Alfred Stieglitz and the American Avant-Garde by William Innes Homer
published by Secker & Warburg, London, 335 pages, $23.95
reviewed by GORDON H. BROWN
Alfred Stieglitz was one of the great photographers to emerge in America during the early years of this century. He was also important, largely through his journal Camera Work and his gallery known as 291, for providing the right circumstances which encouraged a small group of American artists and critics to challenge the established cultural values of the period and to promote the cause of modern art in America. It is the way in which Stieglitz acted as a catalyst in encouraging such avant-garde attitudes that is the central theme of Homer's book. The activities of Gallery 291 and Stieglitz's dedication to his circle of artists is given credit as a dominant factor in providing a receptive attitude amongst the more progressive artists, critics and patrons that proceeded and led to the successful staging of the Armory Show of 1913.
While in the early chapters stress is laid on Stieglitz's desire to regenerate photography as an art form, it is the international contacts which resulted from this passion and the way this interchange of ideas enriched his outlook on art that gives support to the central theme. This interchange of attitudes is well brought out in the treatment of Stieglitz's relation to his fellow photographer, Eduard Steichen, for during the latter's period in Paris he acted as a mentor in establishing contact between Gallery 291 in New York and progressive Continental artists such as Rodin, Matisse and Picasso.
In 1912 Stieglitz had become convinced that the new art would take the form of abstraction. In Camera Work he published Gertrude Stein's essays on Matisse and Picasso and a translated extract from Kandinsky's On the Spiritual in Art. As the author writes, Stieglitz 'had now become the leading spokesman for avant-garde art in the United States, more advanced in his tastes than most European patrons of modern art'.
It is against this background that the artists of Stieglitz's circle are viewed. The inter-relationship of artists like John Marin, Arthur Dove, Max Weber, Marsden Hartley, Georgia O'Keeffe and the photographers Steichen and Paul Strand within the Stieglitz circle during the period up to 1917 when 291 closed, and how Stieglitz's support of his American artists finally overshadowed his interest in European art, forms the author's major concern in the book.
Despite the somewhat banal arrangement given to the material forming the book (with its want of imagination) the author's exposition is reasonably concise. His aim has been to correlate for the first time the facets of an important stage in the development of American art, and to this end he has taken pains to search out facets which give substance to these diverse facets. The result is a book of some significance.