- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 15, 2002

The National Gallery of Art has mounted during the last half-century six major exhibitions of the work of the pioneer American photographer Alfred Stieglitz. Additionally, a thematic series titled "Alfred Stieglitz: New Perspectives" has appeared on the gallery's Web site for the past two years.

The gallery now presents the exhibit "Alfred Stieglitz: Known and Unknown," consisting of 102 images from its collection. The show celebrates the publication of "Alfred Stieglitz: The Key Set (The Alfred Stieglitz Collection of Photographs)," a 1,012-page, two-volume study of the photographer's always innovative work. Although highly informative, the catalog probably is the most unwieldy any museum has put out in a long time. It costs $150.

The National Gallery was the single most important institution to stamp what are now iconic Stieglitz photos on the American consciousness. The show's "The Steerage" of 1907 was one of the photographer's first forays into pictorial formalism. Stieglitz (1864 to 1946) diagonally bisected the image to make the spatially compressed, below-deck quarters intensely claustrophobic.

Most will recognize Stieglitz's "Self-Portrait" (probably 1911), with the bushy white mustache, rimless glasses and generous mop of hair. The many photos of his wife, the painter Georgia O'Keeffe, are now so familiar they're somewhat hackneyed.

Then there are the abstractions of clouds he called "equivalents" and his powerful views of New York City.

Can a museum show too much of a good thing? In this case, yes. Exhibit curator Sarah Greenough, gallery curator of photographs, even curtailed the size of the current exhibition because she closed the large, comprehensive "Modern Art and America: Alfred Stieglitz and His New York Galleries" little more than a year ago. It was a rich, important exhibition that explored Stieglitz's crucial role in the development of modern art in the United States as photographer, publisher and gallery director.

True, the curator has a multitude of riches. When Stieglitz died, Miss O'Keeffe spent three years selecting the best of her husband's photographs for what she called "the key set" of 1,642 images. They include his series on her one of his most famous photographed between 1917 and 1937. After an unsuccessful offer to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, she gave the key set to the National Gallery. It is the single largest collection of photos by the celebrated photographer.

This small show includes 47 images not exhibited before. As with many of the previous Stieglitz exhibits, "Known and Unknown" shows the photographer searching for an artistic language, finding visual and technical tools and reusing them for many years.

Stieglitz's first moves to early radicalism in his art were, as Miss Greenough writes in the catalog, "the leap from pictorialism to modernism in the early 1910s."

Born in Hoboken, N.J., in 1864 to a wealthy, cultured family, Stieglitz first studied in Germany where he learned basic photographic techniques. He also worked and studied with painters in Germany, Switzerland and Italy.

Working with artists, and incorporating their ideas, was a constant during his career, as was seen even more clearly in the recent "Modern Art and America: Alfred Stieglitz and His New York Galleries" show. His work from 1890 to 1904, after his return to the United States, shows even closer ties with the French artist Jean Francois Millet, the German Max Lieberman and the American James Abbott McNeill Whistler.

Stieglitz used a small, hand-held camera. He employed "every means available to transform his images, as he wrote, from mere 'photographs [into] into pictures,'" the curator states on one of the exhibition labels. Stieglitz probably learned his radical cropping, such as in "The Steerage," from Whistler, who introduced it from Japanese woodblock prints.

The photographer's small series "From the Back-Window 291" of 1915 was one of the first that used geometrized shapes.

By showing works by Paul Cezanne, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso and Constantin Brancusi at his 291 gallery in New York in 1905, Stieglitz turned to more formalist approaches. These can be seen in his 1915-16 series on New York and the riveting portraits he made. In "Marius de Zayas" (1913) and "Georgia O'Keeffe" (1917), he posed the artists in front of their own paintings.

Stieglitz was forced to close 291 when the United States entered World War I in 1917. He was able to concentrate on his own photography and produced some of his most inspired work when Miss O'Keeffe entered his life.

Theirs was a renowned love affair and marriage. He created the photos of Miss O'Keeffe in both the heat of passion and the rationale of his vision of womanhood as "the Great Child" a late-19th-century conception of woman as part child, part temptress.

His close-up shots of parts of her body probably came from Brancusi's simplifications of human and bird forms. Stieglitz photographed so many parts of her body torso, legs, feet and hands and full portraits that it's no wonder that Miss O'Keeffe began to live and work more and more in New Mexico. After all, she had her own work to do.

Every show of this seminal photographer's work adds insights into his accomplishments, inspirations and working methods. But enough is enough. The publication of "Alfred Stieglitz: The Key Set," and the concomitant "Alfred Stieglitz: Known and Unknown" exhibit, are major achievements. It's time, however, to showcase the work of other deserving photographers.


WHAT: "Alfred Stieglitz: Known and Unknown"

WHERE: National Gallery of Art's West Building, Seventh Street at Constitution Avenue NW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays, through Sept. 2

TICKETS: Free

PHONE: 202/737-4215


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