Grateful tribute to Stieglitz as collector

The name Alfred Stieglitz conjures the Flatiron Building flickering in the snow and ships spurting steam into coal-clouded air. Even as he was taking these moody photographic portraits of New York bounding into the 20th century, Stieglitz insisted that if America wanted to be a modern country, it had better get to know what was genuinely new in painting and sculpture. The legendary Armory Show of 1913 generally gets the credit for rattling the sensibilities of an aesthetically conservative country, but years earlier Stieglitz had already opened his tiny gallery at 291 Fifth Avenue, where he presided as a prophet of photography as art before moving on to promoting European painters and a small circle of Americans who shared his quivering moral passion.

The record of his enthusiasms is on display at the Metropolitan Museum in an uneven but grateful tribute to Stieglitz as collector. A monster exhibition of the paintings and sculptures he amassed – or some of them, anyway – snakes through the galleries. (Though it will not do so for much longer: catch it while you can.) A smaller, separate show contains several dozen masterpieces of Pictorialist photography plucked from his hoard of 600 prints. Astonishingly, the Met did not have to borrow a thing: in 1949, Stieglitz’s widow, Georgia O’Keeffe, donated hundreds of works from his estate. This is the first time so many of them have been seen together.

This barrage of stuff raises the question: did the missionary of modernism have good taste? The answer is equivocal. His judgment was at once astounding and erratic, keenest where he had the least invested personally. Stieglitz shrewdly purchased a handful of Picasso drawings from the early years of cubism, including the spectacular “Standing Female Nude” from 1910. He boasted a bit when he described it as “probably the finest Picasso drawing in existence” but he was not wrong to call it “as perfect as a Bach Fugue”. (Many of his contemporaries disagreed. When it appeared in Picasso’s debut show at 291, one critic described the thick black lines and hazy hatchings as “the design of some ill-balanced brain for a fire escape, and not a good fire escape at that”.)

Stieglitz was more grudgingly perspicacious about Gino Severini, whom he agreed to exhibit in 1916. “Today the Severinis came from France,” he informed O’Keeffe. “The colour is acid and gives me the creeps – the work is thin.” His posture became even more aggressive as the show approached: “I hate the stuff that is to go up Monday.” Yet Severini’s “Dancer=Propeller=Clown” a kaleidoscopic, diamond-shaped canvas flaunting a rainbow’s worth of hues, remained in the dealer’s possession for another 30 years. Its translucent, overlapping planes would inspire such New Yorkers as the futurist-in-training, Joseph Stella.

Stieglitz laid another cornerstone for America’s artistic destiny when he bought Kandinsky’s “Improvisation 27 (Garden of Love II)” at the Armory show. It was the first of the Russian’s paintings to cross the Atlantic and Stieglitz paid $500 for it. He did not so much adore the bright squiggly forms as feel that they had something to teach. The painting “should stay in America for young workers to see”, he wrote to the artist in 1913.

Stieglitz showered New York with discoveries. From Europe, he brought in Rodin, Toulouse-Lautrec, Signac and Matisse. He gave Constantin Brancusi his very first show at 291. He promoted Americans, too, including Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley and, of course, O’Keeffe. He was his own best client, displaying works in the gallery, then snapping them up for his own collection.

Even a visionary has blind spots, however. Too often, Stieglitz trusted the brushwork of friends when his eye should have contradicted his heart. Abraham Walkowitz laboured 12 hours a day as a gallery assistant at 291; Stieglitz rewarded him for that loyalty with four one-man shows and copious praise. He evidently regarded Walkowitz’s crude portraits of Isadora Duncan and his Cézannesque landscapes as evidence of what he termed “the pure spirit”.

He lavished attention on his close friend John Marin, purchasing his watercolours by the pound. The Met bequest included 138 of his prints and watercolours but that represents only a fraction of Stieglitz’s Marin holdings – many were traded back to the artist, or were given by O’Keeffe to other institutions. Facile with watercolour and fastidious with a brush, he infused a Whitmanesque vision of New York with Delaunay’s raucous planes. In his hands, the Woolworth Building sways and dissolves into atmosphere and the Brooklyn Bridge detonates into a welter of rearing pavement and splintering arches. Still, it is hard to see why the exacting Stieglitz was so besotted by so many fussy Marin cityscapes and pretty Maine scenes.

Stieglitz could be equally arbitrary in his dislikes. For some reason, he distrusted the virtuosity of Charles Demuth and kept him firmly at the periphery. A number of watercolours crept into his possession anyway, but these form an uncharacteristically delicate melange of landscapes, flowers and fish. Demuth’s best work is the hallucinatory proto-pop icon “I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold” (1928), which made its way into Stieglitz’s collection through the back door. When Demuth died in 1935, he left all his oils to O’Keeffe, who added them to the Met gift. Thank goodness she did. Demuth evokes a fire engine roaring through the night, in sync with the William Carlos Williams’ poem that lends the painting its title: “tense/unheeded/to gong clangs/siren howls/and wheels rumbling”.

The show concludes with a gallery of paintings by O’Keeffe, whose early career bloomed under Stieglitz’s astute curatorial care and whose body he enshrined in a series of fierce close-ups. She returned the favour, immortalising his reputation as a guru by making the Met a gift of huge generosity. This show is the posthumous progeny of one of art history’s most intense relationships.

‘Stieglitz and His Artists: Matisse to O’Keefe’, to January 2, and ‘Photographic Treasures from the Collection of Alfred Stieglitz’ to February 26.

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