Painting Gender, Constructing Theory: The Alfred Stieglitz Circle and American Formalist Aesthetics

Article excerpt

Marcia Brennan. Painting Gender, Constructing Theory: The Alfred Stieglitz Circle and American Formalist Aesthetics. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2001. 390 pp., 8 color ills., ç/ h/w. Sco, $24.95 paper.

In Painting Gender, Constructing Theory:The Alfred Stieglitz Circle and American Formalist Aesthetics, Marcia Brennan recounts a telling anecdote about Alfred Stieglitz and a woman who, sometime in the early 1930s, visited his New York gallery, An American Place. Apparently confused by John Marin's abstractions, the visitor asked the famous photographer and dealer why such evocative compositions failed to arouse her emotions. Stieglit/. replied, "Why don't you give me an erection?" ( 144).

Brennan uses this story to support her case that the artists and critics who made up the Stieglitz circle were unified by a shared discourse that the author terms "embodied formalism." As she states at the outset of her study, "gender provided critics with a means to discuss actual and symbolic bodies, and in turn such conceptions of embodiment enabled writers to ascribe gendered characteristics to abstract painterly forms" (8). Accordingly, Stieglitz's writings, artists' statements, and critical reviews advanced a critical framework for interpreting artwork as both symbolic and productive of the artists' gendered subjectivity. A cross between a critical system and a prescription for image-making, "embodied formalism" characterizes the abstract vocabularies of Arthur Dove, Georgia O'Keeffe, and Marin, while informing the criticism of Paul Rosenfeld and Lewis Mumford, among others, and factoring into work of artists like Marsden Hartley and Charles Demuth, who were not full-fledged members of Stieglitz's group. Brennan argues that corporeal metaphors and symbols facilitated the works' modernist spirit of regeneration, cultural renewal, procreation, and fecundity, albeit in ways that were specific to the style associated with each particular artist.

Something of "what she means by the concept of embodied formalism is suggested by how she assesses the story of Stieglitz's encounter with the woman: "Stieglitz's allegory of the missing erection, and the Stieglitz circle's repeated emphases on pleasure and reproduction, were collectively enlisted as explanatory tools for Marin's paintings, making Marin's non-fignral imagery discussible within the discursive parameters of embodied formalism" (144). The success of this discourse is implicit in the woman's question. Certainly this viewer made her inquiry based on expectations that Marin's abstract canvases could affect her emotions-to act on her body. Ironically, the trouble with this discourse is the nature of Stieglitz's reply. Through an expression of masculinist potency, Stieglitz undermined female agency, seen in die woman's spectatorship and her power to interpret works of art. Her (mctaphoric) failure to sexually excite him silences her and by implication anyone who "disagreed" with Stieglitz's aesthetics. Despite the absent erection, Stieglitz was, in this instance, a prick.

As this story suggests, one of Brennan's most ingenious insights is to demonstrate that the body in question-no matter the identity of the artist-was often Stieglitzs. When Stieglitz, his artists, and the critics affiliated with the group wrote about their art, they used a particular language that was grandiose and evasive about meaning, and which lent new life to the phrase "purple prose." Evocations of immaterial spiritual forces, anthropomorphic descriptions of color, shape, and line, and a tendency to conflate the painter and the painting invited derision in the 1920s and absolute scorn in the 1930s and 1940s. Brennan's innovative approach examines this language as highly strategic, rather than obtuse and eclectic. In Brennan's opening chapters, we are told that in the early 1920s Stieglitz the art dealer successfully promoted the paintings of Dove, O'Keeffe, and Marin as an effort to stage a comeback after the demise of 291, his influential gallery of modern art of the 1910s. …