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 Katherine Sophie Dreier  (1877 - 1952)

About: Katherine Sophie Dreier


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Lived/Active: New York/Connecticut      Known for: modernist painting, art collecting

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BIOGRAPHY for Katherine Dreier
1877 (Brooklyn, New York)
1952 (Milford, Connecticut)

New York/Connecticut

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modernist painting, art collecting

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New York Armory Show of 1913
Women Artists
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Katherine Sophie Dreier was an artist, writer, and collector associated with the Dada movement in New York.  Early on, she manifested her dual interests in social issues and art.  Her own painting was abstract with a spiritual emphasis, and she became a member of the Abstraction-Creation group.  She had an extensive art collection of her own that she donated to Yale University in 1941.

She was born into a prominent Brooklyn family on 10 September 1877.  Her parents were Dorothea Adelheid and John Caspar Theodor Dreier, both immigrants from Bremen, Germany.  Katherine was the youngest of five children.  Dreier's father, Theodore, had amassed a modest fortune in an iron importing business.  Years later Katherine would thank him for "the vision he firmly held to, ahead of his time, of giving the same 'privilege to his daughters as he gave to his son." Among the privileges conferred by the Dreiers to their children was the opportunity for education and with it an unshakable sense of civic commitment.

She studied art privately, then at the Brooklyn Art School and at Pratt Institute, and then with Walter Shirlaw (with whom Dreier's sister, Dorothea, also studied).  There was a strong identification in the Dreier home with German culture, and the family often traveled to Europe to visit relatives.  Between 1907 and 1914, Dreier spent much of her time abroad, traveling, studying art, and exhibiting her work in one-artist shows.

In 1916, Dreier became a member of the Board of Trustees for the Society of Independent Artists and helped organize their massive 1917 exhibition at Grand Central Palace.  It was through this exhibition that she first made the acquaintance of Marcel Duchamp, who was involved in an internal argument with the group over their reaction to his readymade piece entitled Fountain.  Although Dreier was among those who initially opposed the inclusion of Fountain, she later came to appreciate Duchamp's intentions.  They struck up a friendship that would last until Dreier's death, and he introduced her to the circle of New York Dadaists, which found its home in the circle of Walter Arensberg.

In January 1920, Dreier, Duchamp, and Man Ray met in Dreier's apartment in New York City to found the Société Anonyme, Inc., a society to promote modern art among the American public.  Dreier had wanted to call the society "The Modern Ark," but Man Ray later claimed that he was the one to suggest the French phrase for "incorporated" instead.  Dreier added the subtitle "Museum of Modern Art: 1920." Duchamp had invited Man Ray to help them found the new group, although apart from some interesting photographs Ray's involvement was largely inconsequential. Still, Man Ray is credited with the name Société Anonyme, which Dreier responded warmly to, relating the name to her concern with "art, not personalities."  What Dreier did not initially realize was that "societe anonyme" is French for "incorporated," and that the name "Société Anonyme, Inc." is a typical Dada wordgame, translating into "Incorporated, Inc."

The Société Anonyme sponsored many lectures, concerts, publications, and exhibitions concerning modern art, including the International Exhibition of Modern Art at the Brooklyn Museum in 1926.  In spite of a major membership campaign in 1925, the Société's headquarters in New York City closed in 1928, and from this point on, the Société Anonyme existed only through Dreier's efforts.  She continued to organize events that were sponsored by the Société, and she accumulated artwork to add to the Société Anonyme's collection.

In 1939, Dreier began developing a plan to open the Country Museum at her house in West Redding, Connecticut (the Haven), which would house the Société Anonyme's collection of artwork, as well as her private collection.  After little success with other potential investors, Dreier approached Yale University about funding and maintaining her museum.  Yale representatives were hesitant, because of the high costs of renovating the necessary gallery space and of maintaining it as a fireproof museum.   Instead they offered as a compromise to take over the Société Anonyme's collection if it were moved to the Yale Art Gallery.  Dreier agreed, and she began sending the collection to Yale in October 1941.

In 1942, Dreier was still adamant about her desire to open the Country Museum and to use her private collection as its basis.   She continued her attempts to convince Yale to fund her project, but when Yale gave a final negative answer in April, Dreier decided to sell the Haven.  In April 1946, she moved to a new home, Laurel Manor, in Milford, Connecticut.  She continued to add artwork to the Société Anonyme collection at Yale, through purchases and through gifts from artists and friends.  In 1948, Dreier and Duchamp decided to limit the activities of the Société to working on a catalog of the collection and to acquiring artwork.

The watershed event in the Société's history came in 1926 with its International Exhibition of Modern Art held at the Brooklyn Museum.  The title was lifted from the 1913 Armory Show, in which Dreier was represented by two paintings, and in its scope it rivaled the 1917 Society of Independent Artists exhibition.  In addition to being a well-curated and highly attended exhibition of global modernism during a relatively quiet spell in America for such things, the Brooklyn exhibition also made deliberate attempts to affect people in a more lasting manner.  Dreier had four galleries in the exhibition made up to resemble rooms in a house to illustrate how modern art could and should readily integrate into an everyday domestic environment.  There was also a prototype of a "television room," designed in conjunction with Frederick Kiesler, which would make any house or museum a worldwide museum of art by illuminating different slides of masterpieces with the 'turn of a knob.  Concurrent with the exhibition the Société sponsored eighteen lectures, fourteen of which were delivered by Dreier herself.  Opened on November 18, the Brooklyn exhibition featured 308 works by 106 artists from 23 countries and attracted over 52,000 visitors in seven weeks.

Dreier, was a proselytizer for international modernism at a moment in American history when almost no one else was interested.  The exhibition, which was accompanied by a catalogue and a lecture series, was by many accounts a successful affair.  It was the first introduction in this country of Surrealism.  It also offered a much larger sampling of Soviet and German (and simply non-French) modernism than was the norm in America at the time or had been included in the Armory Show. The Armory Show had included out of the German school only one Kandinsky, one Kirchner, and two Lehmbruck sculptures, and out of the Russians only Archipenko was included. Dreier had maintained a strong appreciation for Russian modernism since 1922 when she visited the Erste Russiche Kunstausstellung in Berlin.

Dreier died on 29 March 1952 in Milford, Connecticut.

The Société Anonyme and the Dreier Bequest at Yale University: A Catalog Raisonne (Yale University Press, 1984) edited by Robert L. Herbert, Eleanor S. Apter, and Elise K. Kenney; and The Société Anonyme's Brooklyn Exhibition: Katherine Dreier and Modernism in America (UMI Research Press, 1982) by Ruth L. Bohan.

The International Dada Archive also has substantial holdings of works by and about Dreier

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