He was one of the most vivid, idealistic, stubborn and thorny characters ever to appear in American culture. He was a battler, a moralist, an unstoppable advocate for the artists he loved, a connoisseur of the erotic and one of the greatest photographers who ever tripped a shutter. Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) was the first American art dealer young modernism had. But to call him a dealer does him no justice. His influence was huge, and entirely for the good. Yet where was the great exhibition that traced his life's work? The one that showed in detail how "his" artists related to him and, through him, to the embryonic American public for new art?
Answer: it just opened at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. "Modern Art and America: Alfred Stieglitz and His New York Galleries" is a wonderfully informative show, assembled at the highest level of quality, full of protein, no fat. It is installed with perfect taste and simplicity--as it should be, since that was how Stieglitz showed new art in his 291 Gallery, plain and direct. Organized by art historian Sarah Greenough and backed up by an excellent catalog with essays by a dozen leading art historians, the show is a must-see if you want to understand how modernism grew in the U.S.; how America caught up with itself and with Paris; how, in the extraordinary blossoming of the first decades of the 20th century, American painting, sculpture and photography, in large part thanks to Stieglitz's fervent early support, became as "modern" as American bridges, skyscrapers and trains.
Born in 1864 to wealthy Jewish parents, Stieglitz was schooled in New York City but spent most of the 1880s in Germany, studying the relatively young art of which he was to be such a master: photography. This was his first obsession, and when he got back to New York, he made up his mind to revolutionize it. Most American photographers, to him, were stuffy and sentimental "pictorialists," so bent on imitating the look of painting that they couldn't treat photography as an equal, independent medium. He developed a "straight" photography--direct, candid and true to nature--that captured American city experience as it had never been caught on film before, from the steaming draft horses in The Terminal, 1893, to the exquisitely etched, near Japanese view of the Flatiron Building in snow, 1902. The hundreds of photos he made of Georgia O'Keeffe, his lover and (after 1924) his wife, are an intense and extended erotic essay. Never before had a camera scrutinized a woman so closely or praised a fine-boned body with such rapturous aesthetic effect.
With his friend Edward Steichen, he founded what they called the Photo-Secession, a small group of progressive American photographers. For some 14 years after 1903, its superbly produced magazine, Camera Work (which Stieglitz edited and oversaw), set an unbeatable standard for art publishing in the U.S. The impact of Stieglitz's work, and his charismatic personality, on younger photographers like Paul Strand was incalculable. If Stieglitz had made nothing but photographs, he would deserve a permanent niche in the American pantheon--an idea that probably would have offended him, who thought in terms of change, not permanence.