In February 1921, Alfred Stieglitz wrote a brief, extraordinary summary of his long and extraordinary life.
I was born in Hoboken. I am an American. Photography is my passion. The search for Truth my obsession. PLEASE NOTE: In the above STATEMENT the following, fast becoming “obsolete” terms do not appear: ART, SCIENCE, BEAUTY, RELIGION, every ISM … The term TRUTH did creep in but may be kicked out by anyone.
Stieglitz, born in 1864, had exactly a quarter of a century of life and creativity still to come when he penned these impassioned, combative words. He was at a personal crossroads in 1921 and significantly he added the number “291″ to the “fast becoming ‘obsolete’ terms” in his statement.
“291″ was the address of the 5th Avenue art gallery where Stieglitz held court from 1905 to 1917. Beginning its life as the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession, the three-roomed Manhattan exhibition space soon was referred to by friends and foes simply as “291.”
The Metropolitan Museum of Art is currently presenting a definitive exhibition of the art which Stieglitz hung on the walls of 291 and its successors, the Anderson Galleries (1921 – 25), the Intimate Gallery (1925 – 29), and An American Place (1929 – 46). These galleries occupy a central place in the story of modern art in the United States because it was at these locations that Stieglitz based his personal quest to promote avant-garde art in America.
With 200 works of art on display, presented as they were in the pioneering exhibits at 291, Stieglitz and His Artists: Matisse to O’Keeffe is an encounter with artistic genius in all its varied aspects – inspired creativity, prophetic vision and self-destructive zeal.
Beginning with paintings, drawings and a limited number of sculptures by such “wild men” as Matisse, Picasso and Brancusi, Stieglitz went on to champion works created by American painters in the years following World War I. His one-man crusade met with a very mixed reception. Many in the New York art establishment viewed Stieglitz as a cultural anarchist, intent on dynamiting the Beaux-Arts foundation of American art.
Among those who rebuffed the proselytizing efforts of Stieglitz was the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Stieglitz maintained a love-hate relationship with the Metropolitan for much of his life. After a 1911 exhibition at 291 of sketches by Picasso and other avant-garde artists, Stieglitz offered the Metropolitan 81 unsold drawings for the bargain price of $2,000. His generosity was curtly dismissed by Bryson Burroughs, the museum’s curator of paintings, with the remark that “such mad pictures would never mean anything in America.”
A century later, Pablo Picasso’s Standing Female Nude and other “such mad pictures” grace the walls of the Metropolitan’s exhibition honoring the man who first presented it to an incredulous American art community. Picasso’s Cubist masterpiece entered the Metropolitan’s collection when Stieglitz’ wife and executor, Georgia O’Keeffe, donated a substantial portion of his collection to the museum in 1949. Many of Stieglitz’ photos from the early Pictorialist phase of his career had already been peremptorily bestowed on the Metropolitan. According to a museum legend, an assistant curator raced down in a cab to An American Place after receiving a call from Stieglitz in 1933 to come and get the old photos “or they’re going out in the trash.”
Whether or not that is true, the story provides an insight into Stieglitz’ ruthless determination to remain on the cutting edge of modern art. He had no qualms about jettisoning earlier genres of art. His life was also littered with the wrecks of friendships and partnerships with those whose work and opinions he no longer valued – or he could no longer control.
If Stieglitz was something of an iron-willed Svengali, he was also a visionary proponent of modern art.
Stieglitz and His Artists follows the course of his exhibitions at 291 and his later galleries. In the early days at 291, Stieglitz mounted exhibitions of Pictorialist photos that dealt with themes such as womanhood, the lives of children or social themes that contemporary America could appreciate. A related exhibition currently at the Metropolitan, Photographic Treasures from the Collection of Alfred Stieglitz, brilliantly charts the achievements of Stieglitz and his colleagues of the Photo-Secession. This is a “must see” in order to understand the radical departure of Stieglitz’ later career and also to appreciate the shock and hurt of Clarence White, Gertrude Käsebier and other Pictorialist photographers when Stieglitz abandoned them.
The year 1908 was a turning point for Stieglitz. Beginning in January 1908 with exhibits of work by Auguste Rodin and of Henri Matisse in April, Stieglitz began his second career as an impresario for European avant-garde art. Working closely with Steichen, who arranged for the drawings and prints to be sent from Europe, Stieglitz scored landmark triumphs. These were the first-ever exhibitions of modern art in the United States. Furthermore, as we can see in photos of these early exhibits, new curatorial standards were unveiled at 291 that permanently changed the nature of intelligently displaying and looking at art.
There was a more troubling aspect, however, to Stieglitz’ modernist crusade. Many of the exhibits he mounted at 291 seemed deliberately chosen to challenge the contrived “innocence” of America at the turn of the 20th century.
In 1909, Stieglitz mounted an exhibition of lithographs by Henri Toulouse-Lautrec that depicted the daily lives of prostitutes in Paris. In The Seated Clowness (Mademoiselle Cha-u-ka-o), we see a tired, world-weary woman of the streets. It is hardly an erotically-charged scene. Yet, a more contrasting work than this could hardly be imagined to counter the Pictorialist evocations of motherhood, such as Gertrude Käsebier’s platinum print, Blessed Art Thou among Women, which Stieglitz had earlier displayed at 291.
Stieglitz hosted three exhibitions devoted to Henri Matisse which also shocked contemporary taste. In the drawings displayed at 291, Matisse’s nude figures accept their bodies matter-of-factly, in marked contrast with the corseted code of American sexuality.
Much could be written about the state of mind that led Stieglitz to choose such provocative themes. But the real reason was a professional one. By 1908, he felt that Pictorialism’s creative stage was already past. Stieglitz was ready as an artist to take an active role in the cultural revolution that was sweeping across Europe – and headed toward the United States.
It is significant that Stieglitz, in order to carry out the task of bringing the New Art to America, relied on the counsel of an intimate circle of advisers who frequently visited Europe. Stieglitz had lived in Germany from 1881 to 1890, where he first became interested in photography. But after 1904, he seldom traveled to Europe and hardly left New York City. With age, health concerns, the management of 291 and the editing of his lavishly illustrated journal Camera Work absorbing his attention, he depended on the guidance of Edward Steichen, Paul Haviland, Agnes Ernst Meyer and Marius de Zayas on which contemporary European artists he should highlight in shows at 291.
The life of Marius de Zayas, a Mexican-born caricature artist of genius, is particularly fascinating in this respect. Stieglitz immediately recognized the talent of de Zayas, though caricature as a genre was not much to his taste. For several years, he and de Zayas formed such a brilliant team that the Mexican artist created a moody, visionary evocation of Stieglitz which he subtitled, The Midwife to Ideas.
Alfred Stieglitz, 1910, is more in keeping with de Zayas’ style and is so modern in the simplicity of its draughtmanship that it is incredible to think that it was created during the Edwardian era. And the way that de Zayas buried Stieglitz’ brooding intensity under his tousled mane of hair is a tour de force of subtle comic effect.
The humor in de Zayas’ caricature shows that he was not held in a state of awe of Stieglitz. As the years of pioneering achievements at 291 – Picasso’s first one-man show in the world (1911), the first exhibit of African “primitive” art in the U.S. (1914) – took their toll on Stieglitz, de Zayas became increasingly alarmed at his faltering leadership. While generous with his private funds in support of the arts, Stieglitz had a quixotic attitude to sales, often refusing to sell to a buyer he felt did not fully appreciate an art work. Exhibitions continued to be brilliantly staged at 291, but behind the scenes, organizational chaos, compounded by Stieglitz’ insistence that things be done his way, often threatened to undermine the bold initiatives.
Outside the inner circle, others noticed too. Henry McBride of the New York Sun editorialized in 1916, “It is sometimes a question in our minds whether it is Mr. Stieglitz or the pictures on the wall at the Photo-Secession that constitute the exhibition.”
By 1916, the outbreak of World War I was making it difficult to bring new works of European art to 291. But Stieglitz was really a victim of his own success. In 1913, the vast exhibition of modern art held at the 69th Regiment Armory in New York City undermined his status as the sole American prophet of the New Art. Characteristically, he purchased a painting to support the Armory Show, Vasily Kandinsky’s Improvisation 27 (Garden of Love II). This is one of the major paintings in the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibition, underscoring how the 291 exhibitions depended on smaller works, mainly drawings and prints, for display.
In an attempt to revive the old magic of 291, de Zayas launched a new, better organized exhibit space, the Modern Gallery, in October 1915. Stieglitz was encouraged to participate. But it was an ill-fated overture. By the end of the year, the alliance – and friendship – of Stieglitz and de Zayas was over.
291 ceased operation in 1917. Before it closed, Stieglitz mounted a final exhibition. It debuted on April 3, 1917, three days before the U.S. entered World War I. The exhibition featured the art of Georgia O’Keeffe.
“So I closed the place in Glory in spite of all the treachery and cruelty,” Stieglitz wrote of the final days of 291, “The little room was never more glorious than during its last exhibition…”
The fabled relationship of Stieglitz and O’Keeffe has been studied, analyzed and psychoanalyzed in such detail that little needs be added here except one salient point. O’Keeffe’s exhibition crystallized a growing devotion to American art and artists that Stieglitz had nurtured for nearly a decade. In 1909, Stieglitz mounted an exhibition of watercolors by John Marin, whose abstract landscapes Stieglitz would promote with particular favor.
Marin animated the urban structures of his watercolors with a life-force normally imparted in paintings of people, animals or plant forms. But Marin’s swaying, toppling apartment buildings and a Brooklyn Bridge that seems to dissolve before our eyes become sensate beings in their own right.
“You cannot create a work of art unless the things you behold respond to something within you,” Marin wrote. And when this is done in an urban context, “…The whole city is alive.”
Stieglitz’ patronage for “his” American artists, Marin, Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley and O’Keeffe, was crucial to their evolution as painters – and for their sheer survival. Arthur Dove, who at one point supported himself as a chicken farmer, declared, “I could not have existed as a painter without that superencouragement.”
By responding to and encouraging the inner vision of these American artists, Stieglitz counteracted the Eurocentric emphasis of the Armory Show and the new Museum of Modern Art. In a decisive affirmation of his “I am an American,” pledge, Stieglitz launched a new crusade in the decades following the closing of 291. The post-World War II New York School and the art of the “American Century” traced their roots in no small ways to the successor galleries of 291.
During the last decades of his life, Stieglitz championed the art of “Seven Americans.” These were Dove, Marin, Hartley, O’Keeffe, Paul Strand, and his own photos. The “seventh” American was a featured artist whose work was shown on a rotating basis. The Metropolitan exhibition’s choice to fill this slot is Charles Demuth, whose The Figure 5 in Gold, painted in 1928, has become one of the museum’s signature works.
Demuth’s Figure 5 is based on a poem by William Carlos Williams, who had glimpsed a NYFD fire truck from Company 5 speeding toward a fire scene. Williams saw the truck from the window of Hartley’s studio, inspiring his poem. Demuth reproduces the effect of the truck with receding number 5′s, framed by flame red geometric shapes. This in turn is superimposed on a vortex of grays and blacks to give the effect of the truck racing down city streets on a rainy night.
William’s poem, “The Great Figure,” is an example of “Imagist” verse, rather than story-telling narrative. Demuth evokes that modernist emphasis with individual stand-alone elements like the poet’s nick-name “Bill” looming at the top of the canvas.
The marvelous, vibrant works of Stieglitz and His Artists creates an aura of color in the last galleries of the exhibition that contrast sharply with the monotones of the photos, sketches, lithographs and prints that dominated the early exhibits at 291. Stieglitz and His Artists is brilliantly organized and presented by curator Lisa Mintz Messinger. The exhibit shows that Stieglitz’ whole career, not just his last days at 291, ended in a blaze of glorious color.
But perhaps the final word about Alfred Stieglitz should be left to Marius de Zayas. The Mexican artist was a perceptive observer of the European art scene and of Stieglitz. So it is noteworthy that when de Zayas compared 291 to the salons and museums of Paris, the small galleries of Stieglitz’ Manhattan stronghold more than held their own. “To me,” de Zayas wrote, “they appear bigger than the colossal rooms of the Louvre.”
Appearing at The Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Avenue (at 82nd Street)
New York, NY 10028
Stieglitz and His Artists: Matisse to O’Keeffe October 13, 2011–January 2, 2012
Photographic Treasures from the Collection of Alfred Stieglitz through February 26, 2012