A Very Modern Stieglitz

Article excerpt

Critics have called Alfred Stieglitz passionate, charismatic, willful and revolutionary. They have also described him as contrary, idiosyncratic, narcissistic and melodramatic.

His confrontations with artist Marsden Hartley and photographer Paul Strand, as well as Washington collector Duncan Phillips, were legendary.

Who is the real Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946), the photographer and arts promoter who almost single-handedly introduced European and American modernism to the United States? Contradictions, as well as accomplishments, evidently ruled his life.

The National Gallery of Art aims to assess the multitalented Stieglitz with its new blockbuster exhibit, "Modern Art and America: Alfred Stieglitz and His New York Galleries." The show, six years in the making, opens tomorrow.

The exhibit is the first to tackle the range of Stieglitz's contributions, and the National Gallery is well-equipped for the task.

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 a project called "Stieglitz," which began in 1999 with a new edition of the gallery's 1983 book "Alfred Stieglitz: Photographs and Writings."

Seven thematic presentations titled "Alfred Stieglitz: New Perspectives" on the gallery's Web site (www.nga.gov) followed. The publication in 2002 of a 600-page scholarly catalog with all 1,600 photographs and an exhibit of the photographer's work also is scheduled.

"Modern Art and America" aims to assess Stieglitz through his 95 exhibitions in New York 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, drawings by Pablo Picasso or sunrises by Arthur Dove - are what make this display extraordinary. The Phillips Collection recently showed "The Eye of Duncan Phillips, A Collection in the Making." The National Gallery could have named its exhibit, "The Eye of Alfred Stieglitz."

Consider his juxtaposition of two Picasso drawings, a reliquary sculpture of the Kota people of Gabon, an enormous wasp's nest and an empty brass bowl. The photographer called this installation photo "291-Picasso-Braque Exhibition" (1915).

The objects play off one another. The angular shapes of the Kota piece repeat themselves in the drawings. The calligraphic forms of the branches supporting the nest are restated in the calligraphic marks of Pablo Picasso. The oval of the African face echoes the oval of the nest.

These very different objects work well together but must have shocked many viewers at the time. The arrangement was part of Mr. Stieglitz's challenging the boundaries of art.

His revolution began in the attic of a brownstone at 291 Fifth Avenue. "It was the largest small room of its kind in the world," said painter Hartley.

The photographer launched his revolution from "291." He presented the first American exhibition of Henri Matisse's work in 1908. In April 1911, Stieglitz showed Picasso's complete evolution through cubism by surveying his drawings and paintings of that time. He gave the Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi his first one-man show in 1914.

He welcomed innovative artists Francis Picabia and Marcel Duchamp, who moved to New York in 1915.

Picabia believed "the genius of the modern world is machinery," but he also could give his mechanized world a humorous twist. He depicted Stieglitz as a camera and an American girl (perhaps collector Agnes Meyer) as a spark plug.

Duchamp also believed in the power of the machine. In 1917 he submitted a sculpture humorously titled "Fountain" - actually a urinal - "by R. Mutt" to the Society of Independent Artists in New York.

Stieglitz showed it for a few days after its rejection by the society, confirming that a machine-made object could be art. …