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For the week of December 20 through 26, 2000

Alfred Stieglitz and American modernism

A new exhibit features the work of Stieglitz and other modernists

Express Arts Editor

It is nothing short of remarkable that in this tiny town—say after a couple hours of skiing and a cup of coffee—one can stroll into the Sun Valley Center for the Arts and view works of art by Matisse, Picasso, Stieglitz, O’Keefe, Weston, and other pillars of art history.

The privilege is due to a new exhibit at the Center entitled, Alfred Stieglitz and the Birth of American Modernism. The show opened Dec. 15 and runs through Feb. 22.

Kristin Poole, curator of the exhibit, has brought together dozens of pieces of art—most of which are on loan from local residents—that represent the first wave of what became known as American modernism. And the man who propagated that wave was Alfred Stieglitz.

Because we have become so conditioned to abstraction in both art and literature, it is easy to take for granted the significance of Stieglitz’s efforts. To appreciate them, we have to recognize that during the latter half of the 19th century the art world was still steeped in representational art, specifically in realism and French impressionism.

Then along came Stieglitz, a photographer and promoter of art. "He was not at all afraid to experiment with new ideas. In his pores he believed it was his responsibility to challenge the status quo," Poole said.

In 1905, Stieglitz and fellow photographer Edward Steichen opened a gallery in New York City to support young photographers. It became known as 291. One of Stieglitz’s early aims, Poole said, was to "create images that had the evocative mood of paintings—images that told a story." It was an attempt, and a largely successful one, to make photography an artistic expression rather than a means to document events. This school of photographers became known as the Pictorialists.

A year later, Steichen went to Paris and became involved with the avaunt garde salon of Leo and Gertrude Stein. From this source, Steichen began to feed Stieglitz with the new work of the European modernists. These were works by Cezanne, Picasso, Matisse and Rodin.

"Stieglitz believed it was his job to present this work [in New York] and let people struggle with it…There were a lot of non-objective, non-traditional and unrealistic elements in the work relative to what was going on. Stieglitz realized it was a huge leap for people," Poole said.

She emphasized that Stieglitz was very concerned with honesty in the work. "It had to be the expression of true feelings. He didn’t care how you got there as long as it was honest."

Around 1908, Steiglitz began to lose interest in photography. He felt that the most exciting work was taking place in the world of painting. Again through Steichen, Stieglitz came in contact with a number of American painters who were working in Paris in a more modernist tradition. He then organized a show in 1910 that featured the works of Americans Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, John Marin, Max Weber and others. This Young American Painters exhibit underscored the new ideas of abstraction. These painters were experimenting with concepts of line and form and color that expressed emotion but did not necessarily adhere to conventions of context and three-dimensional representation.

In his own work, Steiglitz left behind the Pictorialist approach and took up similar concerns of form and composition. His photography had evolved from a moody, narrative style to one more concerned with the abstract. His camera moved closer to his subjects, and often there was little in the image to place the viewer in context. His very late photographs of clouds—works that became known as "equivalents"—are even more rootless. They are shots of clouds without any reference points of land or sea. They are, in a way, a peek into the emotional psyche of Stieglitz.

Stieglitz was, as Poole pointed out, a very difficult man. He often held forth in his galleries (he had three over the course of his career). But despite being insufferable at times, the fact remains that Stieglitz fostered the conversation of new ideas. He took chances with artists and supported their treading into new territory.

"One of the goals of this show is to demonstrate how, essentially, one man grabbed an instant in time and contributed to the history of art in America. It is very important to me that people understand that so much is affected by an individual, or a by a small group that coalesces and finds a like spirit…The dialogue that happens among artists really does build the history."


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