Painting Gender, Constructing Theory: The Alfred Stieglitz Circle and American Formalist Aesthetics
Clifford, Marie, Art Journal
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. Instead of advancing the work of European artists and the cause of modern art in general, as had been the case at 291, from this period forward Stieglitz self-consciously positioned himself as the progenitor of a uniquely American brand of modernism. As a critical framework, embodied formalism helped Stieglitz build a cohesive type of American modernism and control its reception.
To trace the formation and subsequent impact of embodied formalism, Brennan organizes her book chronologically, spanning the years between the wars. She does so to underline a trajectory from the Stieglitz circle's cenlrality in the American art world, to its increasing loss of "potency" in the late 1930s, culminating in Clement Greenberg's dismissal of the group's significance in the 1940s, during the rise of Abstract Expressionism. Brennan readily accepts a shopworn paradigmatic history of American modernism that privileges the Sticgliz. circle over, for example, the Whitney Studio Group, the Harlem Renaissance artists, and innumerable other artists. However, by extending her chronological purview into the 1930s and 1940s, Brennan usefully attempts to supply a missing link between the "sensual" formalism espoused in the 1920s and the self-critical model associated with Greenberg. Brennan uses individual case studies of specific artists and critics to reveal that discussions of gender, sexuality, and the body were nuanced, and varied within Stieglitz's overall project.
According Io Brcntian lhis path Io authority and success pivoted on the notion that "the body served as a primary vehicle of signification within Stieglitz's modernist project" (8). For readers familiar with the sexualized art criticism related to O'Keeffe, this is familiar ground. But Brennan's analysis is primarily about masculinity, making her book a useful corrective to studies that assign the role of gender in early American modernism exclusively to O'Keeffe. just as the concept of gender makes distinctions between the self and the other and defines and organizes other kinds of knowledge, this critical vocabulary served to differentiate between Stieglitz's modernism and competitors, like New York Dada, as well to mark differences among Stieglitz's artists. Above all, Stieglitz, the leader, dealer, and image-maker, was figured in terms of phallic power and authority.
Although Brennan states at numerous times that the critical vocabularies of the Stieglitz group relied on gendered metaphors that were "aesthetic analogues" for the (symbolic) body, she does not consider other relevant historical factors that surely would have affected the discourses of embodied formalism. For Brennan, such formalism is theoretical and hermetic. For instance, the idea thai Stieglitz and followers were battling "Puritanism" fails to consider that this very term was a rhetorical holdover from the Progressive era and that by the early 1920s almost any gripe could be packaged as anti-Puritanism. Given the Ash Can School's emphasis on virility and sexual liberation, and the abundance of body metaphors in its own writings, is it possible that Stieglitz was actually modifying a form of criticism that had already proved effective and popular? Definitions of masculinity and femininity and the cultural work such notions performed changed from the 1920s to the Great Depression, and again after World War II. If we accept that gender and the body are discursively produced, then the discourse of embodied formalism was one of many that contributed to ideas about femininity and masculinity. It would have been ineffective without intersecting other social and political concepts of the body. A few examples that come to mind include the flapper, feminism, and eugenics, not to mention widespread belief in a "crisis" of masculinity during the economic woes of the 1930s and the early years of the Cold War. Finally, Brennan is not inclined to see modernism itself as a form of discourse.
Of course, Brennan's purpose is to revise the idea that formalism was monolithic and uninvenlivc, nol Io situate lhc Slicglitz circle's aesthetics in historical context. Her analysis extends from the Kantian notion that pure aesthetic meaning can only occupy conceptual zones between object and subject, because such sites are neither objective nor subjective.Thus she constantly asserts that the Stieglitz artists were dealing with a conceptual area suspended between embodiment (object) and disembodiment (subject). In chapters about O'Keeffe, Dove, and Marin, Brennan contends that, because their work was neither abstract nor naturalistic, these artists' paintings occupied an intermediate space between evocation (of, say, the spiritual realm) and demarcation (a form that was tied to a physical object, like human breasts). Consequently, a viewer's desire to productively understand these images required the assertion of a bodily presence-the viewer's, the artist's, or Stieglitz's-to provide structure, both in terms of the pictorial composition and in interpretation.
In this way, Brennan offers a fresh reading of the critical tendency to see O'Keeffe's organic imagery as sexually charged or as a version of the artist's own body. She rounds out this well-known criticism of O'Keeffe with a sustained analysis of similar sexual metaphors related to fertility ascribed to the work of Dove and Marin, and to the influence of her husband, Stieglitz. His "body" mediated the portrayal of the other artists. Brennan characterizes these relationships in psychoanalytic terms, noting that the group's dynamics were "intersubjective," relational, and based on identification with one another. For example, Brennan suggests that through the discourse of embodied formalism Dove and O'Keeffe offered complementary abstractions based on masculine and feminine codes of'reprodnclion and heterosexuality, which in turn were inflected by Stieglitz's phallic power to generate critical interpretations that endorsed this reading.
Brennan's most original case studies explore what happened when Stieglitz encountered challenges to the feasibility of embodied formalism. Her chapter about Hartley and Demutii details how the artists' homosexuality upset Stieglitz's desire to relate gender and the body to the spirit of regeneration, premised on intersubjectivc identification with the "other." She provides a fascinating account of the group's thinly disguised homophobia. Queer bodies not only troubled the heterosexual male bias of embodied formalism, but also frustrated the tendency to read gender and the body as transparent and accessible.To garner favor with Stieglitz, the two painters, like the more sycophantic Rosenfeld, tried to portray their work and the work of other artists, like O'Keeffe, in terms compatible with the leader's aesthetics. Stieglit/. accepted their endorsement but used Hartley's and Demuth's sexual difference to shore up the heterosexual norm of his critical system. Brennan concludes that "the limitations of the Stieglitz circle's embodied formalist model are perhaps most clearly demonstrated by the group's most marginal members" (199).This observation is significant because it is one of the rare moments in her study when the author acknowledges that critical systems, such as formalism, take on cultural duties-establishing gender hierarchies, masking political self-interest, denning taste-that are extra-artistic.
An early chapter that discusses the competing "body aesthetics" of Stieglitz aud Marcel Duchamp is especially rich. Brennan's reading of'Stieglitz's photograph of Duchamp's 1917 Fountain persuasively demonstrates how the photographer appropriated Duchamp's readymade, but also how he revamped Dada's antiformalism into a sensual aesthetic compatible with his own ideas about modernism. By using the mechanism of photography to accomplish this act of appropriation, Stieglitz countered a rival critical system with the "phallic camera," an analogue for Stieglilz's appointed role as a spokesperson for modern art. Brennan foregrounds this theme of rivalry and competition in the book's two concluding chapters. First she characterizes Thomas Hart Benton and Thomas Craven's vociferous attacks on the Stieglitz group as a type of Oedipal struggle for leadership in American art, figured as a contest in virility. second, she explains Greenberg's condemnation of lhis earlier generation of modernists as an earnest attempt to destroy the credibility of embodied formalism, even as Marin's "ejaculate" brushwork was cast as antecedent to Jackson Pollock's drip paintings. While I acknowledge that the theoretical case she presents is exceptionally well thought out (and space does not permit a discussion worthy of Brennan's nuanced argument), I nonetheless found these last case studies the least convincing, especially when compared with the Duchamp chapter. During these years entirely different issues affected writings about art. New understandings of modernism stemmed from a variety of social and artistic sites (e.g., WPA art, the Museum of Modern Art, and Hitler's denigration of modern art and the American response) not just art criticism, and need to be factored into a broader reassessment of Stieglitz's aesthetic vision in this period. Without a consideration of social and historical issues of the day, there is no sense of what is at stake in Benton and Greenberg's revisionism.
I imagine that a number of art historians, especially Americanists, will object to Brennan's ahistorical approach and her formalist bias. I myself wondered why Brennan, whose book is meticulously researched, bypassed a wealth of feminist revisionist studies about modernism. However, this study is provocative, original, and an important contribution to a rapidly expanding bibliography on the Stieglitz circle and related artists. Brennan's book is the first serious and sustained investigation into a body of criticism that has either been side-stepped by scholars or dismissed as too oblique to exist as a logical critical system. Anyone interested in the Stieglitz group will benefit from reading Brennan's book.
Marie Clifford obtained her Ph.D. in American art history at the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1999. She is assistant professor in the Department of Art History and Visual Culture Studies at Whitman College. Her book, Built by Beauty: Helena Rubinstein's Art Collection, Fashion, and the American Reception of Modern Art, is forthcoming from University of Pennsylvania Press.…
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Publication information: Article title: Painting Gender, Constructing Theory: The Alfred Stieglitz Circle and American Formalist Aesthetics. Contributors: Clifford, Marie - Author. Journal title: Art Journal. Volume: 63. Issue: 1 Publication date: Spring 2004. Page number: 93+. © 2008 College Art Association. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.