Alfred Stieglitz: Sexism at the Heart of Modern Art?

On the 1st of January 1864, seminal photographer Alfred Stieglitz was born in Hoboken, New Jersey. Modern art historians believe that the equally prolific editor and art dealer did more than anyone else to bring European avant-garde art to the American public during the first two decades of the 20th century. The son of a German immigrant, he spent most of the 1880s in Berlin and returned to the USA in 1890 with an international reputation as a photographer. After various ventures which involved setting up photographic studios and groups, he opened 291 Gallery on Fifth Avenue, New York in 1905. Originally known as “Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession” this was, surprisingly, the first American space where exhibitions of Matisse (1908), Toulouse-Lautrec (1909), Henri Rousseau (1910), Picabia (1913), Severini (1917) and the first one-man exhibition of Brancusi anywhere (1914) were shown. It was also here where the first exhibition of children’s art and the first major exhibition of African art in America took place. Stieglitz’s magazine Camera Work, although initially focusing on photography, later started covering a whole range of visual arts and publishing groundbreaking pieces by avant-garde American writers. Stieglitz and his critics wanted to define American modernist aesthetics as a reaction against the limiting legacy of Puritan and Victorian traditions of their homeland – they turned towards the more liberated European modernism for inspiration. 

Amongst the new artists Stieglitz sup41su3K5ABNLported were Arthur Dove, John Marin, and Georgia O’Keeffe. Marcia Brennan pointed out that their work was seen through a gendered frame, emphasizing the supremacy of (predominantly male) heterosexual artistic creation, which tends to be a generalised reading of American modernist art, i.e. later also championed by the critic Clement Greenberg. However, unlike in the abstract formalism and minimalism of the1950s  and 60s, Stieglitz seemed to point out that the work of his protégées was still connected to the human body. Brennan states that, “When one thinks of formalist criticism, the image of the body is probably not the first thing that springs to mind, other than perhaps the trope of the omniscient “floating eyeball” that signifies a powerfully detached, mastering gaze. (…) I was surprised by the degree to which notions of sensuousness, gender, and corporeality represented recurrent tropes in period critical discussions of the 1910s through the 1940s. That is, critics repeatedly read notions of gender and embodiment into the formal structures of artworks, within such formal issues as brushstroke, color, and composition.” (Jo-Anne Berelowitz interviews Marcia Brennan, Genders 35, 2002). Although to us, today, these semi-abstractions brings to mind lyricism, organic form and empathy for the world surrounding the artist, Stieglitz and his theorists promoted the work of their chosen artists as sexualised artistic expressions: they saw virile forces of penetration in the work of Dove, the dynamic of pulling forces and ejaculatory brushstrokes in that of Marin and O’Keefe’s flowers are still seen as representations of the vagina or vulva. So great was the attraction of Stieglitz to Georgia O’Keefe that he left his wife and married her in 1924. He saw her work as comprised of forms and feelings internal to her body, charged with biomorphic eroticism.

O’Keefe also became the obsessive model for Stieglitz’s art: photography, the medium he mastered, served as a very effective tool for the heterosexualization of the artist’s identity. In a narcissistic bid to enhance his own public alpha image, Stieglitz needed O’Keefe as a muse and protegee. Stieglitz heavily relied on images of her to forge his own authoritative identity in the art world. Brennan rightfully noted similar dualities in the life and work of later abstract artists: O’Keefe was for Stieglitz what Lee Krasner became for Jackson Pollock and Elaine to Willem de Kooning. Although rich creative forces in their own right, these female artists primarily helped perpetuate and reinforce the superiority of the American white, male, heterosexual modern art creator.

 “In Painting Gender, Constructing Theory: The Alfred Stieglitz Circle and American Formalist Aesthetics, Marcia Brennan recounts a telling anecdote about Alfred Stieglitz and a woman who, sometime in the early 1930s, visited his New York gallery, An American Place. Apparently confused by John Marin’s abstractions, the visitor asked the famous photographer and dealer why such evocative compositions failed to arouse her emotions. Stieglitz replied, “Why don’t you give me an erection?” Brennan uses this story to support her case that the artists and critics who made up the Stieglitz circle were unified by a shared discourse that the author terms “embodied formalism.” (Marie Califford’s review of Figures of Formalism Marie Clifford, Painting Gender, Constructing Theory: The Alfred Stieglitz Circle and American Formalist Aesthetics by Marcia Brennan, Art Journal, Vol. 63, No. 1, Spring, 2004). By ‘embodied formalism’, Brennan meant that the attitudes to, as well as the forms of modern art were being increasingly loaded with interpretations of gender. Stieglitz’s sarcastic retort was obviously undermining the female capability to ‘understand’ art, presumably, in the way that its male creator intended it to be ‘understood’. His insensitive rhetoric presumably silenced the female viewer, ‘putting her in her place’ and forcing her to agree with Stieglitz’s choice of Marin’s painting as aesthetically viable. As the saying goes, behind every great artist… there is an anti-feminist déjà vu…