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Stieglitz Reigns at the Met

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Didn’t we just see Stieglitz at the Met a year ago? Well, yes and no. We saw Stieglitz, Steichen, Strand, three masters of early 20th Century photography. But the Met, with an unparalleled Stieglitz treasure in its vaults, has been nursing two other shows, both devoted to Stieglitz’s Personal Collection, for over 15 years. Together, they expand, amplify and confirm his unique and pioneering role in the cultural and artistic life of early 20th Century America, and provide us with yet another blockbuster exhibition drawn exclusively from the Met’s holdings.

It’s ironic that Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946), who once said the Met gave off “an atmosphere breathing of a cemetery dedicated to the dead rich,” is now enjoying not one but two shows at this august institution. On the other hand, nothing would have pleased him more. Because Stieglitz, through his ground-breaking NYC photo gallery at 291 Fifth Avenue (1902-17) and his journal Camera Work, fought to place photography on an equal footing with painting and sculpture as a serious art. In fact, he made his first serious inroad into the museum world by persuading the Met, in 1928, to accept 22 photos from his gallery, which constituted its very first collection of photographs.

Then, in 1933, according to Malcolm Daniel, curator of the Met’s Department of Photographs, Stieglitz called to say he was dumping his Pictoralist treasures in the garbage unless the Met sent a truck to pick them up. They promptly did, and over 400 more examples of Pictoralism – an approach to photography he no longer championed – arrived.

Treasures of Photography from Stieglitz’s Personal Collection, a small show on the 2nd floor,covers work from 1898 to 1908, when Stieglitz took control of setting the aesthetic agenda in the photography world. It consists of iconic images, many of which will be familiar to museum goers, if only because the Met has used a number of them on its Christmas cards, postcards and notebooks.

The romantic and idealized nature of Pictoralism is evident in Gertrude Kasebier’s Blessed Art Thou Among Women (1899), a portrait of Agnes Lee and her daughter Peggy. Though this show is a kind of prequel to the main exhibition, its classic images – hand made and beautifully printed — are worth viewing for their sheer beauty and painterly qualities.

Stieglitz and His Artists: Matisse to O’Keefe, also on the second floor, fills 14 galleries and contains 200 works (about half of their Stieglitz archive). It’s the first large-scale exhibition of paintings, sculptures, drawings and prints from his Personal Collection, donated to the museum after 1949 by his widow, Georgia O’Keeffe. And what a collection it is! Filled with works by the major American and European modernists of his era, it reveals yet another side of Stieglitz, the post-1913 visionary collector, promoter, dealer and exhibitor who championed such blazing talents as Picasso, Matisse, Lautrec, Brancusi, and Kandinsky. In fact, he was the first to exhibit Picasso, Matisse, Rodin, Picabia, Brancusi, Severini and others in the U.S. Their work takes up the first rooms in the show.

However, after the famous Armory Show of 1913, which usurped his pioneering role, Stieglitz turned more and more to showing and supporting contemporary American artists, not well known or collected at the time. And here, for my money, is the best part of the show: galleries of works by Arthur Dove, John Marin, Charles DeMuth, Marsden Hartley and, in the last gallery, 14 works by Georgia O’Keeffe Though there are more Marin works in Stieglitz’s collection than any other artist, in this show DeMuth and Hartley get rooms of their own.

Stieglitz and His Artists, organized by Lisa Mintz Messinger, Associate Curator in the Museum’s Department of Nineteenth-Century Modern, and Contemporary Art, is the first time since 1949 that the Stieglitz Collection has been exhibited together (although only about half of their holdings are on view). The scholarly companion Catalogue (with 440 full-color illustrations, and entries on all 409 paintings, sculptures, drawings and prints in the Met’s Collection) is, in and of itself, a major undertaking, and will live on, years after the exhibition is dismantled.

According to Messinger, Stieglitz did not like being called a “dealer.” His mission and vision was to build support for the arts, especially for those artists who he appreciated and financed, often decades before they found their audience. In this mission, he succeeded brilliantly. Though, with his unerring eye, he also played the role of dealer/collector, it’s clear he did so primarily because of his passion for his artists and their works.

For those who know of Stieglitz mainly as a photographer and the husband of Georgia O’Keeffe, these two shows will prove to be a revelation and pleasure.

Stieglitz and His Artists: Matisse to O’Keeffe (October 13, 2011 – January 2, 2012) and Photographic Treasures from the Collection of Alfred Stieglitz (October 12, 2011 – February 26, 2012)
Metropolitan Museum

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