The most pressing reason to see “Transmissions,” Nick Mauss’s exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, is its generous array of sculpture, photographs and dance designs, almost all from a place and time — New York, between 1930 and ’60 — when the city was becoming the center of modernism in the arts. But the juxtapositions show that “Transmissions” is a work of creative imagination as much as revelation. You go to sample it as history; you absorb it as poetry.
“Transmissions” is an installation, a collage of several art forms, a revisionist investigation of New York modernism and sexual expression, and an essay in queer theory. One of its binding threads is ballet (excitingly linked to the visual arts in a number of prestigious commissions). At its center are live dances, which hint at further links among art forms, history and the present. Mr. Mauss is an investigator of lost time: There are real discoveries here. He also proves, with the cooperation of his dancers, something of a choreographer. And he’s a presence in the way he arrays groups of items by artists. He evokes a climate.
Much of the history of modernism arises from the friction between the Old World and the New. European politics in the years 1930-60 brought fresh waves of immigrant artists to New York City. Diaghilev, who had made ballet a pre-eminent vehicle for the changing stages of modernism from 1909-29, was dead. In the three decades that followed, ballet became established on American soil, with American and European artists collaborating. There are superb sculptures and photographs in “Transmissions” that have no direct link to ballet. The exhibition suggests connections, opens windows, allows for possibilities.
Mr. Mauss has a historical mind: He has had previous exhibitions based on work by two artists known for ballet design, Christian Bérard and Leon Bakst. His title, “Transmissions,” has multiple implications. It refers, in part, to migration. The exhibition includes the European-born sculptors Gaston Lachaise and Elie Nadelman, the painter-designers Pavel Tchelitchew and Eugene Berman, and the choreographer George Balanchine, all of whom worked in the United States. Many wanted to continue the Diaghilev tradition: none more so than Lincoln Kirstein, the titanic young American patron of several arts, who commissioned works from all the above.
Kirstein’s taste, often controversial — he was strongly opposed to both Manet and Matisse — is a common factor in much of this show. He championed Tchelitchew as well as Nadelman; he had caught the final seasons of the Diaghilev company in Europe and, four years later, brought Balanchine (Diaghilev’s last choreographer) to America. High among the realist artists he praised was his brother-in-law, the painter Paul Cadmus. Paintings by Cadmus and by PaJaMa (a collective name for Cadmus, Cadmus’s lover Jared French and French’s wife, Margaret French) hang on the “Transmissions” walls. One of the people shown is the dancer José Martinez, Kirstein’s lover.
Although Kirstein made ballet the central part of his vast operation, Nadelman and the photographer Walker Evans (also represented here) were two of the many artists he admired who had no connection to ballet. “Transmissions,” like Kirstein, does not stay in one box. Other photographers here, often depicting dance as Evans did not, are Carl Van Vechten and George Platt Lynes.
The display of Lynes (1907-55) pictures is where the exhibition most evidently connects ballet to overtly gay art. (The images shown here come from the Kinsey Institute in Indiana, which houses his originals.) Lynes made many intensely poetic studio images of dancers and choreography. They impressed Balanchine in particular with their sense of light, darkness and drama. No less poetically, he was also a pioneer of homosexual photography. His work certainly anticipated that of Robert Mapplethorpe; its imagery and contrasts are often more touching.
If you want to see how gay photography can be admirable art and memorable pornography at the same time, start here. One photo shows a nude man whose anus is the focal point; another, not shocking but striking, is a full frontal nude view of the dancer Nicholas Magallanes. Two 1934 Lynes pictures show three male dancers from the all-black cast of the Virgil Thomson-Gertrude Stein opera “Four Saints in Three Acts” recumbent on the floor, calmly nude, intimately juxtaposed. In one picture, they’re grouped with their choreographer, Frederick Ashton, kneeling, elegantly attired in suit and tie.
Van Vechten, a complex figure who touched several arts and aspects of society, had been intelligently passionate about ballet since before World War I. His photographs, most dating from the 1940s and ’50s, are full of information — but some tip matters decidedly over into the tastelessly tasteful, ego-flaunting, offbeat area known as camp. Although he took pictures in color, they’ve been almost invariably published in his inferior black-and-white reproductions. In “Transmissions,” however, a series of some 800 of his originals are projected on a large screen.
In several cases, the color makes them far more peculiar. Alicia Markova and Anton Dolin — British ballet stars central to this era of dance in America — are shown in a wide range of roles. Seen in close-up, they often look precious, combining lurid hues and aesthetic flamboyance. Dolin is also seen in a number of nude poses, far from full frontal, but startlingly self-dramatizing. This man was famous as one of ballet’s princes? You’d never guess from the poses he strikes when naked here. Van Vechten’s photos are fascinating but quaint: They often accentuate ballet’s glamorous triviality rather than its more profound capacity for drama.
The most curious part of “Transmissions” is its element of live dance. Newly made dances amid a history show? Yes indeed. They’re performed — coolly, with quiet theatricality, and without camp — in an area with artworks on four sides: on a flat stage and, opposite it, a mini-balcony piece of scenery. Mr. Mauss has worked with 16 dancers (four groups of four) to choreograph dances that subtly connect to several of the themes that were being developed in the art of the era on display.
In one of the two quartets I saw, dancers, wearing allover tights, emphatically leaned over to present their backsides to the audience in sustained poses. Does this seem unremarkable now? It didn’t until the mid-1980s. Yet here it feels linked to the Lynes erotic photographs. The dances are a series of brief études, low-key in dynamics, elegant, not claiming great artistic importance yet perfect in context. Same-sex partnering, mixed-race casting and multiple dance idioms are all shown here: a quietly objective, latter-day melting pot.
Being a collage, the exhibition is historically incomplete. Where are the ballet boxes of Joseph Cornell that converted balletomania into exquisite visual art? Why exclude the Lynes photographs of Balanchine’s “Orpheus” in which the two lead men are photographed nude? Those would multiply the connections already set up by Mr. Mauss here. Such omissions, however, do not detract from the intricacy and loving detail of “Transmissions.”
And here too are several fascinating original designs for Balanchine ballets. Today, the choreography blooms by having far less intrusive designs and costumes. And yet our idea of Balanchine grows more complex when we see the look his works once had. Eugene Berman’s set model for the original production of Balanchine’s “Concerto Barocco” (1941) is radiantly architectural (Piranesian) and reflective, with marvelously subtle colors.
You can also see here the Surrealist costumes with which two 1946 Balanchine classics started life: the medievalist Kurt Seligmann’s lopsided costume for Phlegmatic in “The Four Temperaments” (the dancer Todd Bolender looks like the Scarecrow in “The Wizard of Oz”), and Dorothea Tanning’s animal-headed early-Victorian guests for “Night Shadow” (now known as “La Sonnambula”).
The wide selection of Nadelman items alone — perhaps the peak of Kirstein’s often erratic taste in the visual arts — is worth the visit to this gathering: modernism meets primitivism meets classicism. True, much of Nadelman’s work predates Mr. Mauss’s 1930-60 era. But his exquisite “Dancing Figure” (around 1916-18), memorably placed here to revolve on a plinth by a window overlooking the Hudson River, is the exhibition’s most exquisite depiction of movement.
Through May 14 at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Manhattan; 212-570-3600, whitney.org.