Critics’ Picks

Carl Van Vechten, Gertrude Stein with American Flag, 1935, black-and-white photograph, 9 7/16 x 6 13/16.”

Carl Van Vechten, Gertrude Stein with American Flag, 1935, black-and-white photograph, 9 7/16 x 6 13/16.”

San Francisco

“Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories”

Contemporary Jewish Museum
736 Mission Street
May 12–September 6, 2011

To live up to the appellation “grande dame of transatlantic modernism,” the honorific bestowed on Gertrude Stein by one of the curators of this substantial exhibition devoted to her mediated life, is no small task. Stein always appeared to walk on solid, ego-bolstered ground, and the fittingly literate “Five Stories” takes a faceted approach to illuminating, and to a degree problematizing, her activities as a writer, art collector, networker, public intellectual, and queer trailblazer. It does so through a collection of artifacts, digital slide shows, and vintage and recent artworks (by Deborah Kass, Glenn Ligon, Steve Wolfe, Tammy Rae Carland, and others) accompanied by extensive and surprisingly engaging wall texts. While the latter element suggests the exhibition might simply be its catalogue expanded into actual space, it functions surprisingly well on its text-oriented terms.

The curators, Wanda Corn and Tirza True Latimer, seem less concerned with humanizing Stein and her life partner and quiet collaborator, Alice B. Toklas, than with fleshing out how the couple constructed their status as mythic icons. Arranged in sections (termed “stories” by the curators), the show uses portraits to track Stein’s evolving physical presence, particularly in settling on modes of dress and in the daring Caesar hairstyle she adopted in 1926 and wore in numerous portraits. In a “story” section that emphasizes the importance and bravery of Stein and Toklas’s publicly queer life, a quietly domestic tale reveals itself through a re-creation of the bird-motif wallpaper that adorned the Paris apartment the pair shared. Stein’s publishing profile emerges through vitrines filled with numerous editions of her books. Steering clear of hagiography, the wall text notes Stein’s patronage of and friendship with a retinue of gay male artists and writers, but also a lack of support of women artists, as well as her troublesome political positions (and convenient allies) during World War II. “Five Stories” manages to read as a rich, complex biography of an artist whose achievements continue to hold aesthetic and social relevance.