Modern Art and America: Alfred Stieglitz and his New York Galleries. An exhibit at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, January 28 to April 22, 2001
Reviewed by John Bedell
Live and learn. I thought Alfred Stieglitz was just a photographer and Georgia O'Keeffe's lover, but this exhibit makes the claim that he was most influential as a gallery owner and a promoter of other artists. Stieglitz was a leader of the movement to have photography taken seriously as a fine art, and this activism drew him into organizational work. In 1905 he founded the Little Gallery of the Photo-Secession at 291 Fifth Avenue as a place for him and his associates to show their work. Since Stieglitz thought photography was an art related to, and on par with, more traditional media, his 291 Gallery always showed paintings, drawings and sculptures as well as photographs.
Stieglitz first made a big mark in the New York art world by exhibiting the work of new European artists, including Rodin, Brancusi, Matisse, Picasso, and CÚzanne. The exhibit includes some lovely Matisse paintings that show what his minimalist approach could do: the capture of an understandable image in just a few bold lines. Most interesting to me from this familiar European material was a collection of Brancusi's sculptures, displayed in a room with African sculptures and a wasp's nest. Brancusi's heads, some of them plain ovals with just a suggestion of facial features, never did anything for me until I saw this exhibit. The effect of their minimal lines seemed to me cumulative, so that this whole impressed me much more than any of the pieces.
When the Europeans he had championed became famous, Stieglitz switched to promoting a group of little known Americans who had been inspired by European developments: painters O'Keeffe, Marsden Hartley, John Marin, Arthur Dove, and Charles DeMuth and photographer Paul Strand. The works of these artists form the core of the exhibit. The rooms are arranged chronologically, recreating, or at least suggesting, a series of shows staged by Stieglitz from 1916 to 1946.
The main impression I took away from these rooms is that Georgia O'Keeffe is the only one of the lot worth a museum exhibit. I was impressed, though, by the sense of how freely all these artists were experimenting with different styles and approaches. Charles DeMuth painted entirely abstract compositions, boldly structured renderings of buildings, and intricately detailed flower studies--his painting of poppies was probably my favorite work in the show. Marsden Hartley memorialized a friend killed in the First World War with a series of bold, collage-like paintings filled with iron crosses, flags, and other symbols, among the most distinctive works in the show, and then turned to much gentler themes. I took from these presentations an image of these painters as explorers, or would-be visionaries, which I think matches the way they saw themselves.
Stieglitz is a wonderful photographer, able to capture in stunning images everything from the ugly unfairness of steerage class to the beauty of O'Keeffe's breasts. Paul Strand seemed to me to be just as good. Yet I found myself spending very little time looking at the photographs in this show. The prints on exhibit were small, 8.5 by 11 inches or so--I assume this was the size they were displayed in Stieglitz's gallery--and I found that looking at them added little to the experience of seeing the same photographs in a glossy book. While viewing a painting for the first time can be a revelation, no matter how many reproductions one has seen, I have never found this to be true for photographs, and I would just as soon peruse them at home on my couch.
I did find this exhibit to be an interesting educational experience, but there was little here to fill my mind with wonder or set my imagination soaring. For that, my companion and I left the exhibit and went upstairs to see her favorite Monets and my favorite Rembrandts. That is one good thing about viewing an exhibit like this one in a great museum like the National Gallery--the trip is always worth while.
January 11, 2000
"Another unsettling element in modern art is that common symptom of immaturity, the dread of doing what has been done before."