Sunday, October 30, 2011

Stieglitz and His Artists: Matisse to O’Keeffe

How can I resist this one?  During the last few months in Santa Fe I have been writing about photography and Georgia O’Keeffe.  I come back to New York and at the Metropolitan Museum, “Stieglitz and His Artists: Matisse to O’Keeffe” opens!

Alfred Stieglitz at 291, 1915
Edward Steichen (1879–1973)

Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) was an amazing photographer, founder of the Photo-Secession movement, editor of Camera Work as well an important dealer in photographs and modernist paintings.  In 1929 he gave the first group of photographs accepted as art by the Metropolitan Museum which kicked off their photo collection. He had a number of galleries, the first being “291” which was his address on Fifth Avenue and the last was “An American Place”.  In 1933 he gave another group of photos and more were given after his death by his widow Georgia O’Keeffe along with including paintings, prints and drawings totaling about 400 works of art. 200 of these are shown in this two-part exhibition.  First one finds a small gallery of photos from the initial donations which include works by Stieglitz as well as Pictorialist masters whom he showed in his gallery.

Part two of the show is far larger and includes, photographs, prints, drawings and paintings by the artists Stieglitz represented during his career.   Artists such as Marsden Hartley, Charles Demuth, John Marin not to mention Brancusi and Kandinsky.  Can you imagine the excitement that Lisa Messinger, exhibition curator and catalog editor as well as other curators who had worked with the Stieglitz collection over the years felt?  Finally, they could see this treasure trove that had been dispersed among the museum’s departments for generations, brought together in a single show.  No matter how many times you flip through the images there is no substitute for seeing the works together on exhibition.

Marsden Hartley’s “Portrait of a German Officer” (1914)    

Charles Demuth’s "I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold" (1928)   

Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Cow Skull Red, White and Blue” (1931)

Stieglitz like many dealers was his own best client: the treasures he had include  amazing iconic images that are in the show such as Marsden Hartley’s “Portrait of a German Officer” (1914), Charles Demuth’s "I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold" (1928) and Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Cow Skull Red, White and Blue” (1931)

Having said all this, the other side of the coin is that rooms full of a single artist's work, just because they were part of a dealer’s stable and came from his collection, might seem a bit much… I always want to see a tight edit.  As I have said before, however, there are many ways to view an exhibition and those who created it make their decisions.

One editorial decision that seems most apt is that Stieglitz's wife and muse, Georgia O’Keeffe comes as a climax in the last gallery.  As I walked into that space there were several of O’Keeffe’s more erotic plants and a young man said in a stage whisper to his friend, “Look at that vagina!”  Whatever turns you onto art is, in my opinion, a good thing, though the artist would have taken great exception to that comment.  She always denied any sexual connotations in her work.

Stieglitz was able to put together an incredible collection and thanks to his eye for quality the collection itself becomes a work of art.

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