Alfred Stieglitz is best known these days as an early genius of photography and as the husband of Georgia O’Keeffe. But historians regard Stieglitz, who died more than 50 years ago, as far more than that.
Through his galleries, publications and persuasive palaver, the New Jersey-born Stieglitz was also guru, muse, promoter and impresario of modern art in America. In fact, Sarah Greenough, curator of photographs at the National Gallery of Art, describes him as “the single most important figure in American art in the first half of the 20th century.”
To prove this, Greenough has put together an exhibition that combines Stieglitz’s photographs with the paintings, watercolors, drawings and photos of his American disciples and of the European masters that he championed. Stieglitz and his tiny galleries introduced Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Henri Rousseau, Paul Cezanne and Constantin Brancusi to America.
The exhibition, called “Modern Art and America: Alfred Stieglitz and His New York Galleries,” opens at the National Gallery on Sunday and remains there until April 22. Because some of the owners of the rarest pieces in the show refused to give them up for more than a few months, it will not be mounted anywhere else.
Virtually all 190 works in the show, which include masterpieces by O’Keeffe, Charles Demuth, John Marin and other Americans, as well as works by the Europeans, were exhibited by Stieglitz in his galleries at some point from 1905 to 1946. It has taken Greenough and her staff more than five years of research to sift through news clips, photographs, letters, brochures and highly idiosyncratic exhibition checklists to identify the works and then find them somewhere in the world.
It was virgin art historical territory for the most part. “There has never been an exhibition like this one,” Greenough points out. Greenough and company were the first to systematically pull together the raw material that explains Stieglitz’s seminal role in modern art in America.
“Modern Art and America” brims with art that can be savored for its own sake. There is Stieglitz’s photograph, “The Flatiron,” Brancusi’s marble sculpture “Mademoiselle Pogany,” Matisse’s painting “Nude in the Forest,” Marin’s watercolor “Lower Manhattan (Composition Derived from Top of Woolworth Building),” O’Keeffe’s painting “Cow’s Skull with Calico Roses.” History, however, powers an excitement that enhances the pleasure of these works of art.
Stieglitz was born in 1864 to German immigrant parents who sent him as a young man to Berlin to study engineering. He dropped engineering, however, and turned instead to the relatively new technology of photography. He soon won acclaim as a photographer who could create scenes as impressionistic as a painting. By the turn of the century, Stieglitz was a well-known advocate for photography as a form of art.
He opened his first gallery in 1905 in three tiny rooms on the top floor of a building at 291 Fifth Avenue. He wanted 291, as the gallery became known, to promote photography but he soon decided to expand it to all the arts, especially art that was emerging from Europe. Many young artists and critics crammed into the little rooms to hear him declaim and spur discussion about the works. “Stieglitz quickly realized,” says Greenough, “that he could be as much of an attraction as the art.”
In fact, critic Edmund Wilson described Stieglitz as “something of a mesmerist.” For more than 40 years, according to Wilson, Stieglitz delivered “a monologue, a kind of impalpable net in which visitors and disciples were caught from the moment they came within earshot.”
He was more intent on challenging ideas than in forcing his own on others. His own, in any case, changed often. “He thought aloud,” Georgia O’Keeffe wrote after his death in 1946, “and his opinions about anything in the morning might be quite different by the afternoon . . . There was such a power when he spoke--people seemed to believe what he said even when they knew it wasn’t the truth.”
Stieglitz wanted to shake up American artistic thinking with the revolutionary ideas coming from Europe. His associate, the painter and photographer Edward Steichen, acted as his emissary tracking down the latest work from Paris and shipping samples to New York. After providing Stieglitz with a selection of erotic drawings by the sculptor Auguste Rodin, for example, Steichen wrote his friend, “I have another crackerjack exhibition for you. . . . Drawings by Henri Matisse, the most modern of the moderns.”
The National Gallery of Art exhibition attempts to suggest some of the atmosphere of 291 with partial reconstructions of two 1914 exhibits: on Brancusi and on African art. The latter marked the first time an exhibit of African carving had ever been mounted as art rather than ethnography.
Also reconstructed is a temporary installation that Stieglitz photographed in 1915: A Georges Braque Cubist collage and a Picasso Cubist drawing on either side of an African carving. Greenough has even placed a wasp’s nest in the display just as Stieglitz did. But she could not track down the Braque collage in the photo. Instead she substituted the only work by Braque that she and her staff could both lay their hands on and prove actually hung in a 291 exhibit.
291 collapsed during World War I, brought down mainly by the declining income of the Brooklyn brewery owned by Stieglitz’s first wife. His galleries always had to be subsidized, because he never took more than a small commission for expenses from the sales. After the war, he opened a series of other small galleries, but he no longer felt the need to import modern European art. Everyone else was doing that now.
Instead, Stieglitz decided to extol modern American art. It was time for American artists to come into their own and produce works that reflected “America without that damned French flavor,” he said. He spent the rest of his life promoting seven Americans: O’Keeffe, Marin, Demuth, Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, the photographer Paul Strand and himself. Demuth supplied the metaphor for the group with his portrayal of the grain elevators of Lancaster, Pa., as if they were the great pyramids of Egypt. He titled the painting, “My Egypt,” and Greenough has put it on the cover of the catalog as a signature image for the show.
The National Gallery exhibition offers extensive selections of the work of all seven Americans. The most dramatic are probably the paintings by O’Keeffe and the Stieglitz photos of her.
O’Keeffe’s work was first brought to Stieglitz’s attention in 1916. He mounted a show of hers a year later, and he separated from his wife and moved in with O’Keeffe a year after that. They were married in 1924, when he was 60 and she 37. Stieglitz praised her early abstract work for its depiction of female sexuality and, as a complement to her work, exhibited many of his photos displaying her in the nude.
But all the critical chatter about suppressed Freudian sexuality in her work disturbed her. She posed for Stieglitz’s camera fully clothed from then on, and she began to ground her extravagantly colored abstractions into the flowers and landscapes she found in the Southwest.
Stieglitz probably frowned on her show of independence. “He was the leader or he didn’t play,” she wrote, describing his relations with the artists he promoted. “It was his game and we all played or left the game.” But after a disciple left, she went on, he or she usually returned, “as if there existed a peculiar bond of affection that could not be broken, something unique that they did not find elsewhere.”
“Modern Art and America: Alfred Stieglitz and His New York Galleries,” National Gallery of Art, National Mall, Washington, D.C. Sunday-April 22. Mondays-Saturdays 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sundays 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Free. (202) 737-4215 www.nga.gov