"Modern Art and America: Alfred Stieglitz and His New York Galleries"

By Naumann, Francis M. | Artforum International, May 2001 | Go to article overview

"Modern Art and America: Alfred Stieglitz and His New York Galleries"


Naumann, Francis M., Artforum International


NATIONAL GALLERY, WASHINGTON, DC

In the first half of the twentieth century, Alfred Stieglitz did more to introduce modern art to an American public than--arguably--any other single individual. Even for all of his fame as a photographer, he will probably be best remembered as an art dealer, a profession whose commercial activities he disdained. In an era when ego and greed have earned many gallerists the kind of reputation usually reserved for used-car salesmen, it is remarkable that a major American museum--the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, no less--would organize an exhibition that acknowledges the contribution made to the history of modern art by its premiere American dealer.

"Modern Art and America: Alfred Stieglitz and His New York Galleries" was organized by Sarah Greenough, curator of photographs at the National Gallery and an acknowledged expert on Stieglitz. The National Gallery was the ideal place to host such an exhibition, for in 1949, Georgia O'Keeffe, who served as executor of Stieglitz's estate, gave the institution 1,550 of his prints, a collection so complete that it has become known as the "master set." Greenough not only served as curator of the exhibition, but also edited the show's massive catalogue, which contains essays by a host of notable scholars.

In 1902, Stieglitz founded the Photo Secession, a group dedicated to the pro motion of photography as a fine art. Three years later, on the suggestion of fellow photographer Edward Steichen, he opened the Little Galleries of the Photo Secession in a small room on the top floor of an old brownstone at 291 Fifth Avenue (between Thirtieth and Thirty-first Streets). The main purpose of the gallery was to showcase photography, but from the very beginning, it was open to the possibility of including "other art productions." A year later, Stieglitz began showing paintings and drawings with the intention of demonstrating, as he explained in the pages of Camera Work (a magazine he edited and had published since 1902), that "the Secessionist Idea is neither the servant nor the product of a medium." For ten years, from 1907 through 1917, the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession--better known as 291 (from its street address)--staged some of the most important early exhibitions of modern art held in America, featuring artists like Auguste Rodin, Henri Matisse, Paul Cezanne, Pablo Picasso, Constantin Brancusi, and other European modernists; in most cases, these were the first showings of their work in New York.

Stieglitz was a man with an agenda. He wanted photography to be accepted as a fine art, but he also knew that American art could only benefit from being placed in the context of vanguard European art. Contrary to popular belief (then and now), Stieglitz's motives were not purely altruistic. If he managed to get photography accepted as art, he would be one of the first photographers to attain this new, elevated status. As Greenough and her colleagues point out in the National Gallery catalogue, Stieglitz staged a series of three exhibitions at his gallery---before, during, and just after the Armory Show in 1913--that were designed to force a comparison not only between American and

European art, but between modern art and photography. The first was a show of Marin watercolors, the second a selection of his own photographs (held at the same time as the Armory Show, and thereby placing his work at the center of what he himself described as "a diabolical test"), and the third a series of gouaches and watercolors by Francis Picabia, the only major European modernist to be in New York during the time of the Armory Show.

It would be logical to presume that the Armory Show's great success might have pleased Stieglitz, for many of the artists who were included--not only the Europeans, but the Americans as well--showed for the first time at 291. But Stieglitz wanted his gallery to remain an experiment, a laboratory of radical ideas that would continue to generate lively debate, with Stieglitz serving as its ever-present moderator and guiding light. …

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