The Example of Alfred Stieglitz

Article excerpt

IMAGINE AN ART DEALER who put prospective buyers through an aesthetic cross-examination, who needed to be sure that would-be patrons were actually worthy of owning a particular work under his care. Imagine a dealer who, in the face of a growing and lucrative market for new European work, turned his back on foreign artists to promote only those native talents he felt were most adventurous, deserving, and overlooked. Imagine a dealer who didn't talk to artists about commissions, publicity, or trends. Imagine a dealer who regarded art education with suspicion, never toadied to museum poobahs, and refused to label any painting or sculpture a "smart buy." Not only is it impossible to conjure up such a quixotic image in the art world of 2001, but even the term "art dealer" seems a misnomer for an individual of so radical a bent. And, to be sure, Alfred Stieglitz had no use for the term or similar commercial ones like "client" or "investment." A "revolutionist" was Stiegliz's own preferred self-definition, and for want of anything better, that is what we have to work with. Even "aesthete" and "philosopher" are, in the end, wide of the mark.

"Modern Art and America: Alfred Stieglitz and His New York Galleries," a spring exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., was the first comprehensive look at this unique cultural figure ever assembled, and it was a curatorial triumph in many ways. The timing was also right as the controversies of his day recede into history. Stieglitz's relationship with Georgia O'Keeffe has been done to death, and all of the artists he promoted-e.g., John Marin, Arthur Dove, Charles Demuth, Marsden Hartley-have been the subject of retrospectives and monographs aplenty, all of which properly credit his role in their professional lives. Yet it is fair to wonder, even at what would appear to be a very late date, how he really figures in most people's understanding of America's cultural development and our current besotted relationship to the arts. Art historian William Innes Homer began the serious scholarship on Stieglitz thirty years ago with a fine academic book, long-since out of print. Stieglitz's acolyte, assistant, and lover from the 1930s, the late Dorothy Norman, pushed the hagiographic angle shortly thereafter (the subtitle of her memoir, still in print, is "An American Seer"), and his niece's daughter published a lengthy, creditable memoir a few years later. Museum attention to his photography-Stieglitz as artist rather than leader of the avant-garde-- has been extensive and judicious. A solid biography by Richard Whelan came out in the mid-1990s, while another by Judith Mara Gutman is eagerly awaited. (Gutman's project, given her exclusive access to Norman's papers and the fact that the book has been more than a decade in the making, is likely to be the definitive biography for our time.) At the National Gallery a sizeable rack of scholarly studies on one or another aspect of his intellectual circle was a bit daunting. Still, through no fault of the art historians, there are ways in which Alfred Stieglitz seems profoundly, sadly irrelevant to our age, and any corrective effort is to be applauded. The problem is: is anyone listening?

The basis for this exhibition was a re-creation of the three galleries Stieglitz operated in New York City between 1908 and 1946. This involved bringing together 190 artworks and arranging them in a yearby-year sequence, paralleling the galleries' exhibition schedules. The early exhibitions at "291," so-called because of its location at 291 Fifth Avenue, introduced Americans to the newest European art-Cezanne watercolors, Fauve oils by Matisse (his first showing on this side of the Atlantic), Rodin's late figure drawings-in a small, quiet space not likely to attract any but artists and serious students of art. Open to the fervor, if not the hoopla, of the 1913 Armory Show, Stieglitz bought Vassily Kandinsky's The Garden of Love (Improvisation No. …