Katherine Dreier was a painter, art critic, exhibition organizer, and devoted collector and patron of contemporary art, whose greatest contribution to the history of art was the “experimental museum” for modern art, the Société Anonyme, which she founded as its president in 1920.
Dreier grew up in a family of wealthy German immigrants in the politically and culturally liberal social milieu in Brooklyn Heights, and from an early age, was active in the women’s suffrage movement. She studied at the Brooklyn Art School and traveled Europe in the early 1900s, visiting the collections of Leo and Gertrude Stein, and developing a passion for the art of Van Gogh. By 1913 she had returned to New York and exhibited representational paintings at the groundbreaking Armory Show. Deploying her passion for modern art toward helping other artists, in 1916 she founded the Society of Independent Artists in order to establish a democratically open exhibition for artists, the motto of which was “no juries, no awards.” In 1917, that principle was tested by Marcel Duchamp, who famously submitted a signed, industrially produced urinal to the exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists as a work of art titled Fountain. Although Dreier was among those who voted against exhibiting the urinal, she began a close friendship with Duchamp that developed into a lifelong business partnership. She became one of his most important collectors and patrons.
In 1920, Dreier, along with Duchamp and Man Ray, founded the Société Anonyme, an organization driven by her conviction that there should be a museum of modern art in the United States, dedicated to collecting and preserving the works of living artists. As the president of the society, Dreier organized upwards of eighty exhibitions until 1940, also holding lectures and publishing important books and documents on the subject of modern art. In 1921 Dreier organized and spoke at an evening of lectures in New York seeking to answer the question, “Do you want to know what a Dada is?” In this way, Dreier’s vision for the Société Anonyme and its collection was educational—to introduce Americans to the most advanced art in the world—and historical—to preserve a collection of global modern art in America for the benefit of future generations. Dreier assembled one of the greatest American collections of modern art, including important works by artists such as Georges Braque, Juan Gris, Wassily Kandinsky, Fernand Léger, El Lissitzky, Piet Mondrian, Joan Miró, Francis Picabia, Picasso, and Joseph Stella. Before her death, Dreier bequeathed her collection and the archives of the Société Anonyme to the Yale University Art Gallery, ensuring the survival of her legacy and of the history of modern art in America.
For more information, see
Franklin, Paul B. Marcel Duchamp, Katherine S. Dreier, and La Société Anonyme: Special issue of Étant donné
, N. 9 (2009).
Gere, Charlotte, and Marina Vaizey. Great Women Collectors. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 1999.
Gross, Jennifer R. The Société Anonyme: Modernism for America. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006.
Herbert, Robert L., Eleanor S. Apter, and Elise K. Kenney. The Société Anonyme and the Dreier Bequest at Yale University: A Catalogue Raisonné. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984.
Photographs, correspondence, and ephemera from Dreier’s personal archive as well as that of the Société Anonyme are held at Beineke Library, Yale University, New Haven, Conn.; for more information, click here.