal life had other intricacies, combining as it did a deepand enduring marriage to Fidelma Cadmus, the sister of the painterPaul Cadmus, with many love affairs with young men, some of whombecame part of the Kirstein household. In the half-century that hemade New York his home, Kirstein cut a figure in bohemian circles,befriended countless artists and writers, and built close ties withsome of the city's power brokers. There were life-changing trips toEurope in the 1920s and 1930s, which shaped his understanding ofballet; and he became a great admirer of Japanese culture duringvisits to Japan in the late 1950s, eventually helping to arrangetours of the Gagaku dance troupe and the Kabuki theater in theUnited States.
No wonder one of Kirstein's oldest friends, the curator A. HyattMayor, once wrote, "I might attempt a biography of Proteus, butLincoln Kirstein? Whatever he animates, he is basically a poet inthe Greek sense of a maker and shaper. He not only writes hispoems, he makes them happen." Mayor meant that Kirstein's work onbehalf of the New York City Ballet was itself a creative act, aleap of the poetic imagination; and I find myself coming back tothis remark in the light of Martin Duberman's huge new biography.Duberman is a very able author. He has produced a book that isfluid, lucid, and intelligent. He evaluates the tangled strands ofKirstein's private life with sensitivity and generosity. And yet areader arrives at the end of this very long book scarcely knowingwho Lincoln Kirstein was.
In part the problem is that the activist overwhelms the artist;there are many pages about the political maneuverings at the Schoolof American Ballet and City Center, but there is almost nothingabout Kirstein's complex ideas or extraordinary literary style. Whythis should be is not entirely clear. When it was first announcedthat Duberman was to write Kirstein's biography, some in the dancecommunity worried that he was not equipped to bring to life theglories of the New York City Ballet. And perhaps that has turned outto be true. But Duberman is hardly a stranger to the arts. He haswritten for the theater with some distinction, and his book BlackMountain: An Exploration in Community is not only a classic studyof the legendary college in North Carolina, but also a penetratingexamination of the place of avant-garde art in Americanexperience.
For a biography really to work, the author has to be at ease withhis subject, but no matter how hard he tries, Duberman cannot seemto accept Kirstein's crankily mandarin love affair with the art ofthe twentieth century. While Duberman does not have a politicallycorrect bone in his body, he is in some respects what used to becalled a man of the left. And this, I suspect, makes it difficultfor him to grasp the almost anarchic nature of Kirstein'sfree-spiritedness, which was by turns ornery, comedic, andoutrageous.
Like nearly every intellectual of his time, Kirstein felt the pullof communism in the 1930s, but unlike certain other Americans whoin later years became avatars of tradition in the arts, he remainedsomething of a liberal in politics--sometimes quite liberal. He wasproud of having been named after Abraham Lincoln. He participatedin the freedom march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. And, alongwith Balanchine, he supported the career of the young dancer ArthurMitchell in the 1950s, when it would have been easier to accept thebigotry of those who were uncomfortable with a black man in aballet company. While Duberman responds wholeheartedly to theseclear cases of Kirstein's liberal-spiritedness, he cannot see howthis liberal-spiritedness is related to something far stranger inKirstein's makeup, namely his sure grasp of liberalism's darkesttruth, which is that no matter how we may search for the patternsin art and life, there are finally no dependable patterns. And thatleft Kirstein with only the justice of art to believe in, which canbe treacherous, paradoxical, even violent.
For Kirstein, ballet may have come closer than any other art tocrystallizing a new relationship between creativity and society, tosuggesting the place of traditional patterns in the modern world.Writing Mosaic, the memoir that he published late in life, Kirsteinrecalled the days in 1933 when he persuaded Balanchine to come toAmerica, and observed that "the marvelous thing about existence wasthat it seemed to prove the validity of an historical processdespite the opposition of the ordinary." This is a sentence worthconsidering. "Existence," which I take to refer to the experience ofart, released Kirstein from the ordinary pleasures of his life,which in 1933 meant his friends in London, and led him into theglorious perspectives of history and tradition. Most of the dancecompanies that Kirstein was seeing in the early 1930s were remnantsof Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, that band of creative individualswho, after being forced out of the old czarist settings by war andrevolution, found themselves re-imagining the dance traditions amidthe chaotic democracies of western Europe. No other art form--notliterature, not painting-- had been so definitively sundered fromits academic history, and so entirely set free in the modern world.And when the youthful Kirstein looked at the slightly olderBalanchine, who had been Diaghilev's last choreographer, he hadsome inkling, some premonition, that here was the man who couldplant this wonderful hybrid of tradition and innovation on Americansoil.
In 1933, the photographer George Platt Lynes, a friend of Kirstein'swho is best known for his studies of ballet dancers, made a formalportrait of the fledgling impresario and his father. Louis Kirsteinis seated in the foreground, his large head and somber expressiondominating the rather severe image, even as his appealinglyyouthful son mirrors the middle-aged man's concentrated gaze.Looking at the echoing expressions on the faces in this photograph,which Kirstein included among the illustrations in Mosaic, I findmyself thinking that while the father was an immensely successfuland public-spirited businessman and the son was an arbiter in thearts and an artist in his own right, they did in many ways regardthe world similarly, and share some fundamental vantage point.
Kirstein's mother, Rose, came from Rochester, New York, where herfamily had been very successful in the retail clothing industry.And although her parents were skeptical about her marriage to LouisKirstein, who at the time was a salesman for an optical outfit, heturned out to have something of a genius for business, becoming inthe early decades of the new century a partner in Filene's, theBoston-based department store. The Kirsteins, though in no sensereligious Jews, embraced their Judaism as a significant distinction.And for Louis, as he shifted his focus from business to civicaffairs, it was essential to forge powerful connections withprominent Jewish figures, among them Louis Brandeis and FelixFrankfurter.
On a trip to Bayreuth when Lincoln was a boy, the family was refusedrooms in the fashionable Schwarze Adler and sent to stay in aJewish home. Decades later, in the wake of the death camps,Kirstein would recall this experience in a poem, where there wassurely some ruefulness mixed in with his old hope that theuniversality of art, even the art of an artist who was ananti-Semite, could trump the ugliness of human behavior. This was afamily that embraced the cultural sphere. Louis served on the boardof the Boston Public Library. And his politics were progressive.Even during the Depression he maintained a worker-friendlyenvironment at Filene's, receiving good marks from labor. He was agreat admirer of Roosevelt, and was an important consultant to theNational Recovery Act. Lincoln was the middle of three children, allof whom had distinguished careers. His sister, Mina Curtiss,published a fine memoir, a famous collection of Proust's letters,and an important study of Georges Bizet, whose Symphony in Cprovided the music for one of Balanchine's enduring creations. Andhis brother, George, was for a time the publisher of The Nation.
Lincoln Kirstein's youthful accomplishments can leave a readerbreathless. He was twenty, an undergraduate at Harvard, when hestarted Hound and Horn with Varian Fry (who would later be theliterary editor of this magazine, and then instrumental in helpingartists and writers escape from Nazi-occupied France). Hound andHorn, which lasted until 1934, was an extraordinary magazine,counting among its contributors Kay Boyle, Stephen Spender, E.E.Cummings, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore,and Edmund Wilson, and carrying early photographs by Walker Evansand influential reports on developments in dance, architecture, andfilm. Reading Kirstein's correspondence from those years, collectedin The Hound and Horn Letters, you have to be amazed at the aplombwith which this man in his early twenties corresponded with Poundand Eliot and many others. The energy and assurance are not easy toaccount for. But if it is impossible to explain away Kirstein'sself-possession by pointing out that his father's money wasessentially paying for Hound and Horn, it is also enormously movingto see Kirstein's parents, this wealthy and civic-minded but inmany respects conventional Jewish couple, giving their fierce andconsistent support to a son whose path was bohemian, erratic, andsometimes inexplicable.
What comes through in Duberman's biography is a tale of twogenerations--how the old-style philanthropic populism of the earlytwentieth century was transformed into the avant-garde populismthat would have its greatest expression in George Balanchine'scompany, a company that did indeed have a populist name, the NewYork City Ballet. The Kirsteins were not rich enoughsingle-handedly to bankroll a ballet school or a ballet company, andpart of what Lincoln inherited from his father was an ease inmoving in the monied world, where he could find the necessaryfunds. When Kirstein persuaded Balanchine to come to America in1933, the financial backing came from Edward Warburg, who supportedthe School of American Ballet for many years. Until mid- century,when Kirstein came into his inheritance, he was generally short offunds, and he spent a great deal of time going to others for money.(Nelson Rockefeller was often good for a substantial check.)Through it all, his parents remained a source of nearly endlessfinancial support. Even at the end of the 1940s, when Balanchinewas associated with City Center and the New York City Ballet wasbecoming a reality, there were still calamitous financial crises.In 1948 the ballet ran a deficit of $47,000 (more than $300,000 intoday's dollars), and it was Kirstein's mother who "picked up thetab," as Duberman explains, "overriding the advice of trustmanagers and lawyers alike." There is something extraordinary inthis story of an elderly Jewish lady, the daughter of a Rochesterclothing merchant, who out of a deep faith in her artistic son wentagainst the counsel of her financial advisers and wrote the hugecheck that helped to insure the future of an art.
Kirstein's career is a rare, perhaps unique case of old-fashionedpublic- spiritedness carried to the level of artistic genius. Hisaccomplishments boggle the mind. He was an active collaborator inWalker Evans's early explorations of the nineteenth-centuryarchitecture of New England. He founded Dance Index, a beautifulsmall magazine that explored ballet history and employed, amongothers, Joseph Cornell, who designed many of the journal's unusualcovers and created several special issues, based on his owncollection of dance memorabilia. Kirstein spearheaded a host ofmural projects that were exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in1932, and in the 1940s Alfred Barr sent him to South America toscout developments in contemporary art for the museum. He wasinvolved in the founding of the Shakespeare Festival in Stratford,Connecticut. And all the while he was writing books. Oh yes, andworking to give Balanchine a secure home in America, a labor thatculminated in the opening of the New York State Theater at LincolnCenter in 1964. Nobody has done more to give the loftiest artisticachievements their rightful place in a democratic society.
Lincoln Kirstein is sometimes portrayed, and sometimes liked toportray himself, as a believer above all else in rigid standards inart and in life. In an early book, Blast at Ballet, in 1937, hedefined ballet as an "exact science. " His writings are full ofallusions to the military discipline of the dancer's life, with itsdaily classes that are like the soldier's daily drill. And he had alifelong love of uniforms, later recalling about the premiere ofUnion Jack, Balanchine's salute to British folk tunes and militarymanners, that his father had dressed him at the age of five "in anaval rating's uniform," and proudly explaining that the costumesfor the first movement of Union Jack were "provided by a Canadianfirm which specialized in tailoring traditional military kilts andsporrans."
Kirstein's life can in certain respects be characterized asunpredictable, self-indulgent, and even undisciplined. And somereaders of Duberman's biography may be a bit bemused by Kirstein'sfascination with exactitude and discipline, and tempted to dismissthis as contrariety, even as a form of camp. Psychologically,Kirstein probably had the manic-depressive's hunger for somenorm--something steady, dependable, absolute. But there was ametaphysical dimension to his attitude as well, for he surelybelieved that discipline and exactitude offered the possibility ofself-invention, an absolute order that the individual could embracethrough a process of self-transformation. While not anybody canwear any uniform, there are many uniforms--the uniform of an armyofficer, or a dancer's practice clothes--that many people can earnthe right to wear if they work hard enough. Even a person'sphysique and physical capacities can be transformed, at least up toa point, as Balanchine demonstrated when he produced, within ageneration, a group of American ballet dancers as formidable as anythe world had ever seen. For Kirstein, self- invention without astrong dose of discipline and idealism was nothing more than aprescription for anarchy, a form of self-aggrandizement thatcondemned a person to go around in circles instead of forward.
In the world that Kirstein knew in the 1930s and 1940s, nearlyeverybody could be said to have invented themselves. His father wasa self-invented millionaire. Balanchine was trying to figure outhow to make a career in the West. Muriel Draper, whom Kirsteincounted as a mentor in the 1930s, had been married to Paul Draper,a much-admired singer before he succumbed to alcohol and drugs.Muriel "returned to New York during World War I penniless butundaunted," Kirstein recalled in Mosaic. "She maintained a raggedsalon in a bleak loft over a garage on East 40th Street, where onThursdays she kept up an ironic parody of her London and Florentinegrandeur, which was a delight of the town and where one could meetanyone who, at the time, figured in the High Bohemia of Manhattan."Although Kirstein's parents regarded Draper as "a menace, " as shewas nearly twenty years his senior and they were perhaps notunaware that he was sleeping with her, "I owed her much of whateversolid intellectual or moral development I may have made."
Kirstein described Muriel as the "judge and oracle of most of myactivity." She taught him, so he recalled, "to make snap judgmentstested by inner checks and self-doubts." This same lesson, a lessonin psychological decisiveness, was what Kirstein said that helearned from Gurdjieff, the savant whose strange school atFontainebleau he visited. Gurdjieff seems to have looked uponKirstein as one of the wealthy young people who might provide fundsfor what amounted to a sort of self-invented religious cult, onethat Kirstein admired but with large reserves of skepticism.
Often Kirstein's money, together with people's exaggerated ideasabout how much of it he actually had, left him painfully aware ofthe sheer desperation of the artistic life. His collaboration inthe early 1930s with Romola Nijinsky on the biography of herhusband, who by that time was locked up in an asylum inSwitzerland, could become a pitched battle, with Romola alwaysdetermined to squeeze more money out of Lincoln. In the early yearshe never had enough money to do what he hoped, and he wasconstantly wondering what people wanted of him-- and what he wasprepared or able to give. Yet he was too much the artisthimself--and had too much of a Jew's stirring egalitarianism--toever really see the world in terms of an "us" and a "them," whetherthe separation had to do with race or class or even sexuality.
Duberman describes an excursion with the film-maker SergeiEisenstein, who shared Kirstein's interest in men: "a tour of NewYork City's queer 'lowlife,' of which Lincoln had considerableknowledge. They went first to the notorious Sand Street YMCA inBrooklyn and asked a sailor if any new places had opened. Hepointed them around the corner, where they walked through a darkpassageway and emerged 'into a dive full of sailors and tarts.'"Such tours of the erotic outskirts of the city were an aspect ofthe high life of Art Deco Manhattan. In this case, however, thetopsy-turvy glamour of high meeting low is complicated byKirstein's sense of being always, at least metaphorically, anoutsider, so that the escapade ends up sounding more like somethingout of Paul Goodman than Cole Porter.
Only a man who responded to all kinds of people on a deep andimmediate level, who understood the stirrings of optimism and thefear of failure that everybody shares, could have written Rhymes ofa PFC, one of Kirstein's most impressive and least appreciatedbooks. Published in 1964, Rhymes of a PFC is not so much acollection of poems as it is an epic comprised of many tinychapters--a soldier's experience of World War II filtered through acacophony of voices. The tone is dense and blunt, saturated withthe jangling rhymes that we know from popular songs. Serving inEurope in 1944, Kirstein never saw combat, but he was close to it,and at the end he did valuable work, recovering works of art hiddenin mines by the Nazis. It is difficult to capture the quality ofthis book through brief quotations. There is Major McGeek, "Tall,dark, handsome, we believed he shat by the book--/A model ofarmy-manual deportment and a common crook." And there is JosephJones Jr., "brisk as a diet of wheat-germ and ball-game could makehim ... dead and gone your merit heats us still, like liquor, astraight shot." One soldier describes the grinding hell of a lifelived out-of-doors:
Worse thing was cold. Cold, cold;
all the time, cold.
I mind the cold most. Weeks we never
Bastone. We have two K-rations a day.
That's all. No warmth.
Cold. Jeez-us. Particularly your fuckin
Yet the beauties of Europe are here too, as in a French farm that"is France entire, in peacetime as in war;/Its order and itsamplitude, now as ever before. " And then there is Kirstein,stationed near Manchester, reading that Gielgud and Ashcroft aredoing Hamlet and sneaking off the base to see this production that"assumes a superfetation of truth."
Ophelia (Peggy Ashcroft) was
sideswiped by a flying bomb
Only two days before.
She goes daft with a bandaged wrist;
her performance gains pow'r
That's what Theater's for.
Gielgud beggars description; if its
begetter could only have seen
His Hamlet to the life.
Our hearts are cleft in twain.
Rhymes of a PFC is a modern American epic, with ambitions that mustbe understood in relation to works such as The Bridge (Kirstein hadknown Hart Crane slightly), Paterson, and the Maximus Poems; thetangle of voices recalls Dos Passos's U.S.A. as well. What Kirsteinhas created is a collage of voices and emotions, with the authorfunctioning as a very personal narrator. When Rhymes of a PFC wasfirst published, Auden noted the influence of Browning, Hardy, andKipling, and described the book as presenting a new anti-heroicchapter in the history of war poetry. "As a picture of the latewar," he wrote, "Rhymes of a PFC is by far the most convincing,moving, and impressive book I have come across." And indeed to openthis book is to find something strange and powerful and unique--anintellectual's avid embrace of the American panorama as it revealeditself in the muddy camps where "it's no cinch to live together/ina field three acres square." This was the book in which Kirsteinmost fully revealed his deep, avid humanity.
For all that Kirstein liked to speak about the ideal order ofclassical ballet, the ballet as he knew it and as he lived it was aseat-of-the-pants operation. Watching the extraordinary documentaryBallets Russes, released a few years ago and directed by Dan Gellerand Dayna Goldfine, you get some sense of what Kirstein was copingwith. In the 1930s and 1940s, the finest dance was a product ofEuropean exiles and kids from the American heartland who werethrown together in conditions of almost constant uncertainty. Therewere never enough rehearsals or enough money, tours were mad dashesfrom city to city (often a city a day), and yet out of thisinsanity there emerged, as you can see in some of the brief vintagefootage included in this fine movie, the clean attack, the speed,the prismatic power that would come to be associated with the NewYork City Ballet.
Even the School of American Ballet was for many years not the stableinstitution it would eventually become. Established in 1934--a fewmonths after Hans Hofmann founded his own school in New York, whichwould be as influential in the world of painting as Balanchine's inthe world of dance--the School of American Ballet had more than itsshare of financial cliffhangers and clashing personalities. AndBalanchine, although devoted to the school, was often the biggestquestion mark of all. His health was extremely shaky during hisearly years in the United States, throwing his future completelyinto doubt. And until the New York City Ballet was established atthe end of the 1940s, his attention was drawn in manydirections--to Broadway, to Hollywood, to other ballet companies.Duberman gives an excellent sense of Kirstein's almost instinctivegenius in organizational matters. As good as he was at plungingahead at the right moment (raising money, organizing people, gettingan operation going), he also knew when to back off (lying low,turning his attention elsewhere, simply allowing things to unfold).This hyperactive impresario could also be cunningly patient.
It has sometimes been said, and with varying degrees of irony, thatBalanchine and Kirstein had nothing much to do with each other, thatKirstein did not really like Balanchine's abstract ballets, andthat the ballet company of Kirstein's dreams would have focused onfull evening productions of The Sleeping Beauty or some such thing.Kirstein certainly had a taste for traditional costumes andspectacles--as, indeed, Balanchine did as well; witness TheNutcracker, Don Quixote, Harlequinade, and Vienna Waltzes. Butnobody who has read Kirstein on Agon can imagine that he was notentirely attuned to Balanchine's magic. Nobody but Kirstein, havingpointed out that "Agon presents more concentrated structural dancematerial in twenty minutes than most nineteenth-century full-lengthballets," could have gone on to give that observation ametaphysical dimension, observing that "time, as we clock it, is afiction or device of our measuring. Before and After are looseconcepts in relation to an Order which permanently is." If therewere spectacles that Kirstein regretted that he would never see onBalanchine's stage, he also understood that responding to what wastruly authentic in your own time meant accepting the historicalinevitability of certain forms. You did not choose the percussiveangularity of Agon. It chose you.
In the finest dance writing of Kirstein's maturity--the big book onthe New York City Ballet, published in 1973, and Nijinsky Dancing,published two years later--we encounter an art form that isanything but an exact science. The City Ballet book, written in adiaristic manner that Duberman explains is partly a literaryinvention, celebrates the spontaneity that is essential to anyperforming arts organization. Here is how Kirstein introduces Agon,in an entry dated April 1957:
Balanchine preoccupied with roses; more satisfactory thanchoreography or cooking. Blossoms are perfection, blooming withoutexcuse or complaint; they smell good, die quickly; hundreds of old,plenty of new kinds. Later he called me, having received pianoscore for Stravinsky's Agon; the music was more "appetizing" thanroses or kitchens.
I have always liked this vignette of the choreographer putteringaround in his garden until the score arrives, with its easyevocation of the everydayness out of which artistic miracles canarise. It is a perfect illustration of Kirstein's belief thatexistence, the intense experience of art, can push us past theordinary, into "the validity of an historical process." AndKirstein, in spite of his fascination with tradition, had a modernman's belief not only in historical process but also in historicalprogress. In writing about the Stravinsky Festival in 1972, hereferred to Balanchine's Violin Concerto and Symphony in ThreeMovements as "startling innovations--as far ahead of Agon as Agonhad been of Orpheus or Apollon." Note that "ahead," a word that onlyan avant-gardist could love.
Considering that Kirstein had devoted many of the central energiesof his life to a dance revolutionary, it was not surprising thathis last large book about dance was dedicated to another one,Nijinsky. At the outset of Nijinsky Dancing, Kirstein reiteratessome of his earliest convictions, arguing that "ballet is order. Itis a classic or rational form, depending on group assent and groupresponsibility, yet managed through autocratic control." He is alsoquick to admit how rarely that ideal is achieved, and he is under noillusion as to the debased character of the Russian dance world inNijinsky's youth. The Russian ballet at the beginning of thetwentieth century was "ostentatious, retardative, and repetitive,"Kirstein writes, and the imperial school where Nijinsky was trainedwas "a decadent imperial forcing-bed that he repudiated only justbefore it repudiated him." Far from being the representative of anacademic tradition, Nijinsky was a renegade, re-inventing dance inThe Afternoon of a Faun, Jeux, and The Rite of Spring. "Beauty,"Kirstein observes, "always exists to be raped and revived in someother vitality by marvelous spirits who arrive armored or disguisedas beasts. Such animals, seemingly blind, deaf, or dumb, proposenew dimensions." Nijinsky was "a quiet if ferocious opponent of thehabitual, although his fiercest energy depended on habits ofclassroom barre and daily rehearsal. He was the subtlest ofsubversives, for he took a formulated regimen of ancient and frozencomplexity and, divesting it of mechanical response, uncoveredalternatives in energetic simplicity and novel thrust."
Temperamentally Balanchine was nothing like Nijinsky, but he alsorejected a frozen complexity in favor of a new kind of energy andthrust. He was often accused of regarding his dancers as dumbanimals--impersonal, emotionless. He was said to have rejected thestar system. "Don't think, dear," he instructed his dancers, "do."Yet Balanchine could say this because he knew that his dancers werefull of ideas, because they were indeed among the mostsophisticated performing artists who had ever lived. People who sawthe company in the 1940s and 1950s and 1960s knew generations ofdancers I never saw, but to see Kent, Farrell, McBride, Verdy, andVillella in the 1970s was to witness the triumph of individualismas the re-invention of the self within tradition. When Balanchinerejected an old-fashioned, sepia-toned notion of stardom, it was inorder to re-imagine stardom as something that emerged from thehurly- burly of the brilliantly illuminated streets of New York,those streets where Kirstein had been starting out in the 1930s. Atthe New York City Ballet, an ideal order was reframed amidAmerica's democratic vistas, and it is difficult to imagineanything that could have made Kirstein happier.
All theater tends to blur the line between artistic experience andsocial experience, and the greatest theatrical experiences cancreate the illusion that art and society are one. For half acentury--from the first performances of Serenade in 1935 to theretirement of Suzanne Farrell from the New York City Ballet in1989, six years after Balanchine's death--the New York City Balletreflected New York's speed and variety, its toughness and itsintensity. When people speak of Shakespeare's London, they aresuggesting that a great theatrical artist can define an age, and inyears to come I am sure that many are going to describeBalanchine's New York in precisely the same way.
Martin Duberman does not really demonstrate that Kirstein'sabsorption with ballet was related to his interest in any number ofother arts. Although he discusses Kirstein's pioneering work on thenineteenth-century American sculptor William Rimmer, whose fiercelymuscular figurative style has an enduring interest, he fails tounderscore the consistency in Kirstein's preoccupation withsculpture, ranging from the studies of Rimmer and AugustusSaint-Gaudens, among the subtlest of late nineteenth-centuryAmerican artists, to Gaston Lachaise and Elie Nadelman in thetwentieth century. And he does not stress enough how this interestin representational sculpture is linked with Kirstein's obsessionwith the body in motion, a connection that is quite evident in thecase of Nadelman, who drew and sculpted many dancing figures.
I have the impression that Duberman regards Kirstein as a bit of acrackpot when it comes to the visual arts, and there are those whowill agree. Some of the contemporary painting that Kirstein prizedwas conservative in the worst sense of the word. He thought muchtoo much of his brother-in-law Paul Cadmus's work, as well as thatof Cadmus's friends Jared French and George Tooker. His enthusiasmfor the Wyeths, father and son, was fairly ridiculous. And althoughthe book about his old friend Pavel Tchelitchev that Kirsteinpublished in 1994 offers a moving portrait of the bohemian side ofRussian emigre life, it isn't really supportable as an aestheticargument. I can see why Kirstein was interested in Tchelitchev'slater compositions, with their evocations of the human form as asort of mystical universe of glowing bones and musculature, butsuch ideas are far more compellingly expressed in the work of otherartists-- Andre Masson, Stanley William Hayter, Picasso. Still,once you have taken stock of everything that is downright eccentricin Kirstein's view of the visual arts, there is a lot left toadmire, beginning with his essays on Walker Evans andCartier-Bresson, pioneering studies written in the 1930s and 1940s,which have remained a standard for photographic criticism down toour day. And in his writings on Saint-Gaudens, Kirstein did anextraordinary job of rescuing an artist of rare refinement from thedross of America's Gilded Age.
Then there were Kirstein's labors on behalf of Nadelman. He is oneof the commanding figures in twentieth-century art, a sculptorright up there with Brancusi, Arp, Giacometti, and David Smith--andyet his achievement was almost totally forgotten when Kirstein wentto visit Nadelman's widow shortly after the artist's death in 1946.Duberman quotes some reserved, even dismissive remarks aboutNadelman by Meyer Schapiro and Alfred Barr, made at the time thatKirstein was involved with the organization of the memorial show atthe Museum of Modern Art in 1948. He does not seem entirely surethat Nadelman was not another of Kirstein's crackpot enthusiasms.This is disheartening to hear from Kirstein's biographer, for towrite about Kirstein without believing in Nadelman is nearly asstrange as writing about Kirstein without believing in Balanchine.
Duberman does not have much to say about the great book thatKirstein published on Nadelman in 1973, a book that represents hisliterary style at its ripest and most convincing. This prose is byturns lyrical, grandiose, slangy, and obscure. It is very much amodernist style, a style in which the baroque gesture becomes anindividualistic assertion. Kirstein harks back to the boldromanticism of Melville and Carlyle while absorbing the densities ofHenry Adams and late Henry James and the mingling of the quotidianand the mythological in Yeats, Joyce, and Pound.
Nadelman was a Polish Jew who had great success in Paris early inthe twentieth century with marble heads that harked back tonineteenth-century Neoclassicism even as they paralleled thesimplifications and distortions of Picasso and Matisse. He was anartist whom Kirstein could not help but like-- for his urbanity,his absorption in traditional forms, his fascination with thecontemporary scene, even his frequently melancholy disposition.Nadelman was living in New York after World War I and made a namefor himself with a series of commissioned portrait busts that lenta classical chic to some of Manhattan's most prominent women. Atthe same time, his interests were turning to the eloquent forms ofAmerican folk art, from which he derived a cycle of wood carvingsof society figures, singers, and musicians that combined formalpurity and caricatural playfulness with a sureness unlike anythingsince Seurat. He had married a wealthy woman, and before she losther money in the Depression they had built a great collection ofAmerican folk art. By the 1930s, Nadelman had ceased to show hissculpture and was becoming increasingly reclusive, even as his workmoved into a new creative phase, with figures in plaster and terracotta and papier-mache that by turns suggested a little girl'sadorable porcelain dolls, the late Hellenistic elegance of Tanagrafigurines, and the blunt erotic force of prehistoric fertilitygoddesses.
Kirstein had been writing for half a century when he published hisbook on Nadelman, and his writing here has a high-flyingepigrammatic force that at times suggests pages snatched from aNietzschean notebook: "His aesthetic derived from Hellas; hismetaphysic from Byzantium." Kirstein's sentences are written to besavored, to be examined from various angles, almost as if thesentence were a piece of sculpture. "As a poverty-strickenprovincial aspirant, " he writes, "Nadelman had nourished himselfon ambition. His images of insouciant godlings in arrogant health,independent of human need, sprang from the secret protest in a poordandy's erudition." This observation on the sleek perfection ofNadelman's early sculptures is beautiful in its unearthing of theirpsychological urgency. Speaking of Nadelman's later work, theTanagra- like figurines that miniaturized the massive scale ofclassic art, he offers this delicious mouthful: "Superhumanconstructs of chryselephantine splendor and divine proportionshrink to rococo baked-earth homunculi." The hyperbolic abstractionof Kirstein's prose can sometimes suggest the late-nightconversations of great friends, when the thinking has gotten solofty and so baroque that you can't tell if you are getting to thebottom of things or just getting lost. "Was Nadelman only aself-conscious artist," Kirstein asks, "or a soul attempting toprobe consciousness in a self?"
Like Nadelman, Kirstein was a secular Jew--which suggests both amask and an unmasking, although neither may have ever been quitesure if his Jewishness was the mask or something hidden behind themask. When Kirstein writes of Nadelman that "his early mask meltedinto a matured expression," I cannot help but think of all theportraits that Kirstein commissioned of himself, especially theearly heads by Lachaise and Noguchi, which do indeed have thequality of masks. In these portraits Kirstein's face is aself-conscious mask, and as a man of the theater Kirstein knew thatthere was no end to what a mask might reveal about theconsciousness in a self. Writing about Nijinsky, he confronted anartist who was most truly himself when he was masked, who was saidto be practically invisible in civilian life but acquired astartling reality on stage, in productions engineered by his lover,Diaghilev. Balanchine, too, had lessons to teach about theheightened reality of the theatrical mask, for in his theaterordinary Americans--Diana Adams, Edward Villella, Suzanne Farrell--became emblematic figures.
Both Diaghilev and Balanchine turned the dancers with whom they wereerotically involved or merely fascinated into theatrical forces, andthereby suggested that the illusions of the stage were more realthan life itself. For those who live near the stage, or feel as ifthey are only truly alive when they are on the stage, the wholequestion of sexuality and sexual attraction can take on an addeddimension, since in the theater eroticism is always at once maskedand unmasked. And there may be something of this theatrical play ofmasks and unmaskings in Kirstein's complex bisexuality, in hismythologization of certain lovers, in his fascination withparticular physical types.
For Kirstein, populism and elitism were also a pair of masks, asinextricably linked as the old masks of comedy and tragedy. WhenKirstein wrote his book about Nadelman, he was anything but apopulist; he was writing for the smallest imaginable audience,interested only in those readers who were capable of grasping thenuances of his most idiosyncratic prose. Yet there was alwaysanother side to Kirstein, the side that wanted art's mostcomplicated truths to be available to as many people as couldpossibly absorb them, and who labored long and hard to make surethat Balanchine's difficult and beautiful art found an ever-growingaudience in the 1950s and 1960s. In his fierce individualism andhis passionate sense of community, in his desire to both safeguardthe mysteries of art and make art available to a wideningpublic--in all of this Lincoln Kirstein was quintessentially theAmerican artistic spirit.
By Jed Perl