Review: ‘Transmissions’ Evokes a Climate (Poetic, With a Chance of Ballet)

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.


A Carl Van Vechten photograph from the series projected on the wall in “Transmissions.”

Vincent Tullo for The New York Times

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.

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