home archives authors submit search links about
 

 

 

Alfred Stieglitz and Gallery 291

A Modern Art Revolution Before the Armory Show

 

 by Brooke Schieb

 

 

 

 

“Quite a few years agothere got to be—a place….

The place grew—the place shiftedthe place was where this man was….

—Shift—is something that cannot be tied—cannot be pigeonholed.

It jumps—it bounds—it glides

—it SHIFTS—

it must have freedom….

It seems those who do that worth the doing

are possessed of good eyes—alive eyes—warm eyes—

it seems they radiate a fire within outward.

The places they inhabit have a light burning—

a light seen from near and far by those who need this light—

and this light sometimes dim—sometimes brilliant—never out….

To realize such a place—

a very tangible place was and is this man’s dream.

                                                                                                John Marin about Alfred Stieglitz[1]                                                                    

 

 

 

            On February 17, 1913 the International Exhibition of Modern Art, or the Armory Show, opened to the public.  It is unlikely that the some 4,000 guests milling around the eighteen rooms of the 69th Regiment Armory in New York that night could have realized the extent to which the artwork displayed would set off a revolution that would sweep the nation.  Response to the Armory Show, however, was sensational.  During the month long exhibition the, Armory Show became the talk of the town.  The galleries were constantly full of people who came to gape at the spectacle, artists who came to study or deride, and celebrities and socialites who came to see and be seen.  Former President Teddy Roosevelt even made a visit to the show praising the spirit of modernity present in the venture, but distrustful of the so called ‘radical’ art of the European avant-garde.  In his response to the show published in Outlook, Roosevelt commented: “It is vitally necessary to move forward and to shake off the dead hand of the reactionaries; and yet we have to face the fact that there is apt to be a lunatic fringe among the votaries of any forward movement.”[2]  In this statement Roosevelt summarized the public reactions to the show.  The spirit of change and progression the show embodied was exciting, yet the new styles in art were also alarming and difficult to understand.  Thus the public found the exhibit at once provocative and amusing. 

            Among artists and art historians, there is little dispute that the Amory show was the first comprehensive display of modern art in the United States.  Some would even venture to say that the ‘revolution’ created by the Armory Show forever changed the course of modernity in the United States.  Although the importance of the Armory Show should not be discounted, it is equally important to recognize the path of modern art in the United States before the Armory  Show.  A path that was forged in large part due to the efforts of one man and one small New York Gallery.  That man was Alfred Stieglitz and his gallery ‘291’ was perhaps the sole exhibitor of avant-garde art in New York before the Armory Show. 

            In this paper I will examine the role Stieglitz played in bringing modern European art to the United States and in supporting American artists of the period.  What I believe we will find is that despite the hype created by the Amory Show, Stieglitz, through his efforts at 291, initiated and fostered an environment which would permit the acceptance of modern art.  While the Armory Show shocked the nation in its comprehensive and provocative display, it was Stieglitz who persistently strove to push the bounds of the acceptable through his exhibits at 291.  Perhaps Stieglitz’s approach lacked the bravado and fanfare of the Armory Show, but through his spirit of cooperation and understanding he was able to foster an appreciation for modern art that was far more enduring than the sensational episode of the Armory Show. 

Who was Alfred Stieglitz?

            Seemingly in answer to this question Stieglitz once stated: “I was born in Hoboken, I am an American.  Photography is my passion.  The search for truth my obsession.”[3]  While these simple and somewhat prophetic words probably best describe Stieglitz’s sensibilities, they hardly seem to do justice to his amazing accomplishments in the world of art.  As a photographer Stieglitz transformed the conception of photography as a medium and as a gallery owner he changed the very nature of modern American art.  Like many great artists, however, Stieglitz entered his career through a somewhat circuitous path. 

            Alfred Stieglitz was born on January 1, 1864, in Hoboken, New Jersey.  In 1881 Stieglitz moved with his family to Europe, and by 1883 he had enrolled for studies in mechanical engineering at the Berlin Polytechnic.[4]  However, a few months later, after purchasing a small camera, Stieglitz traded his engineering degree for one in photo-chemistry, thus beginning his photographic career.  It was while studying in Berlin, influenced in part by his artist friends, that Stieglitz first began to fight for the recognition of photography as a creative art medium equal to that of painting.  In order to champion the cause for photography Stieglitz somewhat naively decided that he must become a photographic authority, setting the highest standards for his prints.  This dedication paid off, and both in Europe and the United States (where he returned to live in 1890) his work won high acclaim.  Stieglitz’s work during this period was characterized by constant technical innovation.  Before the turn of the century Stieglitz had made the first successful photographs in snow, in the rain and at night—techniques that had previously been thought impossible.[5]

            Stieglitz’s photographic ventures were not limited to his own work, however, and in 1902 he founded the Photo-Secession as a protest against the conventional photography of the period.  Through Photo-Secession Stieglitz was able to gather around him a group of talented American photographers, who shared his dream of advancing photography as an artistic medium.  It was also through the Photo-Secession that in 1905 Stieglitz determined that the photographers of the group would need a centre to exhibit their work—a place to educate the public about the artistic possibilities of modern photography.  This space, located in New York City, was initially named the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession, and soon became known simply by its street number ‘291’.   

Gallery 291 and Stieglitz’s Vision for Modern Art

            Although 291 has since become most known for its role in introducing modern European art to the United States, this was not at all Stieglitz’s initial intention in opening the gallery.  291 was first and foremost a gallery devoted to the photography of the Photo-Secession.  What began as a exhibition center for the photographers of the Photo-Secession, however, soon grew to include any creative work that seemed meaningful and was rejected by the conventional institutions of galleries and academies.  The idea was to test photography against the ‘most alive work’ being done in other media.[6]  In short, Stieglitz hoped that through exhibiting modern art as well as photography the value of each as a means of art could be realized.  Thus gallery 291 was not opened with the intention of introducing the avant-garde to the United States, but rather as a forum for the furthering of his photographic principles. 

            In 1907 Stieglitz held the first non-photographic exhibition at 291.  Interestingly, the decision that would forever change Stieglitz’s reputation and the reputation of 291 was brought about by little more than a whim.  As Stieglitz recalls, he was approached by a young female artist who wanted his advice, “since it illustrated exactly what I was feeling at the time […] I decided then and there to show her work”.[7]  The young artist was Pamela Colman Smith and while the exhibition of her work in and of itself is fairly insignificant, it initiated what would be a nearly constant display of avant-garde art in 291.  According to Stieglitz, by showing Smith’s work he wanted to “destroy the idea that the [Photo] Secession was dedicated solely to photography”.[8]  Smith’s exhibition certainly accomplished this and soon, with the help of his friend and fellow photographer Steichen, Stieglitz began to arrange for exhibitions of European art in New York.  In a 1907 publication of Camera Work, Stieglitz again attempted to define the nature of his non-photographic exhibitions:

Before the people at large and for that matter the artists themselves, understand what photography really means, as I understand the term, it is essential for them to be taught the real meaning of art…men like Matisse and Picasso and a few others are giants.  Their vision is anti photographic…It is this anti photography in their mental attitude and in their work that I am using in order to emphasize [sic] the meaning of photography”[9]

Thus through the exhibition of avant-garde art Stieglitz hoped to illuminate the meaning of photography rather than to inspire or encourage American artists.  However, as Stieglitz’s involvement in the avant-garde evolved, so too did his relationships with both American and European artists.   

Gallery 291: Revolutionary Art Before the Revolution

            If 1907 marked the beginning of the non-photographic exhibitions at 291, then 1908 should be considered as the most critical year in the development of the gallery.  In January 1908 the first exhibition of Rodin’s drawings in the United States occurred at 291.  Rodin’s prominence as a sculptor attracted many to the exhibit, but the drawings were far more advanced than Rodin’s sculpture surprising most and confusing many.  As the critic W.B. McCormick wrote in response to the show: “strange are the things that are done in a great man’s name and under the beclouding influence of art’”.[10]  Although McCormick’s comments appear at first somewhat benign, he went on to express his utter disgust for the exhibition:

“As a matter of fact these drawings should never have been shown anywhere but in the sculptures studio, for they are simply dashed off, studies of the human form—chiefly of nude females—that are too purely technical to have much general interest except that of a not very elevating kind.  Stripped of all ‘art atmosphere’ they stand as drawings of nude women in attitudes that may interest the artist who drew them, but which are not for public exhibition…”[11]

McCormick’s comments demonstrate not only the tension between an art that is made for the expression of the artist versus public display, but also illustrates the bounds of the acceptable in American art during the period.  Clearly, by McCormick’s estimation, art should be produced with an audience in mind and in an easily conveyed aesthetic.  Despite the poor reception of the Rodin drawings, their exhibition served to broaden the visual resources and examples of both artists and  patrons in New York.  As Georgia O’Keefe, who was an art student in New York at the time, recalled: “There wasn’t any place in New York where anything like [the Rodin drawings were] shown at this time or for several years after”.[12] 

            In April of the same year Stieglitz displayed another revolutionary European artist, Henri Matisse.  Camera Work praised the show, recognizing its potential for influencing American art: “The New York ‘art-world’ was sorely in of an irritant and Matisse certainly provided a timely one”.[13]  For the most part, however, the drawings were met with scorn and disdain, and many critics went so far as to describe Matisse as a madman.  As J.E. Chamberlain declared in an article in the New York Evening Mail, Matisse’s pictures were difficult for the average viewer to understand: “Matisse’s pictures, while they may contain a new revelation for somebody, are quite likely to go quite over the head of the ordinary observer—or under his feet…”.[14]  Chamberlain went on to describe the women depicted in Matisse’s drawings as “most appalling and haunting, and that seems to condemn this man’s brain to the limbo of artistic degeneration”.[15]  Just as in the case of the Rodin drawings, then, Americans were unprepared for the somewhat primitive, unconventional aesthetic of the avant-garde.  What these shows represent, however, is America’s first taste of the new art. 

            In the years that followed these initial exhibitions, Stieglitz’s advocacy for the artists of the avant-garde increased—a support that was founded in a genuine interest and desire to broaden artistic sources, rather than an interest in fame or publicity.  According to Dorothy Norman, a specialist on Stieglitz’s career, Stieglitz saw modern art as a sort of anti-photography and believed that “creative photography was rapidly releasing painters and sculptors from concern with the merely realistic or representational as previously understood.”[16]  Thus Stieglitz pursued a harmony and coexistence of different art forms in his gallery rather than a single theory or movement.  His references to spiritual truths and individual expression in art, had no fixed meaning when applied to art and thus left him free to experiment with a diverse body of artwork.[17]  The result was a series of exhibitions that were as interesting as they were varied.

            Over the next four years, Stieglitz continued to exhibit the art of European artists, in addition to the work of young American artists.  The first of these American exhibitions was the 1909 showing of John Marins and Alfred Maurer, who were both living in Paris at the time.  The paintings exhibited in 291 in 1909 represented such a departure from either artist’s previous work that crowds flocked to the show.  As Stieglitz recounts the event: “The exhibition was overrun with people.  Maurer was the excitement, Marin the loved one.  Marin’s watercolors sang their quiet song while the Maurers seemed like instruments of music run riot.”[18]  As J.E. Chamberlain stated in the Evening Post upon seeing Maurer’s paintings: “Mr. Stieglitz, the mighty hunter of the Photo-Secession, has captured another ‘wild man.’”[19]  If Stieglitz was a ‘hunter’ of artists, then his hunt was to continue as 291 continued to hold groundbreaking shows. 

            In 1910 Stieglitz and Steichen arranged another exhibition of American artists at 291, this time a group of nine young American “pioneers.”  The intent of the show was to demonstrate that the Americans Dove, Fellows, Brinley, Hartley, Marin, Maurer, Steichen and Weber were not simply followers of Matisse, but each creators of an individual and unique art.[20]  This exhibition was followed by exhibitions of artists such as Max Weber and Henri Rousseau in 1910.  Although these exhibitions, which focused chiefly on American artists did serve to showcase the talent and abilities of American artists, they by no means represent a shift towards advocating American art alone.  In fact these  exhibitions were followed in 1911 by exhibitions of Cezanne watercolors and by a comprehensive Picasso exhibition. 

            The Picasso show at 291 was the young Spanish artist’s first show in the United States and included eighty-three early and recent drawings and watercolors, charcoals, pen and ink drawings, etchings that represented the artist’s complete evolution through Cubism.[21]  The response of the New York audience was one of outrage, confusion and the continued belief in the absurdity of the avant-garde.  Arthur Hoeber summarized this reception well in his piece in the New York Globe about Picasso’s 291 show:

“The display is the most extraordinary combination of extravagance and absurdity that New York has yet to be inflicted with, and goodness knows it has had many these two seasons past.  Any sane criticism is entirely out of the question; any serious analysis would be vain.  The results suggest the most violent wards of an asylum for maniacs, the craziest emanations of a disordered mind, the gibberings of a lunatic!”[22]

Stieglitz was never disheartened by such receptions, however, as his aims were not commercial.  Instead, he hoped that by exposing American artists to such art he could create a love and appreciation for the avant-garde.  As Stieglitz described, it his gallery was not meant to popularize the art of the avant-garde, but rather to test it in the public sphere: “I have always refused to call these rooms a gallery.  They are more like a laboratory in which we are testing the taste of the public.” [23]  Although Stieglitz’s never advertised his shows, in the seven years that his ‘laboratory’ was open over 167,000 people had been through his rooms—each perhaps effected by the radical art which hung on is walls.  What is sure, however, is that through the spirit of acceptance and cooperation Stieglitz had created a space that was truly unique in New York and between 1907 and 1913, 291 had ushered in the new art of the avant-garde. 

The Armory Show

            In 1909 Sir Casper Purdon Clarke, the Director of the Metropolitan Museum in New York was quoted as stating: “There is a state of unrest all over the world in art as in all others things.  It is the same in literature as in music, in painting, and in sculpture.  And I dislike unrest.”[24]  Looking back, in the context of the 1913 Armory Show, Clarke’s words seem somewhat ironic.  If he was perturbed by the artistic ‘unrest’ in 1909, than the shock wave of modern art that hit New York in 1913 would have presumably been unbearable.  What is interesting about the sensation created by the Armory Show is that the art forms that it introduced to New York were not entirely new to American soil.  In fact, most of the artists exhibited at the Armory Show had been shown by Stieglitz in 291 in the years preceding the 1913 exhibition.  Why, then, all the fuss about the Armory Show?

            This question can be answered by examining the amount of hype and publicity about the show that was propagated by its organizers.  Unlike Stieglitz’s exhibitions at 291 which served to unassumingly introduce new art to the United States, the Armory Show was meant to shock.  Many contemporary critics recognized this apparent aim and criticized the show as little more than a stunt.  In some respects such criticisms were founded in truth—the group that organized the show was somewhat preoccupied with matters of publicity and education.  In the weeks leading up to the exhibition; press releases announced the show across the country; posters were placed in museums, art schools, and colleges; 50,000 postcards with the show’s pine tree emblem were given away; 50,000 programs were printed; and postcards were created for sale, that represented the major works in the exhibition.  In short “there was nothing small about what these men were up to” and “their ambition was matched only by their optimism.”[25] 

            This emphasis on publicity was one of the primary differences between the Armory show and Stieglitz’s work in 291, but there was also somewhat of a difference in the goals of the exhibitions.  According to Art Historian Frank Trapp, the American artists who organized the Armory Show set out with specific aims.  Among these goals were the desire to elicit popular support for modern art and the intention of placing American and European artists on equal footing in the eyes of the public.[26]  As we have discussed, Stieglitz’s intentions at 291 were somewhat different.  Stieglitz never sought popular approval for his exhibitions and rather than pursuing expensive publicity efforts, Stieglitz let the art do the talking.  As a result, the exhibitions at 291 were thoughtful and the ‘spirit’ of the gallery encouraged a sort of intelligent reflection rather than the circus-like fanfare of the Armory Show.  According to Trapp, this fanfare resulted in an overall failure of the Armory Show to accomplish its goals: “the educational accomplishment was limited and the publicity value ephemeral.”[27]  In many respects, then, the development of the avant-garde in New York would have differed very little if the Armory Show had never existed.[28]

            It is also interesting to note Stieglitz’s response to the Armory Show, as although he played no role in selecting the art for the show, he initially encouraged the public to attend.  In an article he wrote in the New York American, Stieglitz entreated the public to attend, describing the show as “a battle cry for freedom without any soft pedal on it.”[29]  Although Stieglitz was initially supportive of the Armory Show, he too realized the extent to which its focus differed from what he was doing at 291.  According to Dorothy Norman, Stieglitz disliked what he called the “three-ring circus atmosphere” of the show and was equally distressed to learn that the undertaking was an isolated effort, not to be succeeded by related exhibitions.[30]  Thus, even Stieglitz, recognized the failures of the Armory Show in truly aiding the progress of the avant-garde.     

Conclusion

            The developments and changes in art during the twentieth century were considerable.  In the first part of the century the academic aesthetic of the past and the more recent art of artists like the Impressionists was rejected in favor of primitive and abstract forms.  Although this art was a response to the rapidly changing world around the artists, the general public was reluctant to accept such abstracted views of reality and the art of the avant-garde was considered as radical and degenerative.  Alfred Stieglitz and others like him, however, recognized the importance of the changing age in which they lived.  As a result Stieglitz, through the forum he created at 291, worked—and in many respects succeeded—at advancing the development of modern art.  Thus Stieglitz should be remembered as a man who promoted a shared spirit at a time when artists of every medium were attempting to define what could best express the spirit of the modern age.[31]  Through his exhibitions at 291 Stieglitz both exposed New York to the art of the avant-garde and created an awareness of modern European and American art that preceded the Armory Show.

 


 

[1] Norman, Dorothy.  Alfred Stieglitz: An American Seer.  New York: Random House, 1960.  100

[2] Brown, Milton W.  The Story of the Armory Show.  New York: Abbeville Press, 1988.  145

[3] David Winton Bell Gallery.  Over Here!  Modernism, The First Exile, 1914-1919.  Providence: Brown University, 1989.  219

[4] “Stieglitz, Alfred.”  Encyclopedia Britannica. 2004.  Encyclopedia Britannica Premium Service.  20 Nov.  2004 http://www.britannica.com/eb/article?tocld=9069689.

[5] Britannica, Stieglitz

[6] Norman  70

[7] Norman  71

[8] Norman 71

[9] Over Here!  Rodgers, Timothy Robert.  False Memories: Alfred Stieglitz and the Development of the Nationalist Aesthetic.  60

[10] Norman 72

[11] Norman 72-73

[12] Norman 73

[13] Norman 73

[14] Norman 74

[15] Norman 74

[16] Norman 74

[17] Rodgers 60

[18] Norman 97

[19] Norman 97

[20] Norman 102

[21] Norman 107

[22] Norman 108

[23] Norman 115

[24] Norman 75

[25] Trapp, Frank Anderson.  The Armory Show: A Review.  Art Journal, Vol. 23, No. 1 (Autumn, 1963), 2-9. 6

[26] Trapp 4

[27] Trapp 7

[28] Trapp 6

[29] Norman 118

[30] Norman 118

[31] Rodgers 65

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

           

Alfred Stieglitz and Gallery 291--Brooke Schieb