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The MFA, Boston once again brings fresh relevance to old masters. The current solo exhibits featuring the photographs of Alfred Stieglitz (reviewed here) and Charles Sheeler (reviewed later this week) offer us a rare view into the work of two giants of American Modernism that are cornerstones of the museum’s remarkable archive. Striking examples of Stieglitz’s platinum, palladium, photogravure, and gelatin silver prints will be on view only briefly, until November 5th, 2017. Those are reasons enough to hightail it to the MFA but there’s something else that I found enthralling: the cultural changes of the Industrial Age that enabled this exquisite work a century ago reveal uncanny parallels to those we are experiencing today. Modernism, meet the Digital Age, where remarkable technological advances nurture an explosion of inventive experimentation in image making.
Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) was not only a groundbreaking photographer but a revolutionary arts impresario, a thought leader and change agent who ushered in a tidal wave of artistic transformation in concert with the radical cultural changes that marked the Industrial Age. Born into the romantic Pictorialist tradition, he was converted by the avant-garde art scene he encountered while studying engineering in Europe. Back in the United States by 1890, Stieglitz became a driving force of American Modernism, championing sculptors and painters from Rodin to Picasso and young photographers from Strand to Sheeler in his NYC galleries (especially 291, on 5th Avenue) and through his publications (especially Camera Work).
From the perspective of our own drastic transition into the Digital Age, it is particularly intriguing – and fun! – to track Stieglitz’s progression into Modernism. For the Pictorialist enchantment with painterly countryside settings, Stieglitz substitutes his own urban infatuation, replacing rolling landscapes with planar verticality. In the seminal 1907 photograph “The Steerage”, we see distinct signs of modern composition in the way Stieglitz bisects his frame into a vertical geometric and socio-economic reckoning on migration (despite learning that the ship is actually leaving NY Harbor).
For Stieglitz, the camera was an ideal marriage of art and technology, an instrument of radicalism capable not only of capturing the truth of a moment but of harnessing the spirit of a movement. From early on, Stieglitz fervently explores materiality, especially weather and atmospheric conditions. He habitually enlists NYC in his photographs of nighttime, rain, fog, and snow, as in his 1915 “From the Window of “291”, New York”. Later he becomes more abstract, employing angular perspectives, dramatic light and deep shadow to enhance the city’s unique geometries, as in his 1935-6 skyline view, “From the Shelton, Looking West”. In a jump from planar abstractions into a purely symbolic realm, Stieglitz looks to the clouds above in his series of “Equivalents” meant to reflect internal moods. He was an early adopter of metaphorical names for some of his prints, often drawing upon musical and poetic sources. And those are just his landscapes.
Stieglitz’s portraits bear his unmistakable stamp of bold composition paired with a distinctly modern attitude of casual familiarity. With his second wife and muse, painter Georgia O’Keeffe, he takes the constructs of formal, environmental portraiture and turns it on its ear: a headless, almost unrecognizably abstract nude; a brightly lit, straight shot that is sensuously intimate in O’Keeffe’s dishevelment, and his arresting, signature close-ups of hands and faces that we see repeated in his portraits of friends and family. To me, these are among the most compelling photographs in the exhibit. I come back to them again and again, another testimony to their staying power over a century.
This is a gem of a show, one you’ll want to experience in person for the exceptional samples of photographic prints…and to linger over for their stirring visual and emotional impact. Curator Anne Havinga has harvested thirty-six stellar examples of Stieglitz’s work from what is considered to be “the finest, most highly distilled small collection…to show the full extent of (Stieglitz’s) work in concentrated form.” By highlighting three seminal aspects of Stieglitz’s career – NYC views, his family estate in upstate NY, and portraits primarily of O’Keeffe – Havinga encapsulates his enduring oeuvre. She contextualizes Stieglitz’s work in a way that illuminates the forces that shaped American Modernism and, for me, encourages comparison to our own profound cultural changes. To learn more about the MFA’s gifted Ann Havinga, Estrellita and Yousuf Karsh Senior Curator of Photographs, please enjoy my Curator’s Viewpoint Interview with her right here, tomorrow!
For more information about this show, go to: http://www.mfa.org/exhibitions/alfred-stieglitz-and-modern-america