Unreal Nature

July 27, 2017

He Also Listened

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:57 am

… “The ‘work of art’ was never … of much interest to Stieglitz,” … “it is what the work of art symbolizes, what is behind it that counts.”

This is from Modern Art and America: Alfred Stieglitz and His New York Galleries by Sarah Greenough (2000):

… In 1902 when Alfred Stieglitz founded the Photo-Secession, in 1903 when he began to publish Camera Work, in 1905 when he opened The Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession at 291 Fifth Avenue in New York, and in 1907 when he began to exhibit art other than photography at this gallery, he had little conception of the ideas he would engender, the changes he would help to effect, or even specifically what he wanted to accomplish, except that he knew he wanted to shake the status quo.

[line break added] Many of the actions he took were in reaction to the activities — and often the perceived threats — of others around him. Many were prompted by his rebellious nature, his inherent distrust of conventionalism, and his need to defy expectations. Especially before 1907, his steps were not part of a planned, programmatic agenda, but were instead almost entirely improvised either by Stieglitz himself or his close associates, the result of their rich, free-spirited, wide-ranging, catholic, and uncensored debate.

… From 1902 through 1907 Alfred Stieglitz, at first unwittingly and then with increasing awareness, began to construct an environment that proved to be highly receptive to new ideas in photography and art. During these first few years of the twentieth century, he developed both a philosophical framework and the necessary supporting structures that enabled him and a growing cadre of supporters to initiate a dialogue among different kinds of artists and thus to launch one of the most influential challenges to the nature of American art in the twentieth century.

… With the spirited urging of his trusted young protégé, the photographer and painter Edward Steichen, Stieglitz rented three small rooms on the top floor of a building at 291 Fifth Avenue in New York to use as a gallery. Initially, Stieglitz and Steichen thought they would use the space to show, in successive installations, selections from Stieglitz’s aborted international exhibition. Yet their great ambition and delight in risk-taking quickly led to other ideas and other plans.

[line break added] Because Stieglitz feared there would not be enough good photographic work to sustain a gallery, and because both men passionately believed in the need for photography to be seen in comparison with the other arts, they proposed to exhibit not only the “very best” photographs from around the world, but also other art that “the Council of the Photo-Secession can from time to time secure.” They hoped that by exhibiting paintings, drawings, or sculpture they would draw artists and critics into their space and thus initiate a dialogue about the relationship between painting and photography.


… To a very great extent, the Little Galleries, or 291, made Stieglitz both the artist and the force in modern American culture that he came to be. At 291 the restless, impulsive photographer could respond quickly to ideas, issues, events, and criticism, and, if necessary, change direction. More important, 291 pushed Stieglitz out into the larger world. As he stood watch at the gallery, as he phrased it, day after day for at least six months of each year from 1905 through 1917, 291 brought him into contact with different kinds of people, many of whom had radically new and, for him, highly stimulating ideas.

[line break added] At the gallery he talked endlessly, as he himself readily admitted. Yet, as evidenced by the rapid evolution of his understanding of art at this time, he also listened intently to his colleagues. He studied their work and absorbed their ideas, and, in turn, frequently became the most vocal and passionate champion of both. Several of Stieglitz’s coworkers from the time remarked that he was as interested in the ideas provoked by the art as the art itself. “The ‘work of art’ was never … of much interest to Stieglitz,” Hutchins Hapgood recalled several years later, “it is what the work of art symbolizes, what is behind it that counts.”

My previous post from Greenough’s book is here.




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