The Artists’ Eye: Georgia O’Keeffe And The Alfred Stieglitz Collection

Photo: Edward C. Robison III

The high-keyed palette, confident brushwork and charming subjects painted by Pierre-Auguste Renoir won him many admirers in America, including avant-garde artists. “Pinning the Hat,” 1898, is a standout in the Stieglitz Collection.

BENTONVILLE, ARK. — More than six decades ago, in one of the great philanthropic gestures in American art history, artist Georgia O’Keeffe donated 101 works of art, ranging from African masks to Modernist paintings, to Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn. Most of the paintings, sculptures and works on paper had been collected by O’Keeffe’s late husband, Alfred Stieglitz, the pioneering photographer, gallery owner and indefatigable champion of American Modernism.

Thanks to a partnership between Fisk and Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, those artworks will be exposed to large new audiences as they make their Crystal Bridges debut in the exhibition “The Artists’ Eye: Georgia O’Keeffe and the Alfred Stieglitz Collection,” on view through February 3.

The impressive Stieglitz trove reflects the fact that rather than being a traditional collector, he was an impresario, bent on promoting artists he believed were capable of developing a uniquely American version of Modernism. As a result, the exhibition features such Stieglitz favorites as Charles Demuth, Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley and John Marin, along with works by the European avant-garde who inspired them: Paul Cezanne, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

In addition, the exhibition includes nearly 20 Stieglitz photographs, some of them icons of American photography, and two fine O’Keeffe paintings. Thus, “The Artists’ Eye” celebrates not only the keen eyes of O’Keeffe and Stieglitz as promoters, patrons and collectors, but also as leading artists themselves who contributed to the triumph of American Modernism through camera and brush.

The manner in which this priceless collection came to Fisk, a small, respected historically black institution, is intriguing. When Stieglitz died in 1946, his personal collection included 850 works of art, thousands of photographs and 50,000 letters. Most significant were dozens of works by the European avant-garde and numerous works by American Modernists, including many that Stieglitz had accepted as gifts from artists in addition to buying hundreds of pieces.

While Stieglitz was alive, he and O’Keeffe discussed the disposal of his lifetime accumulation of art. He wanted it kept together as testimony to his vision and because he believed it should be displayed en masse to document the development of American Modernism. O’Keeffe was sure no institution would go along with that idea, and if they did accept all of the huge collection, it would store rather than show the works of art. By dividing them up, O’Keeffe argued, more people would see the evolution of America’s avant-garde.

Named in Stieglitz’s will as both inheritor and executor of his entire estate, O’Keeffe sought advice about its disposal from close friends, notably writer/photographer Carl Van Vechten, a fervent admirer of the Harlem Renaissance. The bulk of Stieglitz’s estate — 600 paintings, works on paper and photographs — went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with the remainder divided among the Art Institute of Chicago, National Gallery of Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Library of Congress.

At Van Vechten’s urging, 101 works, primarily by American Modernists, went to Fisk University, whose president and art professor, Aaron Douglas, was close to Van Vechten. O’Keeffe’s acceptance of the idea suggests how highly she regarded her old friend’s advice, particularly in view of her prejudices from growing up in the South.

The Stieglitz/O’Keeffe gift, which immediately became one of the best contemporary collections in the South, included strict covenants never to sell the collection — once valued at $70 million and much more valuable now — loan it or exhibit it in pieces. The idea was to locate important European and American Modernist works at a historically black institution, making it necessary for white art lovers to visit the Fisk campus and associate with African Americans in the process. That lofty ambition was never fully realized over the years; the collection was never fully utilized by the university.

O’Keeffe personally oversaw the installation of the collection in the Carl Van Vechten Gallery, and later supplied funds to have works restored. Fisk’s remarkable art holdings — totaling more than 4,000 objects — also include 400 Van Vechten photographic portraits, 25 portraits of Harlem figures by Winold Reiss, 30 works by former Fisk professor and Harlem Renaissance artist Douglas, 200 African and African American artworks from the Harmon Foundation and many other paintings and sculptures.

In recent years, as Fisk struggled with financial problems, proposals were advanced to ask state courts to overturn O’Keeffe’s restrictions on the collection, freeing Fisk to sell or otherwise handle the collection as it pleased. After a seven-year legal battle, reminiscent of that over relocation of the Barnes Collection in Philadelphia, in 2012 Fisk got the green light that enabled it to enter into a collection-sharing partnership with Crystal Bridges. Under terms of the sale agreement, for $30 million the Arkansas museum gained a half interest in the collection, with the agreement that it will be exhibited alternately at Fisk and Crystal Bridges two of every four years. This insures that every Fisk student will have an opportunity to study the artwork for an extended period during the student’s academic career.

The collection itself is one that any museum in the world would covet. In Bentonville it will get a fresh start, be exposed to new audiences and be more likely the subject of scholarly research and study.

Appropriately, the artist with the largest number of works on view is Stieglitz, one of the world’s greatest photographers, with 19 striking photographs. They include a penetrating self-portrait, the iconic “The Steerage,” views of horses, trains and high-rises in New York City, scenes around the Stieglitz family estate at Lake George, N.Y., and several of the photographer’s celebrated series of cloud pictures, called “Équivalents.” There is one photo of a fully clothed, stern-looking O’Keeffe.

Also in the collection is a highly evocative “Portrait of Alfred Stieglitz” by wealthy, pseudo-bohemian artist Florine Stettheimer, who adopted a fanciful, satirical, faux-naïve style in becoming a sort of court painter of the early American avant-garde. The likeness shows Stieglitz, in a black cape, striding around his gallery, surrounded by images and symbols of his favorite artists.

The two O’Keeffes are beautiful oils from either end of her career: a striking rendering of “Radiator Building — Night, New York,” and “Flying Backbone,” one of her many depictions of New Mexico’s sun-bleached animal bones.

Because Stieglitz had showcased African art in his galleries, and such art, particularly masks, were influential with early Modernists, masks from Gabon and the Ivory Coast and a standing figure from Nigeria are included in the trove.

At the heart of the collection are eight to 12 works each by artists who formed the Stieglitz Circle, vigorously promoted by the impresario and selected for Fisk by O’Keeffe. She was especially good friends with and admired Dove, Hartley and Marin. “All Hartleys,” she said, “are of interest when you first look at them,” but after a few days “I take them off the wall.” Dove, she continued, “I can leave on the wall day after day — month after month — Marin I can keep on the wall longer than Hartley — but not as long as Dove — Dove stays.”

Prominent are nine abstractions by Dove, with whom O’Keeffe formed a mutual artistic bond. Their discussions about colors and styles encouraged both of them to create vivid, dynamic canvases. A highlight is Dove’s “Swinging in the Park (There Were Colored People There),” a bright, enigmatic abstraction.

O’Keeffe shared an easy comradeship with Marin, and joined her fellow artists in admiring his strong, confident brushstrokes and suggestive splashes of watercolor on paper. The dozen Marins in the collection range from early etchings of the Woolworth Building to dynamic watercolors of Maine ships, sea and landscapes to panoramas of New Mexico. They reflect the unique sense of movement and energy — reminiscent of both Cubism and Chinese calligraphy — that Marin brought to both urban and sea scenes.

Hartley, who was first introduced to the European Modernism of Cezanne, Matisse and Picasso by Stieglitz, was often on the periphery of the Stieglitz Circle, set apart by his admiration for European artists, especially Cezanne, his constant travels and his penchant for experimentation. Nonetheless, Stieglitz promoted his work. Three Hartleys went to Fisk.

Nine works in the collection by lame, diabetic Charles Demuth reflect his high standing in Stieglitz’s view, and his friendship with O’Keeffe. In addition to watercolor still lifes of vegetables, fruits and flowers, the sole oil, “Calla Lilies (Bert Savoy),” is a flowery homage to a popular female impersonator of the day.

Reflecting expansion of the American Modernists beyond the Stieglitz group by the early 1920s, O’Keeffe included a strong, Cubist-influenced portrait by expatriate Alfred Maurer, a precise still life by Charles Sheeler and several delicate watercolors by Abraham Walkowitz. Also in the Stieglitz Collection are works by two artists virtually unknown today, an abstract landscape by Charles Duncan and an energetic landscape by Wanda Gag, best known for writing and illustrating award-winning children’s books.

Placing the American works in context are a smattering of works by European Modernists that were first shown in the United States at a Stieglitz gallery and whose ideas influenced Americans in depicting American subjects: Cezanne, Picasso, Renoir and Toulouse-Lautrec.

The Stieglitz Collection, which now can be alternatively viewed in Tennessee and Arkansas, remains one of the finest group of American Modernists in the South. Fisk’s partnership with Crystal Bridges opens new opportunities for research, scholarship and public exposure to the tremendous trove assembled by a great impresario, Stieglitz, and divvied up by one of his stars, O’Keeffe.

Crystal Bridges is at 600 Museum Way. For information, www.crystalbridges.org or 479-418-5700.

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