Skip to main content

Who Was Alfred Stieglitz? Part II

Fisk University Student Edythe Paulin

Continued from Part I 

Modernism and the Modern Age Alfred Stieglitz and his partner, Edward Steichen, assembled exhibitions of photographs, paintings, drawings, illustrations, caricatures, prints, and sculptures. They showed African art and children’s art, abstract and figurative. There was no “Stieglitz style,” the work chosen for 291 was related, not so much stylistically, as philosophically—tied together by the loose concept of modernity, an expression of the modern age. Modernism as an artistic movement is similarly difficult to define. It comprises a number of artistic “isms” that came into being during the early 1900s: Fauvism, Cubism, Futurism, Dadaism, Surrealism. All of these were the roots and shoots of modern art—the work of artists striving to capture and make sense of a future that seemed almost unimaginably different from the past.

"Old and New New York," by Alfred Stieglitz.

“Old and New New York,” by Alfred Stieglitz.

“I think in some ways it’s very hard to construct the context in which Modernism was born,” said Crystal Bridges President, Don Bacigalupi. “Things were moving really fast technologically for the first time; people were feeling that things were changing radically in their daily lives. The artists were trying to document what was happening in terms of changing technologies and social mores, they were a part of that dialogue. And I think Stieglitz was at the forefront of what was happening next, understanding where these artists were going, what was defining the modern moment.”

After 291 The Little Galleries at 291 closed in 1917, partly due to financial difficulties, and partially because Stieglitz was displeased with what he considered the crass commercialization of modern art after the Armory Show in 1913.

Stieglitz would run two other galleries in his waning years. The first of these was the Intimate Gallery, which opened in Room 303 of the Anderson Galleries in late 1925 and closed in 1929.  The other was An American Place located on Madison Avenue. By this time Stieglitz, who seemed as wonderfully capable of alienating people as attracting them, had pared down the artists he represented to the “Seven Americans,” or, as Stieglitz said, “Six + X,” the X being a rotating member.  The Six were himself, O’Keeffe, John Marin, Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley and Paul Strand. The X was frequently Charles Demuth. Many of those he had formerly been close with, including Steichen and Weber, had broken with Stieglitz, who could be bull-headed and obstreperous when faced with a difference of opinion. O’Keeffe later wrote of him: “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.”

Indeed, although Stieglitz’s influence had waned, young artists still sought out “the Master” and asked him to review their portfolios. Stieglitz continued to see these artists when they arrived, including the young Ansel Adams, who made a trip to New York to visit the man he called “the greatest photographic leader in the world” in 1933. Over the next few years, Stieglitz would mount several exhibitions of Adams’s work, and the photographer visited regularly. Adams recounts an incident on one visit in which a young artist, obviously hungry, brought his portfolio for Stieglitz to review. Stieglitz, still unable to resist lending support where he could, wrote a check to purchase one of the watercolors for $150, and gave the young man an additional $5 for lunch.

Distributing the Collection When he died in July, 1946, Stieglitz left his entire art collection completely in Georgia O’Keeffe’s hands. She spent the next three years sorting and organizing the collection, and contemplating what to do with it.

In a New York Times article published in December of 1949, O’Keeffe explained her rationale for the dispersal of the more-than-800 objects in Stieglitz’s collection. “He would not have done what I have done with it…. But I think he would not object too much to what I have done.”  Because the collection was so large, O’Keeffe knew that it could not all go to one institution and still be viewed, and she felt it was important that it remain on exhibit. “As it is mostly contemporary work, public opinion concerning it is still being made. If the material is not seen, opinion is not being formed. Having in mind that the pictures should be hung, I had to divide it….I saw no other way.”

“O’Keeffe makes it clear that she wanted to put together a representative group of both European and American artists who were important,” explained Kevin Murphy, former Curator of American Art. “She was trying to put together groups of objects for different institutions that tell the story of what Stieglitz was trying to do…and thereby telling the story of the beginnings of true American Modernism.”

Fisk University Student Edythe Paulin, Georgia O'Keeffe, and Carl Van Vechten. Courtesy of Fisk University Franklin Library’s Special Collections

Fisk University Student Edythe Paulin, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Carl Van Vechten. Courtesy of Fisk University Franklin Library’s Special Collections

The lion’s share of the collection, 598 objects, went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, because, as O’Keeffe said, “Stieglitz was so definitely a New Yorker.” Smaller selections went to the Art Institute of Chicago, The National Gallery of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Library of Congress, and of course, to Fisk University in Nashville, “because I think it a good thing to do at this time and that it would please Stieglitz.”

Neither Stieglitz nor O’Keeffe had any particular connection to Fisk University, but O’Keeffe was friendly with the photographer Carl Van Vechten, who was a great supporter of the Harlem Renaissance movement, and very likely influenced her choice. However, as she wrote in her New York Times article, it was also a choice that she thought would have made Stieglitz happy. “Fisk has always been considered the most “artsy” of the historically black colleges,” explained Murphy.  “The idea may have been that it would be a foundational gift that would start a gallery and prime the pump to start a college collection that would grow over time.” In other words, it was a way for O’Keeffe to allow Stieglitz’s collection to continue doing the work that had driven her husband all his life: inspiring and attracting young modern artists.

The objects selected by Georgia O’Keeffe to be donated to Fisk University are now jointly owned by Fisk University and Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, and will travel between the two institutions every two years.  All 101 objects will be on view concurrently at Crystal Bridges in The Artists’ Eye: Georgia O’Keeffe and the Alfred Stieglitz Collection, November 9, 2013  through February 3, 2014.