Unreal Nature

August 3, 2017

Red Rags

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:40 am

… these exhibitions were fundamentally and profoundly educational …

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

… After a year of exhibiting American and European photographs at 291, Stieglitz, Steichen, and Keiley came to believe that the ideas behind the fine art movement in photography were drying up; that it was time, as the critic Charles Caffin counseled Stieglitz, to “shift your attack.” The elusive, evocative, and often ethereal work of the Photo-Secession that only a few years earlier had seemed to Stieglitz so revealing of the photographer’s “character, his emotions, his intellectual powers,” now appeared stilted.

… The early exhibitions at 291 of non-photographic works were a varied mix.

… Especially during the early years at 291, he and Steichen rotated “red rags” with exhibitions of both photographs and “understandable” art.

Stieglitz and Steichen’s aim, though, was not simply to pace their shows or humor their audience to ensure their continued visitation and it was not merely to find what Steichen later referred to as “an antidote” for more radical work. Rather, both wanted to set up a dialogue that would enable 291 visitors to see, discuss, and ponder the differences and similarities between artists of all ranks and types: between painters, draftsmen, sculptors, and photographers; between European and American artists; between older or more established figures and younger, newer practitioners.

Stieglitz himself benefited enormously from the varied program and his understanding of modern art grew exponentially from 1907 through the summer of 1911. Although when he first saw Cézanne’s work in the large exhibition at Bernheim Jeune in Paris in the summer of 1907, he scoffed, “there’s nothing there but empty paper with a few splashes of color,” by 1911 he assuredly proclaimed to a New York critic that “without the understanding of Cézanne … it is impossible for anyone to grasp, even faintly, much that is going on in the art world today,” and in 1913 Francis Picabia anointed him “the man best informed in this whole revolution in the arts.”

… This more mature, nuanced, and layered understanding of modern art and the exhibition process itself was evident in both the 1911 Picasso exhibition and the 1912 Matisse show. … As all involved undoubtedly anticipated, this exhibition, Picasso’s first in this country, incited a storm of discussion and Stieglitz seems to have taken great pleasure in confounding critics by telling them that the works they believed to be “the gibberings of a lunatic,” he found “as perfect as a Bach fugue.”

… [The Matisse show] too was greeted with bewilderment and derision, described by one critic as “impossible travesties on the human form … which make one grieve that men should be found who can by any chance regard them with other than feelings of horrible repulsion.”

Above all else these two exhibitions at 291 drew attention to what was for many one of the most disturbing and perplexing aspects of modern art: its attack on conventional notions of beauty in the human form. Within the space of one year Stieglitz presented some of the most radical challenges to these conventions that would be witnessed in the entire twentieth century.

[line break added] Moreover, although unintentional, as he was dependent on both what was available and what could be easily shipped, because he primarily exhibited drawings, small plaster casts, terra-cottas, and a few bronzes, he delivered these challenges in their most bare, unadorned, and provocative form, without the allure or distraction of color, scale, and, in most cases even patina.

[line break added] In this way, these exhibitions were fundamentally and profoundly educational: they provided a means of communication between one artist and another; they were intended not to sensationalize, and not simply to shock, but to instruct and provoke, to allow one artist to speak to another about the creative process. And they were, at their very core, conceived as a Socratic dialogue, where new, even revolutionary ideas were introduced by the comparisons that were made and the questions that were posed, in order that artists and the public alike were empowered to reach their own conclusions.

My most recent previous post from Greenough’s book is here.




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