Stieglitz and His Artists: Matisse to O’Keeffe at the Met

by Michael Pepi, December 2011

One of Marius de Zayas’ charcoal portraits of Alfred Stieglitz hanging in Stieglitz and His Artists: Matisse to O’Keeffe at the Metropolitan Museum of Art carries the subtitle “L’accoucher d’idées (The Midwife to Ideas).” The subtitle is a fitting description for Stieglitz, who, in addition to his groundbreaking work as photographer, was perhaps the most influential figure in American modernism, tirelessly championing artists from the European avant-garde while also supporting his own group of pivotal Americans. Through early work at his 291 gallery (opened in 1905) and later at the Intimate Gallery and finally at An American Place, Stieglitz eluded the standard practice of a dealer—the notion of commerce, or even bookkeeping, escaped him. Yet, from 1905 until his death in 1946, his work helped define the terms upon which modernism fit the American experience.

Stieglitz and His Artists is an extraordinary survey that highlights the breadth and influence of Stieglitz through his singular collection of European and American modern art, bequeathed in 1949 to the Metropolitan Museum of Art by Georgia O’Keeffe. Despite the titular emphasis on Stieglitz as a doyen of early modernism, curator Lisa Mintz Messinger positions the collection to also highlight the roles of Stieglitz’s close advisors: Paul Haviland, Marius de Zayas and Edward Steichen. Their backgrounds and knowledge granted Stieglitz access to the European modernists. It was Steichen, abroad in Paris, who introduced the French avant-garde to Stieglitz, and thus by extension, helped introduce them to American audiences. The exhibition’s opening rooms display works from Matisse, Picasso, Toulouse-Lautrec and Rodin, many of which came into Stieglitz’s possession after being shown at 291.

Stieglitz’s exhibitions of living artists, especially his fellow Americans, were a defining characteristic of his mission, one that ran counter to contemporary institutional practice, notably that of the conservative Metropolitan Museum of Art and Alfred Barr’s Eurocentric Museum of Modern Art. Seminal moments in the development of American modernism occurred through the 291 gallery. In January of 1908, for example, its exhibition of drawings by Auguste Rodin was the first time a modern artist was shown in the United States.

After the explosive Amory show in 1913 Stieglitz’s later career focused on a small group of American modernists. If there is one reinvigorated aspect of Stieglitz’s well-documented life to emerge from the Met’s display, it is undoubtedly the resonance, mastery and centrality of John Marin. Marin’s deep comprehension of the tenets of modernism, as conveyed in his watercolors and etchings, appear to capture the literary project of William Carlos Williams; in the words on one writer, both artists “recognized the need to assimilate European avant-garde forms and techniques with their individual sensibilities and American lives.”

Steichen visited Marin’s Paris studio with Stieglitz around the time Marin was executing etchings and watercolors of the city and its environs, such as Notre-Dame, Paris (1908) and The Quay, Seine, Paris (1909). In 1909, 291 held an exhibit featuring twenty-five of Marin’s watercolors, and soon after in 1910 Marin had his first solo show at the gallery. Stieglitz always felt that, of all his artists, Marin’s vision was the closest to his own. Contrary to Robert Henri’s Ashcan school, Stieglitz’s strain of anti-academicism sought solitude and refuge in natural forms, delineating those in his circle from “the eight,” who satisfied their rebellion through the representation of social and political subjects. Marin’s cohesive etchings and watercolors employed modeling that constantly played with the tensions of the natural and the man-made. In Mills and Footbridge, Meaux (1908) Marin’s color splotches neatly echo in the foreground, and he could not help but draw a formal connection to his handling of the flora in Plant Growth Voulangis, France (1909).

Throughout a period in American art where the advent of modernism was fast drawing lines across social, literary and visual fields, Stieglitz’s charismatic and steadfast championing of his circle comprises source material for several chapters in the American aesthetic experience. The Met’s encyclopedic offering leaves little of Stieglitz’s terrain unexamined, and presents the objects in vivid context of the period’s diverse developments.

Stieglitz and His Artists: Matisse to O’Keeffe
13 October 2011—2 January 2012
Metropolitan Museum
New York