Missionary of the New

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He was one of the most vivid, idealistic, stubborn and thorny characters ever to appear in American culture. He was a battler, a moralist, an unstoppable advocate for the artists he loved, a connoisseur of the erotic and one of the greatest photographers who ever tripped a shutter. Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) was the first New York art dealer European modernism had. But to call him a dealer does him no justice. His influence was huge, and entirely for the good. Yet where was the great exhibition that traced his life's work? The one that showed in detail how "his" artists related to him and, through him, to the embryonic American public for new art?

Answer: it has opened at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. "Modern Art and America: Alfred Stieglitz and His New York Galleries," through April 22, is a wonderfully informative show, assembled at the highest level of quality, full of protein, no fat. It is installed with perfect taste and simplicity-as it should be, since that was how Stieglitz showed new art in his 291 Gallery, plain and direct. Organized by art historian Sarah Greenough and backed up by an excellent catalog with essays by a dozen leading art historians, the show is a must-see if you want to understand how modernism traveled across the Atlantic; how New York caught up with itself and with Paris; how, in the extraordinary blossoming of the first decades of the 20th century, American painting, sculpture and photography, in large part thanks to Stieglitz's fervent early support, became as "modern" as American bridges, skyscrapers and trains.

Born in 1864 to wealthy Jewish parents, Stieglitz was schooled in New York City but spent most of the 1880s in Germany, studying the relatively young art of which he was to be such a master: photography. This was his first obsession, and when he got back to New York, he made up his mind to revolutionize it. Most American photographers, to him, were stuffy and sentimental "pictorialists," so bent on imitating the look of painting that they couldn't treat photography as an equal, independent medium. He developed a "straight" photography-direct, candid and true to nature-that captured American city experience as it had never been caught on film before, from the steaming draft horses in The Terminal, 1893, to the exquisitely etched, near Japanese view of the Flatiron Building in snow, 1902. The hundreds of photos he made of Georgia O'Keeffe, his lover and (after 1924) his wife, are an intense and extended erotic essay. Never before had a camera scrutinized a woman so closely or praised a fine-boned body with such rapturous aesthetic effect.

With his friend Edward Steichen, he founded what they called the Photo-Secession, a small group of progressive American photographers. For some 14 years after 1903, its superbly produced magazine, Camera Work (which Stieglitz edited and oversaw), set an unbeatable standard for art publishing in the U.S. The impact of Stieglitz's work, and his charismatic personality, on younger photographers like Paul Strand was incalculable. If Stieglitz had made nothing but photographs, he would deserve a permanent niche in the artistic pantheon-an idea that probably would have offended him, who thought in terms of change, not permanence.

But, of course, this tireless magus made much more than photographs. There had never before been an American cultural discoverer like Stieglitz, and there will not be another. He was to modern art what Charles Lindbergh would become to aviation-Homo transatlanticus, the link between Paris and New York. He was by far the most consequential evangelist for the avant-garde in visual art that the U.S. had ever seen. The first man to transpose the work of Europeans like Paul Cèzanne, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Constantin Brancusi and Francis Picabia across the Atlantic, Stieglitz would also be the first to back their New York contemporaries-not only O'Keeffe, but also others of greater aesthetic weight: John Marin, Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove and Charles Demuth.

People still think of the Armory Show of 1913 as the symbolic launch of modernism in New York, but actually it happened a few years earlier and in a much smaller place-"the biggest small room in the world," as a friend called Stieglitz's diminutive gallery at 291 Fifth Avenue, which he had started in 1905 to promote photography and which started showing paintings and sculpture soon after.

Modern art has been such a fixture of American life for so long that one is apt to forget what obstacles Stieglitz faced when he stood up for it. Forget the general public; few Americans had even heard of Picasso or Matisse in 1910, and most jeered at their work as the daubing of absinthe-soaked madmen. Stieglitz, however, didn't give a damn. He took it as an article of faith that the masses would never grasp what he and his friends were up to. Cultural progress, he wrote in 1903, only came about through "the fanatical enthusiasm of the revolutionist, whose extreme teaching has saved the mass from utter inertia." Like so many of the best and brightest a century ago, he earnestly believed in progress in the arts-a lost faith today. While the broad American middlebrow public frowned at modernism, Stieglitz believed it was a model of authentic experience, the appointed bearer of a culture's life-force.

Thus every time he embraced an artist's work and showed it in his minuscule gallery, it was to some extent a missionary act, a declaration of faith, not a mere display of the latest thing in stock. "You know that there are very few artists in this country whose work means anything to me," he wrote to Dove in 1922. "It is all too stillborn. Yours, and Marin's, and Georgia's are never like that." And though Dove was plagued with difficulties-shortages of money and self-confidence, family crises, interruptions of every kind-Stieglitz never wavered in his loyalty to the man who would come to paint such masterpieces of American abstraction as That Red One, 1944. No wonder that Stieglitz became Dove's surrogate father -or that Dove once listed the men who mattered most to him as "Christ, Einstein and Stieglitz."

Likewise, Stieglitz's lifelong bond with Marin was based on an intense mutual respect, although Marin was capable of putting it to unusual tests. Once, having extracted an advance of $1,200 from his buddy and benefactor to keep himself and his new wife going for a year, the great landscapist turned up after six weeks and told Stieglitz that he had blown every cent of it buying a waterless island in Maine, and that his wife was expecting. The chosen few who got to show at Stieglitz's galleries were not members of a stable but rather part foster children and part co-explorers. "Remember my fight for O'Keeffe and Marin is my fight for you as well," he wrote to the frail and self-doubting Demuth. "We're all in one boat unsinkable."

What seems amazing, looking back on it, is how early, and how accurately, Stieglitz picked those works of art that lie at the core of each artist's achievement. Thus he supported for years the deeply depressive and conflicted Hartley, both morally and to some extent financially. And when you see the magnificent range of some 20 Hartleys in this show, you realize that the essence of the man is there: not only the profoundly felt abstractions of military uniforms and insignia like Portrait of a German Officer, 1914, done in mourning for his young German lover killed in the trenches, but also the New Mexico paintings, the Maine seascapes and the plangent, unnerving grief of Eight Bells Folly: Memorial for Hart Crane, 1933.

The eye didn't just go for his contemporaries. Stieglitz was the first American to show "primitive" art in an "advanced" gallery-this being in the fall of 1914. Anthropological museums showed jumbles and heaps of African artifacts, but Stieglitz-whose eyes had been opened to such things in Paris by Picasso, Matisse and others-was ready and willing to assign an inscrutable Ivory Coast mask the dignity and singularity of an old Florentine bronze, or a new Brancusi. Today critics might find some unconscious bias in his belief that African art was close to the art of children: instinctive, untutored, vital. And because he thought much the same about art made by women, some feminist theorists might not like him much.

Yet in the end, the breadth of Stieglitz's mind, the energy of his passions and his unerring sense of radical beauty outweigh any quibbles. He was a hero, and one can only be grateful to the National Gallery in Washington for showing him at full scale and in such rich detail.