January 1st marked the 150th birthday of Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946)—photographer, gallery owner, and impresario—husband of Georgia O’Keeffe, and, for a time, the High Priest of American Modernism. If you have visited our current exhibition, The Artists’ Eye: Georgia O’Keeffe and the Alfred Stieglitz Collection, then you know the basic facts about Alfred Stieglitz, his galleries, and his steadfast, unwavering support of American modern artists. What the exhibition cannot truly impart, however, is the power of Stieglitz’s presence, the reverence with which those in his circle referred to him, and the quirky, opinionated, eccentric force of his personality.
Today, in honor of the man’s historic anniversary and in the spirit of the New Year, I’d like to celebrate all that was peculiar, bull-headed, difficult, and wonderful about Alfred Stieglitz, with a few examples pulled from the literature.
Georgia O’Keeffe herself said of Stieglitz: “He was the leader or he didn’t play. It was his game and we all played along or left the game. Many left the game, but most of them returned to him occasionally, as if there existed a peculiar bond of affection that could not be broken, something unique that they did not find elsewhere.”
He was aggressive and argumentative, and treated his galleries like shrines of art over which he held court—striding about in his black cape and bushy hair. He operated three galleries, but refused to advertise them or list them in the telephone directory. He maddened collectors and artists alike by regularly denying that he was an art dealer and refusing to sell works of art to those he felt were unworthy. The whole idea of exchanging money for art seemed abhorrent to him.
The journalist Herbert Seligmann recounts a story that pretty well sums it up. “(John) Marin’s father had asked Stieglitz if Marin could not make the saleable things in the morning and give the rest of the time to his other work. Stieglitz responded that if Mr. Marin had a daughter who could be a prostitute in the morning and could come home a virgin in the afternoon, then Marin could do what his father suggested.”
He certainly didn’t pull any punches, and could be abrasive, particularly when he thought people were being obtuse, shallow, or pretentious. A journalist once reported that, when an artist had “ascribed his success to the fact that he looked at the world through the eyes of a child.” Stieglitz replied: “That is impossible. You can’t do that because you are not a child. To prove it I’ll give an exhibition of children’s work and show you how far off the track you are.” This he did in 1912: exhibiting works by children between the ages of two and 13.
By all accounts, Stieglitz talked a blue streak—talked to anyone who would listen and many who preferred not to. He didn’t just talk, he EXPOUNDED. And many an artist came to listen to what he had to say, despite the fact that there was no place to sit down at 291, or in any of Stieglitz’s galleries. “There was nothing to sit on, so I stood,” O’Keeffe wrote. “It was always that way around Stieglitz, until he was an old man he stood, and if you wanted to be there you stood too.”
Several artists spoke of this, including photographer Ansel Adams, who developed a relationship with Stieglitz and had several exhibitions of his work at An American Place. In his autobiography, Adams wrote of bringing his photographs to “the Master” in New York for his review in 1933: “He sat on the one and only chair so I sat on the radiator. He looked at each print with the greatest care. Each time I started to say something he would imperatively gesture for silence….By now the steam heat was pouring out of the radiator and I could not sit there anymore: my bottom had baked into corrugation. I was extremely nervous, but Stieglitz finally spoke, ’You are always welcome here.’ He liked my work.”
Photographer Minor White also mentioned the infamous radiator, and how its discomfort was worth it in order to glean the words of wisdom Stieglitz could provide: “Sitting on the radiator in the little back room of ‘An American Place’ six months after World War II, we talked about how to take photographs, spoke about the Equivalents….His talk itself was a kind of equivalent; that is, his words were not related to the sense he was making. If anyone had ever talked like that to me before, I certainly had not heard it. In a few minutes he broke open the lump of poured concrete that had sunk me to the bottom of Leyte Gulf. ‘Have you ever been in love? … Then you can photograph.’”
Dorothy Norman, who devoted herself to assisting Stieglitz in his final gallery, An American Place, wrote that “Stieglitz was convinced that he had discovered several basic laws of importance, one of them having to do with equivalence. At first he referred to his cloud photographs as ‘equivalents.’ Next he used the word to describe all of his photographs. Finally he termed all art an equivalent of the artist’s most profound experience of life.” “Stieglitz sometimes brought ideas to people that they did not want to understand,” Ansel Adams wrote. “He possessed the very rare quality of spiritual independence. He was an enigma, a crank, an artist, a genius, an editor, a publisher, a dealer in art, a tastemaker, an influencer. He believed that art was one way of saying the essential things about life — what an individual feels about the world and his relationship to it and his fellow human beings…. Stieglitz taught me what became my first commandment: ‘Art is the affirmation of life.’”
You can view the full exhibition, The Artists’ Eye, online here. At Crystal Bridges we are celebrating Alfred Stieglitz and his collection of artworks this month with a Scholars Symposium on Jan. 14. The Symposium is bringing together some 40 experts on Alfred Stieglitz and his circle to view the collection (now on view in the exhibition The Artists’ Eye: Georgia O’Keeffe and the Alfred Stieglitz Collection), and to trade ideas, discuss the works, and generate possible research topics associated with the collection. On Jan. 15, a few of these scholars will give a joint public presentation for the public about their respective areas of expertise, beginning at 6:30 p.m. I hope you can join us!