Washington, DC

“Alfred Stieglitz and His New York Galleries”

National Gallery of Art

In the first half of the twentieth century, Alfred Stieglitz did more to introduce modern art to an American public than—arguably—any other single individual. Even for all of his fame as a photographer, he will probably be best remembered as an art dealer, a profession whose commercial activities he disdained. In an era when ego and greed have earned many gallerists the kind of reputation usually reserved for used-car salesmen, it is remarkable that a major American museum—the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, no less—would organize an exhibition that acknowledges the contribution made to the history of modern art by its premiere American dealer.

“Modern Art and America: Alfred Stieglitz and His New York Galleries” was organized by Sarah Greenough, curator of photographs at the National Gallery and an acknowledged expert on Stieglitz. The National Gallery was the ideal place to host such an exhibition, for in 1949, Georgia O’Keeffe, who served as executor of Stieglitz’s estate, gave the institution 1,550 of his prints, a collection so complete that it has become known as the “master set.” Greenough not only served as curator of the exhibition, but also edited the show’s massive catalogue, which contains essays by a host of notable scholars.

In 1902, Stieghtz founded the Photo-Secession, a group dedicated to the promotion of photography as a fine art. Three years later, on the suggestion of fellow photographer Edward Steichen, he opened the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession in a small room on the top floor of an old brownstone at 291 Fifth Avenue (between Thirtieth and Thirty-first Streets). The main purpose of the gallery was to showcase photography, but from the very beginning, it was open to the possibility of including “other art productions.” A year later, Stieglitz began showing paintings and drawings with the intention of demonstrating, as he explained in the pages of Camera Work (a magazine he edited and had published since 1902), that “the Secessionist Idea is neither the servant nor the product of a medium.” For ten years, from 1907 through 1917, the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession—better known as 291 (from its street address)—staged some of the most important early exhibitions of modern art held in America, featuring artists like Auguste Rodin, Henri Matisse, Paul Cézanne, Pablo Picasso, Constantin Brancusi, and other European modernists; in most cases, these were the first showings of their work in New York.

Stieglitz was a man with an agenda. He wanted photography to be accepted as a fine art, but he also knew that American art could only benefit from being placed in the context of vanguard European art. Contrary to popular belief (then and now), Stieglitz’s motives were not purely altruistic. If he managed to get photography accepted as art, he would be one of the fist photographers to attain this new, elevated status. As Greenough and her colleagues point out in the National Gallery catalogue, Stieghtz staged a series of three exhibitions at his gallery—before, during, and just after the Armory Show in 1913—that were designed to force a comparison not only between American and European art, but between modern art and photography. The first was a show of Marin watercolors, the second a selection of his own photographs (held at the same time as the Armory Show, and thereby placing his work at the center of what he himself described as “a diabolical test”), and the third a series of gouaches and watercolors by Francis Picabia, the only major European modernist to be in New York during the time of the Armory Show.

It would be logical to presume that the Armory Show’s great success might have pleased Stieglitz, for many of the artists who were included—not only the Europeans, but the Americans as well—showed for the first time at 291. But Stieglitz wanted his gallery to remain an experiment, a laboratory of radical ideas that would continue to generate lively debate, with Stieglitz serving as its ever-present moderator and guiding light. Moreover, with success came money—if not actual cash, then at least the implication that substantial amounts of money changed hands when a work of art sold, an impression that Stieglitz did everything in his power to refute. Indeed, throughout his career as a dealer, Stieglitz used his own personal income to subsidize the rent and operating expenses of his various galleries, although he was willing to accept outside support (as when Paul Haviland, a dent of the gallery whose father owned a successful porcelain company in France, volunteered to pay the gallery’s rent in 1908). Whenever anything sold, Stieglitz retained a 15 percent commission “for the benefit of the Photo-Secession treasury,” an amount he raised to 20 percent in 1909. These earnings not only contributed to the gallery’s overhead, but were used to establish a fund to support the artists whose work Stieglitz represented. He believed that in order for artists to be truly free to create, they should never be concerned with the money their work might or might not be worth (any thoughts of that kind he equated with prostitution).

As a result of his conviction that art should not be treated as a commercial commodity, Stieglitz’s dealings with clients of the gallery could be highly irregular. He insisted, for example, that pictures needed to “find homes instead of owners.” Stieglitz preferred to envision the gallery more as a not-for-profit cooperative than as a potential source of income for himself or his artists. “What Stieglitz resented more than anything else,” recalled Maria Rapp, secretary at 291 for several years, “was to have someone who had money come in and offer to buy a painting as if it were a shop or as if the work were some commodity. If he thought they wanted to buy just because they had money, he might double the price of the painting. If someone else came in and was just crazy about something, and had nothing else in mind, he would let them have it for half-price!”

Eventually, a number of 291’s insiders decided that the gallery needed a more commercial outlet. In 1915, with the help and encouragement of Haviland and Picabia, as well as financial baclung from Agnes Ernst (who was married to the wealthy New York banker, Eugene Meyer Jr.), Marius de Zayas opened the Modern Gallery at 500 Fifth Avenue (at Forty-second Street, about ten blocks north of 291). De Zayas was a Mexican caricature artist who had worked closely with Stieglitz for years, even helping to organize several exhibitions for 291. However, he felt that with Stieglitz’s quixotic business practices, it was time to open a new gallery, “to do business not only to fight against dishonest commercialism but in order to support ourselves and make others be able to support themselves.” Although Stieglitz initially endorsed the new enterprise, he eventually came to see it as a factor that contributed to the demise of 291. “I realize more & more [how] . . . really unique that little front room was for years,” he wrote to Marie Rapp just after 291 closed in 1917, “until its ‘friends’ ruined it for all.”

The defection Stieglitz detected might not have been as personal as he envisioned, for de Zayas and his associates had already come to accept an aesthetic shift that Stieglitz was either incapable of grasping or chose to reject. In 1915, de Zayas and Picabia had embraced the machine and machinist technology, both having produced portraits of Stieglitz that suggest, at best, that he was exhausted in his efforts to promote modern art, or at worst, finished (Picabia rendered him as a broken camera, next to which appears a car gearshift tellingly positioned in neutral). In 1917, the single greatest threat to the formalist aesthetics of the day came in the form of the glistening white porcelain urinal that, under the pseudonym of R. Mutt, Marcel Duchamp submitted to an exhibition as a work of art. When Stieglitz agreed to record the work for posterity with his camera, he unwittingly served as an accomplice to Duchamp’s ingenious plan. In having taken great pains to compose the image carefully, positioning it against a painting by Marsden Hartley whose internal forms reflected its curving profile, Stieglitz played the formalist game that Duchamp’s readymades reject. Moreover, in allowing his photograph to be reproduced in a Dada journal, Stieglitz automatically lent his name and position of authority to help establish the credentials of this commonplace bathroom fixture as a bona fide work of art. In the National Gallery exhibition, the urinal and the Hartley painting, Stieglitz’s photograph of them, and the de Zayas and Picabia portraits referred to in this paragraph, we’re all placed in a side gallery. Whether intended or not, this spatial division served to separate this event from the course of action Stieglitz had planned for himself and the artists whose work he would go on to represent in his galleries.

In the years after 291 closed, Stieglitz spent much of his time nurturing a love affair with Georgia O’Keeffe, taking nearly 200 photographs of her (clothed and unclothed), work that represents, to many, the best of his career. In this period he was without a gallery of his own, yet he continued to organize shows for various commercial establishments in New York of the artists whose work he believed in (especially Marsden Hartley and Arthur Dove), culminating in a series of exhibitions that displayed his photographs together with O’Keeffe’s paintings. In 1925, he organized an exhibition for the Anderson Galleries, the elaborate title of which identified the artists he would support for the remainder of his career as an art dealer (a title, it is worth noting, that begins and ends with his name, emphasizing his dual role as organizer and participant): “Alfred Stieglitz Presents Seven Americans: 159 Paintings, Photographs, and Things, Recent and Never Before Publicly Shown by Arthur G. Dove, Marsden Hartley, John Marin, Charles Demuth, Paul Strand, Georgia O’Keeffe, Alfred Stieglitz.”

With the aim of establishing the essential characteristics and identity of an indigenous American art, Stieglitz would continue to show the work of these seven artists in monographic exhibitions in his galleries, first at the Intimate Gallery (1925–29) and then at An American Place (1929–46). Even though he had introduced advanced European art to the American public at 291, he did not do so with the intention of influencing his artists; indeed, whenever he detected an obvious foreign influence in a work of art, he considered it derivative, and thus incapable of displaying any uniquely American sensitivities (which is probably why he stopped showing the paintings of Max Weber, and why he never elected to show Man Ray, even though the artist was an early associate of the gallery). In a 1923 letter to the writer Paul Rosenfeld, for example, Stieglitz confessed that although he was among the first to show modern French art in America, he always fought for an “America without that damned French flavor!”

Although Stieglitz held a relatively minor exhibition of Picabia’s work at the Intimate Gallery in 1928 (probably in deference to his earlier friendship with the artist), and he presented watercolors by George Grosz in 1935, he never showed any other examples of advanced European art in his galleries again. It had served its purpose. Indeed, by 1930, Stieglitz had grown to resent the attention that was still being paid to European art, particularly by Americans. In a revealing letter written to Demuth in that year, he openly questioned why none of his artists had “become rich like the French artists so lovingly supported by art-loving America!” Rhetorically, he then asks: “Why aren’t you and Marin and O’Keeffe and Dove Frenchmen? And I at least a Man Ray in Paris?”

Francis M. Naumann is an independent scholar, curator, and art dealer.