Stieglitz's Revolution

Article excerpt

An exhibit at the National Gallery of Art is the first to tackle the range of contributions of photographer and exhibitor Alfred Stieglitz.

Critics have called Alfred Stieglitz passionate, charismatic, willful and revolutionary. They also have described him as contrary, idiosyncratic, narcissistic and melodramatic. His confrontations with artist Marsden Hartley and photographer Paul Strand, as well as collector Duncan Phillips, are legendary.

Who is the real Alfred Stieglitz, the photographer and arts promoter who almost single-handedly introduced European and American modernism to the United States? Contradictions, as well as accomplishments, seemed to have ruled his life from his birth in 1864 to his death in 1946. The National Gallery of Art in Washington has attempted to assess the multitalented man with its new blockbuster exhibit, "Modern Art and America: Alfred Stieglitz and His New York Galleries" a show six years in the making.

Painter Georgia O'Keeffe, Stieglitz's wife, gave the gallery the largest and most important collection of his work in 1949. The 1,600 donated photographs survey his entire career and spurred various projects, including a new edition of the gallery's 1983 book Alfred Stieglitz: Photographs and Writings and numerous presentations on the gallery's Website (www. nga.gov). The museum plans to publish a 600-page scholarly catalog with all 1,600 photographs and an exhibit of the photographer's work in 2002.

"Modern Art and America" aims to assess Stieglitz through his 95 exhibitions in New York City from 1905 to 1946. The quality of the work and sureness of his eye -- whether he's showing nudes by Auguste Rodin, sculptures from Africa or drawings by Pablo Picasso -- were extraordinary. Consider, for example, his 1915 photograph of two Picasso drawings, a reliquary sculpture of the Kota people of Gabon, an enormous wasp's nest and an empty brass bowl. The objects play off one another. The calligraphic forms of the branches supporting the nest are restated in the calligraphic marks of Picasso. …