Seeing Red at MoMA

How a furor over Communist content almost put an end to Lincoln Kirstein’s first show at the new Museum of Modern Art in 1932.

Hugo Gellert’s Us Fellas Gotta Stick Together, or The Last Defenses of Capitalism, features J. P. Morgan, second from left at top. When Nelson Rockefeller asked for Morgan’s opinion on the murals, he responded, “Of course hang them!”

Hugo Gellert’s Us Fellas Gotta Stick Together, or The Last Defenses of Capitalism, features J. P. Morgan, second from left at top. When Nelson Rockefeller asked for Morgan’s opinion on the murals, he responded, “Of course hang them!”


Lincoln Kirstein, born 100 years ago this month, was one of the leading figures in the 20th-century cultural life of New York City. He cofounded the New York City Ballet and the School of American Ballet with George Balanchine and helped establish the Museum of Modern Art with its legendary first director, Alfred Barr Jr. As a member of the influential advisory board known as the Junior Committee, which also included Philip Johnson, Nelson Rockefeller, Eddie Warburg, Elizabeth “Betty” Bliss, and James Johnson Sweeney, Kirstein lobbied the board of trustees to include more American art in MoMA’s exhibitions. He befriended and cultivated numerous artists, among them Walker Evans, Elie Nadelman, and Pavel Tchelitchew. These three artists’ work is on view through August 26 in the exhibition “Lincoln Kirstein: ‘To See Deeply’” at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Kirstein encouraged wealthy friends to buy his protégés’ work, and even commissioned portraits of himself from several artists to help support them.

In 1932 the Modern was experiencing growing pains. It was expanding its collection, raising funds, and had just moved into its new home at 11 West 53rd Street. New York was also growing: several blocks south on Fifth Avenue, the new Rockefeller Center was under construction, creating sites for major public artworks. Kirstein wanted those commissions to go to American artists. So for his first show at the Modern, he conceived of an exhibition of murals that would showcase native talent. In this excerpt from a new biography, The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein (Knopf), Martin Duberman recounts how Kirstein’s ill-starred show almost ended before it began.

When MoMA’s trustees early in 1932 did finally give the go-ahead for such a show, Nelson Rockefeller saw to it that Lincoln was put in charge. He was delighted; tired of coping with MoMA’s difficult personalities, Lincoln leapt at the chance to produce an actual exhibit and write its catalog. He titled the show “The Post War World” and invited various easel painters—a good half of whom were barely known, and only three of whom had ever previously attempted to cover a large space—to participate. The show was not designed as a competition, but Lincoln did ask each artist to prepare sketches for his or her suggested mural and some fragment of a realized design. Some of the best known among the invitees, including Charles Burchfield, Thomas Hart Benton, Boardman Robinson, and John Sloan, expressed interest in the idea but declined to participate because of the limited space and time allotments.

Lincoln individually pursued some of the artists he was most eager to have in the show, especially those he wasn’t already acquainted with personally. Of those, Georgia O’Keeffe proved the most antagonistic; “she was nasty,” Lincoln wrote in his diary, “about all the other Americans I told her were in the show, except Stuart Davis.” He thought her “a spoiled prima donna,” yet he somehow managed to persuade her, against the wishes of Alfred Stieglitz, her exceedingly difficult husband, to participate.

Lincoln’s own favorites, when the murals began to arrive, were those done by Franklin Watkins, Hugo Gellert, William Gropper, Ben Shahn, and Philip Reisman, though he found elements to admire in the work of a number of others, including Jane Berlandina, Louis Bouché, Philip Evergood, Stefan Hirsch, and Henry Varnum Poor. But when MoMA’s trustees were given an advance look at the show, most of them found little to praise and several of them, including Conger Goodyear, Samuel Lewisohn, and Stephen Clark (the Singer sewing machine magnate), expressed outrage at the “Communistic” political content of the Shahn, Gellert, and Gropper murals in particular. Shahn’s The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti showed the stuffed-shirt Lowell committee and Judge Webster Thayer, those responsible for sealing the fate of the two Italian American anarchists, staring into their coffins. (Exactly a year later Shahn would serve as Diego Rivera’s assistant in a mural scandal at Rockefeller Center that replayed, with remarkable similarity, the earlier events at MoMA.)

An alarmed Alfred Barr told Lincoln that the Shahn, Gellert, and Gropper murals, at the very least, could not be included in the show, and then called a meeting with Lincoln, Nelson Rockefeller, and several of the affronted trustees. That gathering so angered Lincoln that he hinted at canceling the show and then paced silently up and down the room. Nelson, according to Lincoln, “as usual relied on his boyish charms” to calm matters down for the moment. That evening at dinner, Archie MacLeish reprimanded Lincoln for his behavior. He had no right, Archie told him, to be “vindictive”; he could resign if he chose, but he could not take the show with him.

Thus admonished, Lincoln went the following morning to see Abby Aldrich Rockefeller. He tried to persuade her to use her influence to see that the embargoed murals were allowed to stay in the show, insisting that “it would be far better for the Museum.” He later wrote in his diary that “Mrs. Rockefeller’s attitude was liberal.” She told him that “she had always considered herself a revolutionary… but she saw no reason why people had to indulge in bad taste, particularly Ben Shahn… because she had helped him originally.” Lincoln responded (or so he wrote in his diary) “that she couldn’t hope to control or take the responsibility for Ben Shahn’s future & that he painted with no intent to annoy—so she had no legitimate reason to be disappointed in him.” Mrs. Rockefeller, in turn, told Lincoln that it would be “cowardly to resign & that Nelson was so impetuous that he would resign too.” And that, she went on, would be “a great shame,” as it would hurt his usefulness, inasmuch as (at 23) he’d been made a trustee of the Metropolitan and might be able to influence that museum’s willingness, limited until then, to buy American pictures.

Lincoln left Mrs. Rockefeller’s house certain that he had “convinced her,” even though he thought her “so remote from actuality as to make a plan on my part difficult.” But it quickly became clear that plan or no, Conger Goodyear and Stephen Clark would remain “adamant” about rejecting the offending murals. Given their implacable position, Lincoln went to see Ben Shahn to tell him that his mural would not be hung (“it was a nasty thing to have to tell him”). Shahn said that the whole controversy had worn him out, that he’d completed the mural while ill (and with an ice pack on his head), that though he’d done the mural “merely as a social record,” the refusal to show it might “yet make him ‘class conscious.’”

The day after giving Shahn the bad news, Lincoln had to do a repeat performance with William Gr
opper, whose mural had depicted J. P. Morgan riding on a bear “with a floosie around his neck.” Lincoln was more upset than Gropper, who told Lincoln he’d “quietly expected it.” Lincoln viewed Gropper as an uncommonly “sweet” man, “very calm and naive,” who was “more interested in painting than in Communism”—though Gropper would have denied it.

As for Lincoln, he was in anguish, finding it hard to keep straight whether he was, or should be, acting on behalf of MoMA’s trustees, the mural show itself, or the painters. His anguish intensified when Shahn told him that a committee was being formed by some of the other painters aimed at withdrawing their work as a gesture of solidarity with the three artists—Gropper, Shahn, and Hugo Gellert—whose work had been excluded. When Lincoln passed that news on to Barr, he tersely remarked, “Now we are being threatened.”

At Shahn’s suggestion Lincoln went next to see the civil-liberties lawyer Philip Wittenberg, who told him he’d try to get a temporary injunction against MoMA, forcing it either to hang the excluded work or to cancel the entire show. Wittenberg admonished Lincoln for being “entirely confused” about his loyalties, and Lincoln freely admitted that he was—though he added that Shahn “was satisfied I had acted in good faith.”

After leaving Wittenberg, Lincoln went to confer with Gropper and Gellert at a nearby Child’s cafeteria. They told him that Reginald Marsh had decided to head the artists’ committee of protest, that Boardman Robinson and Diego Rivera were backing him, and that the intention was to achieve “a universal secession” from the show. Lincoln told the two men straight out that his loyalties were “very mixed” but that he felt he should refuse to let them have the total list of participating artists (which hadn’t as yet been published), feeling as he did that “most of the artists would feel called on to ruin their own chances and yet they had no idea of the political implications when they accepted the Museum’s invitation to show.” Lincoln thought both men were “better-tempered and more genuine, but no easier to work with or talk to, than the capitalists up at the Museum.”

Alan Blackburn, MoMA’s assistant treasurer, took the attitude of “threatened sabotage”; and Barr, according to Lincoln, told him that if the artists intended to “mix themselves up with an imposed political ideology, they will lose all the values of a Bohemian laissez-faire which up to the present they have desired.” Nelson, in turn, asked Thomas Debevoise, the Rockefeller family’s imperious counsel (“lip-curling” is how Lincoln described him), to go up to MoMA himself and have a look at the murals in question. After completing his inspection, Debevoise asked Lincoln point-blank whether, if called upon, he would be willing to affirm publicly that the Shahn, Gellert, and Gropper panels were “offensive.” Debevoise “tightened” when Lincoln promptly replied no.

Yet another lengthy conference followed with Stephen Clark and Lewisohn, after which Nelson was dispatched to get J. P. Morgan’s opinion. “Of course hang them!” Morgan told him, and Ivy Lee, the Rockefellers’ publicist, agreed. Lincoln immediately informed Gropper and Gellert, who were jubilant; the next step, they told Lincoln, was for him to resign from the museum. He refused but let the artists think that the victory had been entirely due to their unyielding defiance; in the privacy of his diary, Lincoln confessed—seemingly overconfessed—that he viewed his own actions as having been “as unscrupulous as possible” toward both sides in the name of getting the show on “as it was intended.”

The “victory,” it soon became apparent, was not yet secured. No sooner had J. P. Morgan sanctioned the show than Conger Goodyear returned from vacation, declared his “furious” opposition to “the Communists,” and threatened to resign as MoMA’s president if the decision wasn’t reversed. The whole day of April 27, 1932, was spent in what Lincoln called “cross machinations.” Lincoln himself manned the barricades, dispatching runners in all directions. He sent Betty Bliss to persuade her father, Cornelius Bliss, guardian of Lizzie Bliss’s collection (which MoMA desperately wanted to secure), to intercede with Goodyear. He got from Gropper an actual count of how many artists were really prepared to secede (probably twenty-five, Gropper reported). He called Wittenberg “to make sure of an attempt to get an injunction to stop the show” should the three artists be excluded. He advised Nelson to try to make Goodyear resign; Nelson “was mad enough,” Lincoln wrote in his diary, “to do anything.” And finally, he tried, with limited success, to ascertain just how many trustees stood behind Goodyear.

People were in and out of conferences for the better part of the next two days. When, at one of the meetings, Goodyear angrily banged his fist on the table while insisting that MoMA’s policy “must protect from offense,” Debevoise, representing the wishes of Nelson and his mother, calmly stood firm, insisting that all the murals must be hung. Goodyear finally backed down, but as a rearguard action, did his best to delay the show’s catalog long enough to keep out reproductions of the Gropper and Gellert panels—though Lincoln somehow succeeded in “forcing” in Shahn’s Sacco and Vanzetti.

Lincoln drew a sigh of relief—but then nearly choked on it. The show’s thirty-odd paintings barely got hung (and not very well) in time for the next day’s press opening, and the day after that, as the notices began to appear, it became clear that the show was in for a severe drubbing. Lincoln himself acknowledged that only a few of the panels were of any real distinction, but he also felt that those few, along with the experimental nature of the effort, fully redeemed the enterprise.

The critics disagreed. Every single reviewer lambasted the show. The New York Times critic haughtily wrote that the show contained “violations of even the most catholic conceptions of good taste”; he further claimed that his objections to “the class struggle orgies” was due not to their theme but to “the childish or generally uninspired way in which they are handled.” Royal Cortissoz, the prominent and highly conservative Tribune critic, announced that “in sheer, dismal ineptitude the exhibition touches bottom.” And so it went, with the Evening American suggesting that MoMA “could not do better than to close at once the American Mural exhibition.”

Instead, MoMA—which had just moved to expanded quarters in a Rockefeller-owned town house on West 53rd Street—parked the exhibit on the fourth floor, making it difficult for visitors to find; overall attendance, not surprisingly, would be only half that of MoMA’s other exhibits in 1932. Lincoln himself was singled out for special blame, and Nelson exonerated, though he’d backed Lincoln to the hilt and was the actual chair of the Junior Committee, which had initiated the show.

Lincoln played out the disaster with bravado and humor. As he wrote Agnes Mongan, then the Fogg Museum curator, “The mural show was a shattering failure & ruined my, er, reputation with all those to whom reputation counts…. But I was delighted at the universal irritation & the general feeling of betrayal everyone seemed to feel that I provided, I who was so charming & bright, etc. No longer. Now I’m only an, er, Jewish Bolshevik with shocking bad manners.”

Though several trustees resigned in the wake of the show, Lincoln’s fiercest antagonist was the headstrong Mary Hoyt Wiborg, an amateur playwright and the daughter of wealthy financier Frank Wiborg (another daughter, Sara, married Gerald Murphy of Lost Generation fame). Lincoln already knew “Hoytie” and thought her “the world’s nastiest woman”; she was, among m
uch else, openly anti-Semitic. Outraged at the mural show, she immediately resigned from MoMA’s membership committee, saying that “the Communist propaganda on the walls” would corrupt schoolchildren entering the museum. And she denounced Lincoln, to his face, as “a parlor Bolshevik.”

Excerpted from The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein by Martin Duberman. Copyright © 2007 by Martin Duberman. Just published by Alfred A. Knopf. Martin Duberman is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History at the City University of New York and the author of In White America; Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community; Paul Robeson: A Biography; and Left Out: The Politics of Exclusion: Essays, 1964–2004.

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