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A Debt That Can Never Be Paid: Stieglitz & American Modernism

By Agee, William C. | New Criterion, May 2001 | Go to article overview

A Debt That Can Never Be Paid: Stieglitz & American Modernism


Agee, William C., New Criterion


In 1934, Arthur Dove paid tribute to Alfred Stieglitz, writing, "I couldn't have existed as a painter without that super-encouragement." Indeed, it is doubtful that many other early modernists in America would have survived and flourished without Stieglitz; their history is inconceivable without him. His profound impact as artist and catalyst for modern art both here and abroad was made abundantly clear in a landmark exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, "Modern Art and America: Alfred Stieglitz and His New York Galleries," organized by the museum's curator of photographs, Sarah Greenough.(1)

We already know a great deal about Stieglitz, of course. He has been the subject of numerous exhibitions, as well as many specialized studies by William Innes Homer, Elizabeth Hutton Turner, and Ms. Greenough herself, among others. Of the many efforts devoted to Stieglitz, though, "Modern Art and America" was the largest and most comprehensive, the first attempt to show Stieglitz the artist side by side with the European and American artists he exhibited and championed at his several galleries in New York from 1905 until his death in 1946. The voluminous catalogue--for which, I should state for the record, I wrote an essay on Arthur Dove--will be an indispensable reference.

The exhibition set high standards, opened new perspectives, and posed timely questions for the study of early modernism in America. It was not without its flaws, but these are measured by the very standards it established. From first to last, it was an engrossing, at points mesmerizing, exhibition in which even familiar works were seen in a new light. The first half of the show was beautifully and discreetly installed, allowing the art to speak for itself, with the full confidence that art in and of itself is a powerful medium (these days a novel idea). There were no large and intrusive wall labels "contextualizing" and "explaining" everything (and nothing). It should be a lesson to us all that the galleries were packed with attentive viewers, content to be solely with art of this high order. The first part also was installed in the old galleries of the West Wing where the wainscoting and scale recreated, without gimmicks, the look and intimate feel of Stieglitz's galleries.

Ms. Greenough took pains to reassemble, as much as possible, the works that Stieglitz actually exhibited and collected. This was the real thing, not an approximation, and from the start, we felt as if we were there, witnesses to history in the making. It was thrilling to see gathered in one place watercolors, drawings, and collages by Rodin, Cezanne, Matisse, Picasso, and Braque--the artists who formed the very foundation of modern art--that had been exhibited in the early years at the 291 Gallery (1905-1917). In its insistence on exactitude in the early sections, the exhibition allowed us to experience something of what it must have been like for artists and public alike to sec work so dramatically different from anything shown previously.

Of special note was the small 1906 Nude in the Forest, the first painting by Henri Matisse to be shown and acquired in America. It had apparently been recently cleaned, for it fairly radiated a brilliance of color and texture far beyond its modest size. Matisse's pure color modeling vividly reminded us just why this painting was so radical and how it demonstrated to American artists the possibilities of color as an independent expressive element. Until now the influence of this powerful lesson in color had never been fully understood, or remarked upon. We will have to reassess its effect on emerging American artists, among them Arthur Dove. We have always known that Dove's early work was deeply affected by Matisse, but this painting, which was owned by the artist and framer George Of, a close friend of Stieglitz, has never been considered as a source. It is but one of the questions the show posed, one of the many historical and artistic points it made, contrary to the observation of The New York Times reviewer that the exhibition broke no new ground.

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