Published: March 27, 2001
Modern Art and America:
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Both an overdue reminder of Alfred Stieglitz’s pivotal role in the development of American art and a showcase for key artists he nurtured, this rewarding exhibition may well be the most important art-historical display in any American museum this year. The first full-scale museum examination of Stieglitz’s leadership in introducing Modernism to this country as photographer, publisher, and gallery director, it features superb examples of his skills with the camera and paintings by artists he promoted.
Spread over a labyrinth of large galleries in the National Gallery of Art’s West Building, “Modern Art and America: ” explores the lively exchange of art and ideas that the great impresario stimulated through a generous selection of European and American works he showed in a series of Manhattan galleries between 1908 and 1946.
There are, to be sure, fine examples of Stieglitz’s celebrated photographs, but the overall theme is the unique nature of his enormous influence on early Twentieth Century American art. The exhibition lays out in roughly chronological order, many of the exact works Stieglitz exhibited in his New York City rooms – the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession, known as 291 from its address on Fifth Avenue (1908-1917); the Anderson Galleries (1921-1925); the Intimate Gallery (1925-1929); and finally, An American Place (1929-1946). These displays challenged American audiences to consider new ideas about painting, sculpture, and photography, and changed forever the course of our art.
The show was organized by the National Gallery of Art under the deft and determined supervision of Sara Greenough, the museum’s curator of photography, with the assistance of Charles Brock, a research associate, and in consultation with Juan Hamilton, whom Georgia O’Keeffe befriended toward the end of her life. The exhibition is the result of wide-ranging, imaginative detective work: for example, a watercolor by Auguste Rodin, which could not be located in Europe, was discovered in the kitchen of a home in Connecticut. This extraordinary effort brought together, perhaps for the only time ever, 190 works by means of which Stieglitz sold America on modern art.
“Modern Art and America” is on view through April 22 and will not travel. It is sponsored by Deutsche Bank and Deutsche Bank Alex Brown.
That corporate sponsorship is especially appropriate because Stieglitz (1864-1946) was born in Hoboken, N.J., to German immigrant parents. While studying engineering in Berlin in the early 1880s he became fascinated with photography. On his return to the US in 1890 Stieglitz became a leader in the effort to have photography treated as a form of artistic expression.
Around the turn of the century he launched what was to become a crusade by displaying his own photographs and writing articles arguing the cause of artistic photography. He edited the periodicals Camera Notes (1897-1902) and, most importantly, Camera Work (1903-1917), a beautifully designed journal that included influential essays on photography and other arts.
In 1902 Stieglitz formed the Photo-Secession, an organization of avant-garde, pictorial photographers committed to establishing the artistic merit of photography, and he began mounting exhibitions of their work. Urged on by his protégé, photographer and painter Edward Steichen, in 1905 Stieglitz opened the Galleries of the Photo-Secession at 291 Fifth Avenue as a place to showcase their photographs. Both men believed that photography needed to be seen in relation to other arts, so from the outset 291 provided exhibition space not only for photographs, but for paintings, drawings, and sculpture. Steichen and Stieglitz, as Greenough notes in the exhibition catalogue, “envisioned that the…
From the start, Stieglitz “had the audacious belief that America, as the most modern nation in the world, could and should be the world’s preeminent cultural force,” writes Greenough. “And he was certain that New York, the city of ambition, the place where the hand of man – and the hand of modern man – was writ large, should be its center.” Carrying out that vision over the course of the next four decades Stieglitz organized more than 190 exhibitions in his Manhattan galleries.
He was a fascinating man. Self-centered, self-righteous, opinionated, obdurate and charismatic, he was by any measure a difficult person. But Stieglitz was an intrepid organizer and tireless promoter of artists he admired and by focusing on the work of a small group of highly gifted native talents, he successfully sold modern art to a still-philistine American public.
“Stieglitz possessed the most efficacious of all instruments of power – an absolute faith in his vision,” art critic Thomas Craven wrote in 1934. “His crusading energy inspired and impelled, yes, even shamed, people to buy pictures which, but for his insistent talk, they would have scorned. He made collectors and collections.”
In the first few years of the 291 Gallery Stieglitz offered varied shows of photographs and modern European art, affording opportunities for comparisons. Steichen’s photographs, such as “‘Rodin the Thinker’ and ‘Victor Hugo,'” 1902, exhibited at 291 in 1906, reflected the pictorialist ambitions of Stieglitz’s colleague, as well as the wide contacts the younger man had made while living in Paris. Steichen (1879-1973) acted as Stieglitz’s agent in Europe, introducing him to celebrated contemporaries like sculptor Rodin and avant-garde artists unknown in America, such as Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso.
Starting in 1908 Steichen sent over exhibitions by Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso and Rodin, several of which represented the first exposure of their work on this side of the Atlantic. Selections from these early installations, on view in the current show, seem tame to our eyes, but their frank depictions of human nudity and sensuality often shocked 291’s audiences. “Stieglitz’s aim, however,” says Greenough, “was not to sensationalize, but to instruct artists and the American public about the fundamentals of the new art and to provoke serious discussion.”
In 1913, prompted in part by Stieglitz’s pioneering exhibition, the American Association of Painters and Sculptors organized the famous Armory Show of modern European and American art. Showcasing the work of many of the innovative artists who had made their debuts at 291, it created a sensation.
Stieglitz declined to get involved in the massive exhibition at Manhattan’s 69th Regiment Armory, choosing instead to mount a series of tightly focused displays before, during and after the Armory extravaganza. They featured, respectively, the work of John Marin (1877-1953), Stieglitz himself, and French avant-gardist Francis Picabia.
Marin’s energetic, semi-abstract watercolors of New York City, especially images like “Woolworth Building, No. 31” (1912), generated much interest and some controversy. Stieglitz’s “The Flatiron” (1902), “The Steerage” (1907), and “The City of Ambition” (1910), deliberately exhibited to coincide with the Armory Show to see how his own work stood up in comparison to the latest developments in modernist painting, have since become icons of American photography – and American art. Picabia’s then-controversial, colorful abstractions, which will come as an eye-popping revelation to those unfamiliar with his groundbreaking style, make one yearn for a major exhibition of his work one of these days.
In the wake of the Armory Show, as several New York galleries began to exhibit modern European art, Stieglitz charted a new course for 291. With the assistance of Steichen and Mexican caricaturist Marius de Zaya, he first exhibited even more experimental art, epitomized by the sculpture of Romanian-born Constantin Brancusi. “Sleeping Muse” (1909-11) and “Mademoiselle Pogany” (1912) helped propel the little-known Brancusi toward his current reputation as “the artist who defined the path of modern sculpture,” in the words of Philadelphia Museum of Art curator Ann Temkin in her catalogue essay.
In 1914 Stieglitz and de Zaya mounted what the gallery impresario called the first exhibition anywhere that presented African sculpture – from Gabon and the Ivory Coast – as fine art rather than ethnography. The next year Stieglitz organized a show of work by George Braque and Picasso together with a reliquary figure from Gabon and a wasp’s nest. The current exhibition includes partial reconstructions of these groundbreaking shows. They document how the gallery director “sought to stimulate debate about the relationships between art and nature, Western and African art, and intellectual and supposedly naïve art,” observes Greenough.
Stieglitz continued to exhibit European and American avant-garde art during World War I, and launched 291, a magazine that celebrated America as the world’s most modern nation and challenged readers to embrace the central role of the machine in contemporary life. French dada artist Marcel Duchamp tried to carry this idea a step further with a machine-made object – a urinal entitled “Fountain” – but it was rejected by another exhibition as not being a work of art. Stieglitz promptly showed it at 291. A Stieglitz photograph and a 1964 edition of Duchamp’s readymade porcelain creation memorialize that notorious object.
After 1915, the failure of other New York galleries to show American works and his own deep commitment to American artists prompted Stieglitz to focus his activities on behalf of native painters. In 1916 and 1917 he put together a series of exhibitions featuring painters Marsden Hartley and Georgia O’Keeffe and photographer Paul Strand. They effectively summarized the changes in American art in the preceding decade.
An entire room, filled with works by Hartley (1877-1943), documents the manner in which this modernist titan synthesized elements of European modernism with his own experiences to present a potent new vocabulary of form and color. This display is the highlight of the show. Especially memorable are the works the Maine-born painter created in response to the military pomp and pageantry of the Kaiser’s Berlin at the outset of World War I. They culminate with his vivid, symbol-filled “Portrait of a German Officer” (1914), which is Hartley’s homage to his close friend, Karl von Freyburg, a German officer who was killed toward the beginning of the war.
Stieglitz’s infatuation with the much-younger O’Keeffe (1887-1986) began with his interest in her delicate charcoals and watercolors, such as “Blue No. 1” (1916), an early abstract work. Their relationship deepened as he exhibited her work in the gallery and led, eventually, to their famous marriage in 1924.
Reflecting his view that young Strand (1890-1976) was a budding superstar with an “original vision,” Stieglitz displayed his photographs in his gallery and reproduced them with words of praise in Camera Works. With images ranging from shadowy figures walking by Wall Street buildings to a blind woman caught unaware on the street with a prism lens to close-up abstractions like “Bowls” (1916), Strand was introduced as a major photographer. These are among the most memorable images of his illustrious career.
In spite of his energetic efforts to mount and publicize innovative exhibitions, Stieglitz never made much money from his galleries, relying on his first wife’s personal wealth to keep them afloat. The onset of World War I and declining attendance forced him to close 291 in 1917.
After several years without an exhibition space, in 1921 Stieglitz began mounting shows of his own photographs and of O’Keeffe’s new works (such as “Blue and Green Music” ) in rooms borrowed from the owner of the Anderson Galleries on Park Avenue. By this time Stieglitz had separated from his first wife and O’Keeffe had moved in with him.
A few of the 330 subtly-lit close-ups he photographed of O’Keeffe’s hands, body, and face, 1918-1925, were displayed in this new space. With graphic poses often mirroring Rodin’s drawings and sculptures, they form one of the most intense and intimate records of a person in the history of the photographic portrait.
Stieglitz and O’Keeffe strongly influenced each other’s work during this period, including his photographs and her paintings of flowers, trees, hills, clouds, and buildings around the Stieglitz family summer home on Lake George. His photograph “Dancing Trees” (1922) and her painting “Autumn Trees – the Maple” (1924) suggest the interaction between the two artists.
In a small rented room that he called the Intimate Gallery, located in the same building that housed the Anderson Galleries, Stieglitz organized a series of exhibitions from 1925 to 1929 of the art of the so-called “Seven Americans,” whose work he would champion the rest of his life. These artists – Charles Demuth, Arthur Dove, Hartley, Marin, O’Keeffe, Strand, and Stieglitz himself – shared a deep commitment to creating art that would express contemporary American life in new ways. They explored a wide range of subjects, including abstract portraits, urban scenes, and rural landscapes, and experimented extensively with various materials.
Demuth (1883-1935), for example, executed idiosyncratic poster portraits of Dove, Marin, and other figures from the cultural world. In “Goin’ Fishin'” (1925), Dove (1880-1946) assembled bamboo, buttons, denim shirtsleeves, oil and wood on a composition board in a fascinating picture.
Marin made watercolors and collages, like “Lower Manhattan (Composition Derived from Top of Woolworth Building)” (1922), employing bits of string and paper on watercolor backgrounds. Stieglitz and O’Keeffe experimented with a variety of photographic prints.
In 1929 Stieglitz opened An American Place at 509 Madison Avenue, where for the 17 years until his death he presented monographic exhibitions of works of the Seven Americans. Each year he almost always included his “core” artists – Dove, Marin, and O’Keeffe – interspersed with shows of works by Demuth, Hartley, Strand and himself.
“Yet,” Greenough observes, “with the onset of the Depression, and the political and economic upheaval it created, the strong sense of community that had characterized the years of the Anderson Galleries and the Intimate Gallery dissipated and An American Place began to feel less like a communal meeting place than a sanctuary.” Although his protégés tended to turn inward, with Stieglitz urging them on, they produced much of their best, most mature art during this period. “All of them,” says Greenough, “refined their techniques and purified their compositions, looking for strong simple iconic forms….”
The National Gallery exhibition closes with a dazzling array of familiar works by this group of American modernist titans that were originally displayed under Stieglitz’s aegis.
Among the highlights is Demuth’s “My Egypt” (1927), immortalizing the industrial landscape of his hometown of Lancaster, Penn., and examples of his fine watercolors of flowers and fruit.
Dove’s bold, vividly hued paintings, such as “That Red One” (1944), reflected his singular vision and the inspiration of the surroundings of his place on Long Island Sound.
Hartley, the strongest painter of them all, created powerful images ranging from broad mountainscapes of New Mexico to massive boulders of Dogtown on Cape Ann in Massachusetts to his culminating masterpieces of his native state of Maine, such as “The Wave” (1940) and several views of Mount Katahdin, created 1939-1940.
Working in both oil and watercolor, Marin’s energetic, jiggling lines and semi-abstract forms conveyed the ambience of settings as varied as New York City, Taos, N.Mex., and the coast of Maine. It is easy to see why critics admired what one called in 1938, his “vitality… tumultuousness and pantheistic ardor….”
Strand, who was a key ally of Stieglitz in charting a new vision for American photography, shared with the older man “the modernist notion that art embodied a certain kind of truth that could not be revealed in any other way,” says Greenough. Strand continued to show superb images, highlighted by “Ranchos de Taos Church, New Mexico” (1931), at An American Place into the early 1930s. After a falling out with Stieglitz, Strand thereafter went off on his own, combining photography, filmmaking, and political activism for the remainder of his career.
The couple continued to visit Stieglitz’s summer place at Lake George, where her paintings like “Farm House Window and Door” (1929) often seemed to mirror his photographs such as “Little House, Lake George” (probably 1934).
Strains in their relationship led O’Keeffe to begin visiting New Mexico in 1929. There, the brilliant light and vast expanses stimulated larger, sharper and cleaner paintings of animal skulls, churches, and religious crosses, such as her iconic “Cow’s Skull with Calico Roses” (1932).
Somewhat reconciled toward the end of Stieglitz’s life, O’Keeffe supported him through ill health, and after his death in 1946 oversaw distribution of his art collection and photographs to museums around the country. The best print of every mounted photograph in Stieglitz’s possession when he died was given to the National Gallery. The many outstanding examples in this exhibition confirm his standing as one of America’s most important and skilled photographers.
Some 110 works from the extensive Stieglitz collection that O’Keeffe gave to the George Eastman House of International Photography in Rochester, N.Y., are featured in “The Photography of Alfred Stieglitz: Georgia O’Keeffe’s Enduring Legacy,” on view at the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, Penn., through May 20. A real treat for Stieglitz fans, the exhibition includes a wide range of photographs from the 1890s to 1935: early European work, images of Lake George and New York City, portraits of O’Keeffe and others, and facsimiles of early autochromes and black-and-white lanterns slides, as well as cameras used by Stieglitz. There is a grand, 1920 view of an aloof, regal O’Keeffe, posed in a black cloak and black hat, among other highlights.
“Modern Art and America” is a fascinating exhibition that demonstrates how Alfred Stieglitz, visionary leader, intrepid organizer, and keen-eyed curator, helped shape the course of modern art in this country. “For more than 30 years,” observes Greenough, “he…orchestrated one of the most influential dialogues ever created in American art and culture. All ‘Seven Americans’ drew profound support from the community that he…fostered and deep inspiration from his own art. The vision of a photographer…liberated, enlightened, nurtured, and perhaps ultimately defined their world.”
The exhibition is accompanied by an enormous, weighty catalogue written by Greenough with contributions by 12 leading scholars that place the artwork in historical context. Published by the National Gallery of Art, the 612-page volume contains 136 color images and 224 duotones. It sells for $55 (soft cover) and will be a valuable source of information and inspiration for both professional and lay students of American art.
At a symposium at the National Gallery on May 24 from 10:30 am to 5 pm, Greenough and five scholars will explore various facets of this important, wide-ranging exhibition.
The National Gallery of Art is on the National Mall between Third and Ninth Streets at Constitutional Avenue, NW. For information, 212/737-4215.
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