In April of 1920, a strange little exhibition in two third-floor rented rooms on East 47th Street in Manhattan inaugurated the tenure of America’s first “Museum of Modern Art.” It was created by a loosey-goosey but presciently multidisciplinary collective named the Société Anonyme Inc. by Man Ray, who co-founded the group with Marcel Duchamp and his great supporter — and artist in her own right — Katherine Dreier. The group was dedicated to educating the American public about the profound and sweeping changes being brought about by modern art. Although the infamous Armory Show of 1913 and Alfred Stieglitz’s seminal 291 Gallery had given the public a taste for the avant-garde, the isms were mutating so fast and furious, and the misunderstanding of Modernism was so widespread, that it seemed necessary to establish a sort of clearing-house for the international community of experimental artists. Their first show, accordingly, included a wide sampling of approaches, ranging from the rough, colorful pictorialism of Expressionism to the chance compositions and diagrammatic machine paintings of the Dadaists.

The first gallery in “The Société Anonyme: Modernism for America” — the remarkable, treasure-laden historical survey organized by Yale University (where the society’s collection has resided since the ’40s) and currently on view at the UCLA Hammer Museum — re-creates this inaugural show in considerable detail. This isn’t just to provide a historically accurate introductory summation of the S.A.’s mission — though it does so admirably — but also to point up the fact that the original show marked the debut of Duchamp as installation artist. Even though the “white cube” of Modernist exhibition architecture was still in its nascent stages, the expatriate Frenchman — whose Cubo-Futurist painting Nude Descending a Staircase and inverted-urinal ready-made sculpture Fountain had scandalized the New York art world in the previous decade — devised a distinctly inaustere decorative scheme for the new flagship of the global aesthetic revolution, covering the walls with pale-blue oilcloth, painting the fireplace to match, laying in ribbed industrial-gray rubber flooring and, finally, re-framing the individual two-dimensional artworks with a frilly corona of paper-doily borders.

The result is a curiously domestic presentation of artworks that were as often as not portrayed as acts of terrorism against Western civilization, here resembling nothing so much as elaborate confections arrayed across a disoriented tabletop. I’m reminded of a passage by Duchamp scholar M. Gros-Tumore (from an essay originally published in my ’90s zine Less Art), who observes, “All painting, by dint of its rectangularity, refers to cake decoration — even when not directly addressing the issues involved. It’s as if when we walk into a gallery, we are walking into a fancy bakery, only sideways, like Spider-Man; on the wall. And, in being on the wall, we become simulacra for the hung paintings, and the painting/cakes in their glass display cases embrace the role of voyeur, laughing cruelly at our obvious confusion.” Such formal inversions are central to Duchamp’s oeuvre, often — as is the case here — embodying a pointed subversion of public and institutional preconceptions.

The Hammer’s reconstitution of this signal but barely remembered Duchampian intervention is only the first of many historical revelations concerning this country’s introduction to modern art contained in “The Société Anonyme: Modernism for America.” Over the course of its 30-year life span, the company mounted more than 80 exhibitions and scores of lectures, poetry readings, music recitals, film screenings and other programming in addition to an extensive publishing campaign, including catalogs, brochures, journals and official society reports. Most of this would have been largely forgotten but for the thousand artworks the S.A. managed to amass over the years — constituting nothing less than an artist-curated, nonhierarchical, spiritually tinged alternative to the history of Modern Art in America as understood through the megalomaniacal Rockefeller-sponsored filter of MoMA’s Alfred Barr. And the Anonymous version has many legitimate claims to primacy. Not only did it predate the foundation of MoMA by nearly a decade, its mandate of inclusiveness results in a much more plausibly organic picture of the rhizomatic spread of Modernism than Barr’s pseudo-genealogies of influence and orderly progress. Most of the artists promoted by the Société Anonyme were previously unknown to Americans, and many famous names had their solo debut at S.A.’s gallery before it closed late in 1927.

Several capsule versions of these solo debuts are reprised in the Hammer show. There’s an unusually strong selection of Kandinsky’s work, making a strong argument for the artist as curator — the inventor of abstraction was one of the least-subtle colorists of his era, and it takes an accomplished eye to sort out a group of keepers. Klee and Leger also had their first one-man American exhibitions at S.A., as did the under-appreciated American Joseph Stella, two of whose major works of shimmering geometry — 1916’s Spring or The Procession and 1920’s Brooklyn Bridge — are included here. Not all the featured players are from the canon, though. The very first S.A. solo show was devoted to the work of one Louis Michel Eilshemius, an eccentric figurative painter and self-proclaimed “Mightiest Mind and Wonder of the Worlds, Supreme Parnassian and Grand Transcendent Eagle of Art,” whose murky intimate landscapes and self-published rants excited Duchamp’s admiration. Eilshemius gained some popularity from the endorsement, but thought he was being made fun of, and stopped painting soon after, dying in poverty in 1941. If it weren’t for the Société Anonyme, who would remember this idiosyncratic outsider?

So it goes for the rest of the 240-odd selections in the exhibition — from the works included in the enormous “International Exhibition of Modern Art” at the Brooklyn Museum in 1926 to the considerable number of acquisitions added to the collection after its bequeathal to Yale. For every strong, surprising work by a famous artist — Picabia’s amazing macaroni, snakeskin and ostrich feather 1926 landscape Midi (Promenade des anglais), Kurt Schwitter’s colorful wooden Merz assemblages Oval Construction (1925) and Relief With Red Segment (1927), Brancusi’s magnificent Yellow Bird (1919), Duchamp’s still-challenging final painting, T um’ (1918 — and designed to fit exactly over Dreier’s home-library bookshelf) — there are two or three stellar pieces by artists you’ve never heard of. Although the majority of the artists are American, French, Russian or German, participants from as far off as Iceland and Uruguay are included, as well as a relatively generous complement of women.

Indeed, sexism undoubtedly played a considerable role in the disremembering of the Société Anonyme’s legacy up until now. Most mainstream accounts of Dreier have depicted her as an overbearing avant-garde dowager groupie — with no mention of her art practice and usually nothing about her tireless organizational activities; she was just some wealthy dilettante who happened to have owned Duchamp’s masterpiece The Large Glass for a period of time. In fact, Dreier came from a family of dedicated progressives; she devoted considerable effort to the Women’s Trade Union work of her sisters Margaret and Mary before deciding to pursue her own vision of social transformation through the spiritual impact (Theosophist, in her case) of modern art. While “The Société Anonyme: Modernism for America” provides considerable restoration to Dreier’s role in this country’s early avant-garde community, and particularly her relationship with Duchamp, it’s more than a little telling that this rehabilitation should occur under the auspices of the very kind of well-endowed institution the S.A. was designed to supplant. But that just adds further poignancy and irony to an already rich and almost forgotten chapter in art history. As a history lesson, as a spectacular collection of mostly unheralded treasures of modern art, and as a model of possible collective action for today’s communities of artists, the exhibit is beyond reproach.

THE SOCIÉTÉ ANONYME: MODERNISM FOR AMERICA | UCLA Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood | Through August 20

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