- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 27, 2001

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 (Jan. 28.)

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. The play of illusion vs. reality also made it one of the most important sources of later pop art.

The Stieglitz exhibits did not fit the accepted beliefs of what constituted art. Matisse's boldly stroked pen-and-brush ink drawing "Standing Nude"(1901-1903) is unabashedly sensuous.

The 58 drawings of female nudes by Rodin shown in 1908 were considered blatantly erotic, but Stieglitz persuaded the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to buy seven from Rodin's 1910 show. However, half the subscribers to the photographer's publication "Camera Work" canceled their subscriptions.

The International Exhibition of Modern Art, better known as the "Armory Show" (it was held in a former armory), showed more than 1,600 European and American paintings, sculptures and works on paper in 1913. Stieglitz chose not to participate, but the exhibition definitely helped his modernist cause. Even more important was the showing of Wassily Kandinsky's "The Garden of Love (Improvisation Number 27)" (1912). Stieglitz bought it for $500.

The painting would prove to be crucial to the photographer's "Equivalents" series of sky and clouds and Dove's cosmic images of sunrises, dancing trees, skies and the sea.

Stieglitz closed "291" when the United States entered World War I in 1917, as attendance declined and he faced mounting financial difficulties. He turned to his own photography between 1918 and 1921, producing some of his most inspired images with photos of Miss O'Keeffe. His close-ups of parts of her body probably were influenced by Brancusi's simplifications of human and bird forms.

His relationship with Miss O'Keeffe was a renowned love affair and marriage and has been retold many times. Miss O'Keefe entered his life in a roundabout way. Although she visited "291" many times while studying in New York, she never spoke to the owner. An O'Keeffe friend showed a roll of her charcoal sketches to Stieglitz in 1916, and he included some in his May group show. She objected at first but became part of the "Stieglitz circle."

Stieglitz organized shows of the work of American artists at the Anderson Galleries on Park Avenue in 1921. He rented a small room there in 1925 and called it the Intimate Gallery. He founded the gallery as a cooperative space that would create a sense of community among his artists. Although he thought of his artists — Miss O'Keeffe, John Marin, Hartley, Dove and Strand — as "my babies," he also was following in the steps of former utopian art communities such as William Morris' 19th-century "Arts and Crafts" Movement.

He opened "Alfred Stieglitz Presents Seven Americans" (the number includes himself and Charles Demuth) at Anderson in March 1925. Stieglitz gathered the artists he would support the rest of his life with this show.

Although the painters had learned from their European counterpoints, they began to sum up their lives as Americans. All were dedicated to creating a new kind of art that expressed contemporary America. They painted churches, skyscrapers and industrial architecture and rendered images of the country's natural landscape.

Stieglitz opened his last gallery, an American Place, in December 1929 on the 17th floor of a building at 509 Madison Ave. There he hung works by Dove, O'Keeffe and Marin, mixed occasionally with art by Hartley, Strand and Demuth. It was there they showed their strongest, most mature and most iconic art.

Sarah Greenough, curator for the show at the National Gallery of Art, effectively mounted small, monographic exhibits of each artist, though the Phillips recently showed several of the works.

Demuth developed his signature cubist style of combining organic and linear forms under Stieglitz's encouragement. The artist summed up the industrial landscape of his native Lancaster, Pa., with his "My Egypt" of 1927.

Miss O'Keeffe, who painted lyrical interpretations of nature, looked to photography for some of her techniques. She observed how photographers used lens of different focal lengths to compress space and pull the background to the foreground. The painter employed photographic close-ups for her superb renderings of flowers.

Stieglitz was especially close to Dove, and they maintained a rich personal and artistic relationship from 1910 until their deaths in 1946. Dove was the most innovative of the Stieglitz circle with his increasingly abstract expressions of the spiritual in nature.

The Phillips Collection presented a fuller version of his work in 1998 with "Arthur Dove, a Retrospective." His "Sunrise I" and "The Red One" appeared in both exhibits.

Hartley was a complex man and artist, and his full range is not documented in the exhibit. However, a roomful of his "German Officer" paintings of 1914 and 1915 are shown. He resolved his investigations into the occult and mysticism by returning to his home state of Maine and painting landscape masterpieces such "Mount Katahdin, Maine No. 2."

The exhibit ends with Marin's watercolor "Storm Over Taos" and his oils of heaving seascapes; Strand's famous "Blind" and hard-edge photos of machines; and Stieglitz's late photos of New York City and his home at Lake George, N.Y.

Although "Modern Art and America: Alfred Stieglitz and His New York Galleries" represents heroic and tenacious detective work by Miss Greenough and her photography department staff, the exhibitions of these artists are becoming repetitious.

Mr. Phillips also championed the American modernists. The Phillips Collection featured them in recent exhibitions such as "In the American Grain: Dove, Hartley, Marin, O'Keeffe, and Stieglitz" (1995); the Dove retrospective (1998); and "Georgia O'Keeffe: The Poetry of Things" (1999). It also included them in "The Eye of Duncan Phillips, a Collection in the Making" (1999).

The institutions need to address this increasing duplication.WHAT: "Modern Art and America: Alfred Stieglitz and His New York Galleries"WHERE: National Gallery of Art's West Wing, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue NWWHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday, tomorrow through April 22TICKETS: FreePHONE: 202/842-6353

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