Unreal Nature

August 17, 2017

The Nursery

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:38 am

… “when the smoke has cleared away you’ll go back to your habitual worship of eternal repetitions of mere externals of people and things … — but you won’t feel satisfied.”

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

… When the large International Exhibition of Modern Art opened in February 1913 at the 69th Infantry Regiment’s Armory in New York [aka the Armory Show], among the more than 300 artists represented were many whom Stieglitz had previously shown, thus confirming, as Stieglitz and critics of the time recognized, the prescient nature of many of the exhibitions that had been presented at 291 from 1908 through 1912.

… While privately [Stieglitz] despaired that the notoriety of the Armory Show was overwhelming the art, publicly he supported it: he lent work to it, bought several pieces from it, and gave interviews to the press defending the exhibition. Gleefully proclaiming that “the dry bones of a dead art are rattling as they never rattled before,” he announced in the New York American that the Armory Show consisted of work that demonstrated that “art begins where imitation ends,” and he predicted that “when the smoke has cleared away you’ll go back to your habitual worship of eternal repetitions of mere externals of people and things … — but you won’t feel satisfied.”

… In late 1914 and early 1915 Stieglitz recognized, as he had often in the past, that he needed to separate himself from the growing crowd of art enthusiasts in New York. Radical, unexpected actions were necessary to confound his critics, reclaim his position as New York’s preeminent iconoclast, and reassert 291’s intellectual integrity. He explored two experiments ardently championed by his trusted young colleague de Zayas … Although unforeseen at the moment of their inception, these activities would force Stieglitz to begin to confront the roles of commerce in the artistic enterprise and the machine in modern life and art, and the character of modern American art.

… With his strong romantic tendencies and his elitist, symbolist heritage, Stieglitz had a deep belief in the artist as a creative genius, capable both of begetting works of great originality and of divining profound, even transcendent truths. With such an understanding, he could not conceive of art as a commodity that could be bought and sold like groceries. Art was a spiritual expression, not a product, and Stieglitz maintained that the public needed to share this faith — or learn how to share this faith — and support artists in the same way they supported religious leaders. Capable of divine revelation, art for Stieglitz was to be understood as a selfless act, not something made for personal gain.

[line break added]  De Zayas, far more democratic and pragmatic, also tried to be far less idealistic. He saw art as a direct expression of contemporary life, not removed or isolated from it. Because he had confidence in the public’s ability to “further modern thought by weeding out the true from the false,” he was content to rely on the consumer society’s basic law of supply and demand. “I thought that if the pictures do not sell themselves,” he wrote several years later, “they could at least speak for themselves; and I thought the best policy I could adopt was to leave people alone to think for themselves.”

[ … ]

… At the same time that Stieglitz at least initially supported de Zayas and Picabia’s investigations of America’s new mechanistic and commodity culture, he also looked to “discover America” through alternative paths. In the years around the Armory Show, he came to realize just as his perspective as a photographer had allowed him to approach modern art from an unconventional vantage point, so too might other non-traditional and non-hierarchical ways of making art help him and other American artists to understand all forms of expression more fully and American art more specifically. He looked for these alternative routes in so-called primitive or naive art.

The first exhibition to explore these ideas was in 1912 when he and the American painter Abraham Walkowitz organized a selection of drawings, watercolors, and pastels by children aged two to thirteen.

… while [de Zayas] extolled the unconscious as “the sign of creation” and consciousness “at best that of manufacture,” de Zayas, like Stieglitz, insisted that “those who consciously imitate the work of children produce childish art, but not the work of children.” Instead, the modern artist “has had to abandon the complex study of realistic form … and turn to the imaginative and fantastic expression of Form in order to have a complete understanding of its expression.” They must be “seekers of the inner spirit in outer things,” as the 1912 excerpt published in Camera Work from Wassily Kandinsky’s On the Spiritual in Art had preached.

Stieglitz saw the ideas provoked by children’s art as central to the mission of 291 after the Armory Show; so much so that one critic dubbed 291 “the nursery of genius.”

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

-Julie

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