Double Exposure : Alfred Stieglitz’s influence as artist and dealer : ALFRED STIEGLITZ: A Biography, <i> By Richard Whelan (Little, Brown: $29.95; 662 pp.)</i>
Alfred Stieglitz died in 1946. Almost fifty years later comes the first full-scale biography of this 20th-Century American giant. And author Richard Whelan proves equal to his task.
Like any legend, Steiglitz is well-known in outline. He was born in 1864 of wealthy German Jewish immigrants who divided their time between Manhattan and their summer home at Lake George. He went to Berlin in the 1880s to study mechanical engineering and returned to Manhattan in 1890 a photographer. By 1905, via his photography and his activity as publisher of the quarterly journal Camera Work and as director Gallery 291 (named for its address on Fifth Avenue) he became a critical intelligence and a shaping force of modern art and the modern era.
At 291, he gave such great early European modernists as Cezanne, Braque and Matisse their first American exhibitions; to Picasso and Brancusi he gave their first one-man exhibitions anywhere. By 1912, he had transformed still photography in America; by 1917, he had rejected this transformation and begun another. European artists who sat out World War I in Manhattan headed straight for him upon arrival. His friends included writers Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, Hart Crane and Henry Miller and painters Marsden Hartley and John Marin--and Georgia O’Keeffe, whom he married in 1924. In the 1930s, he became progressively more isolated emotionally and intellectually, and by the late 1940s he had ceased to be a positive force in American art.
Whelan succeeds beautifully in providing details that humanize the legend. It is through Whelan, for example, that we finally learn of Stieglitz’s unaffectionate, temperamental and bullying father, who made the young Alfred feel so “afraid he could not be loved for who he was” that he vowed to be “loved for what he did.”
Stieglitz’s childhood fixation on one of his father’s female cousins--older, dark-haired, pale-skinned, always in black--is well-known. But as Whelan gives us her visits to the Stieglitz household, which kept 3-year-old Alfred in weekly ecstasies of anticipation, he sets the stage for the string of women dressed in black or blackandwhite whose power over the adult Stieglitz is also well-known. Whelan also shows us the boy’s intense jealousy of his younger twin brothers’ closeness as a source of the man’s desperate search for a soul mate or twin, and of his belief that he had found her not only in O’Keeffe but in the women he subsequently betrayed her for.
Whelan gives us more documentary evidence than ever before of Stieglitz’s overbearing egotism and the pain it caused not only to O’Keeffe through his several affairs, but also to his closest friends, men and women alike--as when he blocked a romance between O’Keeffe’s sister Ida and his friend the critic Paul Rosenfeld on the grounds that love should not interfere with Rosenfeld’s work.
Outside of O’Keeffe, the most pitiable victim of Stieglitz’s egotism was the brilliant photographer Paul Strand, Stieglitz’s junior by 25 years, his protege of 1915 to 1920, and best friend until the early ‘30s. Whelan’s account begins with Stieglitz sending Strand to Texas as his errand boy to lure O’Keeffe back to New York, knowing full well that Strand himself was in love with her. Strand and O’Keeffe complied, and Stieglitz promptly took O’Keeffe for his own.
When Strand later married Rebecca Salsbury, who resembled O’Keeffe, and photographed her after Stieglitz’s pictures of O’Keeffe, Stieglitz took Salsbury to Lake Georgia to pose (in the nude) for him and most likely sleep with him--at least Stieglitz made it look as if she had.
Stieglitz’s humanity was equally on the grand scale, especially to artists, launching--against all odds--the careers of Strand, John Marin, O’Keeffe, Arthur Dove and perhaps most selflessly, Hartley. In 1909, exhausted, disillusioned, bitter, wanting to wash his hands of gallery work, Stieglitz nonetheless organized a one-man show for Hartley at 291 because, as he later wrote, “of my reading Suffering--Spiritual anguish--in your face. And because I felt a supreme worthwhile struggle of a Soul” in Hartley’s art. In 1921, when Hartley, broke and in despair, asked Stieglitz for $1,200 to get to Italy and kill himself, Stieglitz arranged an auction of Hartley’s work that netted almost $4,000, enabling Hartley to live and work in Europe for over three years.
It is understandable, then, that by 1928 Stieglitz’s larger-than-life generosity on behalf of artists should have conspired with his gigantic egotism to delude him into thinking that the careers and work of many American artists were in effect expressions of his own aesthetic being. In truth it’s always the other way around: Critics, curators, dealers and collectors must have good art lest their careers be trivial--and, if they operate on the grand scale, as did Stieglitz, bombastic and ridiculous. And so it is also understandable how Stieglitz’s wild belief that he had created O’Keeffe, Marin, Hartley, Strand, Dove and hosts of others eventually isolated him from many of them.
Still, Whelan reminds us, Stieglitz thought “the artist vital to society as an exemplar of the creative life, developing and expressing all the potential of the individual.” Yet his ultimate loyalty was not to artists but to art, whose principal function “was to enhance life both for the artist and for his audience” and “to inspire [us] to reject the venality, the hypocrisy, and the puritanism that poisoned American culture.” (Not to mention materialism and commercialism, which Stieglitz also saw as corrupting art.) The artists he championed were those who were “attempting to express their inner life,” egotism aside, as a dealer and critic he saw his role as that of “midwife” to those ideas.
But wasn’t he a dealer? What about his commercialism? His need for money notwithstanding (no, Stieglitz was not a wealthy man), he kept only one work from each exhibition and only 20% of sales (today’s galleries take at least 50%), and he always put part of his take into a reserve fund for needy artists. When he had to sell a work from his own collection, part of the money always went either to the artists’ fund or to the artist.
Through anecdotes such as this, Whelan shows that Stieglitz’s need to live life on the grand scale was creative as long as it was directed away from the realms of family, intimate friendship and love, and as long as he identified his enemies with those forces that have, immemorially, been the enemies of art, culture and the soul. Whelan’s treatment of Stieglitz’s old age, especially the reconciliation with O’Keeffe and the reciprocal tenderness and affection of their last years together, shows us that Stieglitz could in fact overcome his egotism in the personal realm.
Whelan is also good at evoking the imagery of art in pictures for the reader, and through them gives additional dimension to major and minor characters and to the times. Thus, through Whelan’s words after Stieglitz’s pictures, we see Ellen Morton, an occasional visitor to Lake George, in her “wet black bathing suit . . . stretched tightly against her buttocks as she climbs up onto a dock . . .”; O’Keeffe’s hands, sewing, ". . . stand out against an expanse of dark fabric with folds like those in the dress of a Flemish Renaissance Madonna”; Hartley standing in Stieglitz’s studio, still in his overcoat, hat and scarf, “bundled up against a chill that seems more than merely physical”; and a railroad yard whose “tracks seem to outline the fingers of a great hand reaching forward.”
If anything, this 600-page-plus book is overwhelming in its detail, as if Whelan couldn’t bring himself to part with a single fact he had unearthed. His long sentences often contain details within details--like Russian dolls--until one loses track of the sentence itself. Also, many background passages are too detailed for the general reader and superfluous to the specialist. The main effect of this superabundant detail is to disrupt the narrative, in some passages beyond repair, making a tome out of what should be a story. This is all the more unfortunate because Whelan’s sympathy for his hero is obvious, and he has uncovered precisely the kind of detail that makes Stieglitz more sympathetic than ever before.
Whelan’s timing is perfect. At a time when once again “brutal materialism is pervading American life” and commercialism is corrupting American art, we are re-inspired by this formidable man. Where are you now that we need you again, Alfred Stieglitz?