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“Modern Art and America: Alfred Stieglitz and His New York Galleries”

Let’s take a walk down Memory Lane, shall we? “Georgia O’Keeffe 1887-1986,” “Selections and Transformations: The Art of John Marin,” “The Art of Paul Strand,” “Stieglitz in the Darkroom”—anything ring a bell? All were exhibitions organized by the National Gallery of Art between 1987 and 1992. Consider also that the Phillips Collection hosted “In the American Grain: Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, John Marin, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Alfred Stieglitz: The Stieglitz Circle at the Phillips Collection” in the fall of 1995, “Arthur Dove: A Retrospective Exhibition” in the fall of 1997, and “Georgia O’Keeffe: The Poetry of Things” in the spring of 1999. The National Gallery also staged “O’Keeffe on Paper” just last spring.

All of which is to say that, with one major qualification, the National Gallery’s “Modern Art and America: Alfred Stieglitz and His New York Galleries” (hereafter “Stieglitz ‘n’ Friends”) should be penciled in on your to-do list somewhere between replacing the cedar blocks in your sweater drawer and e-mailing last year’s holiday letter to an overlooked third cousin.

“Stieglitz ‘n’ Friends” may not be vitally necessary, but, then, vitality and necessity aren’t what drives artgoing in this town. Just as the Washington Post aims its visual-arts coverage not at the educated member of the general public but at the uneducated one (who, presumably, has more important things on his mind: politics, economics, news of the world), museums from the National Gallery to the Phillips to the Corcoran have grown adept at positioning art as a backdrop to provincial social life. It’s no accident that so many D.C. museum shows advance bohemian fantasies that simultaneously give tour-bus yokels a peek at the enticements of the big city and offer District wonks and Brahmins weekend glimpses of the outré behavior they too could indulge in if not so righteously and responsibly committed to the nation’s business.

It is possible to hit all the bases of our town’s game—and to keep curators amused with another barely novel historical niche to explore—and still deliver a must-see; the Phillips did so in 1996 with “Americans in Paris: Man Ray, Gerald Murphy, Stuart Davis, Alexander Calder.” (Although it fell less than 10 years after the National Museum of American Art’s Man Ray retrospective, the exhibit predated NMAA’s “Stuart Davis” and the National Gallery’s “Alexander Calder 1898-1976” and performed the rare service of gathering all extant Murphys.) But “Stieglitz ‘n’ Friends” rarely strays from servicing the hoi polloi and fleshing out the résumés of museum staffers.

National Gallery photography curator and show organizer Sarah Greenough pays lip service to Stieglitz’s trailblazing, making an epigraph of his claim “I have always been a revolutionist if I have ever been anything at all.” But he largely comes off as the demimonde’s Daddy Warbucks, scooping from the gutter talented waifs orphaned by the establishment, shining them up, and telling them to make themselves at home in his palaces of art: 291, the Intimate Gallery, An American Place. His charges—Marin, Demuth, Strand, Hartley, Dove, O’Keeffe—would be elevated; he would be ennobled.

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At other times, Stieglitz is advanced as a cultural infiltrator, governor of the boho principality of Secret Manhattan, where ordinary objects came to life and happy pals frolicked, where urinals and wasps’ nests were raised on pedestals, and where a close-knit bunch of artistic dissidents nurtured the flickering torch of European modernism in a series of tiny rooms in the heart of the city. But no matter the bunting you wrap it in, the story stays the same. It grows familiar, and familiarity breeds comfort before it ever gets around to contempt. America is great at taming its radicals, at making favorite uncles of its bomb-throwing anarchists. And because the American middlebrow has long nursed a love for the familiar face that masks a romantic, even dangerous, past, the rest of us are damned to hear history repeated, precisely because it is loved so well.

And so long as everyone keeps queuing up for the institutional parade, trudging dutifully through the National Gallery’s halls; ponying up for its audio tours, catalogs, and notecards; and bellying up to the my-God-what-the-hell-is-this special in the second-most-unappetizing cafeteria on the Mall (Flight Line, take a bow), there’s no reason for it to deviate from the well-worn path. Rather than take a few chances with the largely captive crowd its location grants it, the National Gallery will keep honoring the same few grizzled heroes.

That “major qualification” I mentioned is that hero worship of an entirely different order can be threshed from the American grain. I prefer to chuck all the other Stieglitzians—as well as the smattering of dressing-room post-impressionism, cubism, “primitivism,” and dada that establishes their lineage—and shrink “Stieglitz ‘n’ Friends” to a miniature version of the retrospective that Washington has neglected, over the last decade and a half, to give Marsden Hartley.

It’s pretty easy to re-curate on the fly. Half your work is done for you by a single room containing 10 canvases: a couple of the Amerika paintings from 1914-1915 and the symbolic portraits of German officer Karl von Freyburg, made in Berlin from 1915 to 1916. The customary quote is O’Keeffe’s, that Hartley’s show at 291 in April 1916 was “like a brass band in a small closet.” Eighty-five years later, and in more spacious quarters, the Freyburg paintings are still deafening. Imperious, expressionist, and Germanic, deep-hued and dark, besotted with pageantry yet heartsick of war, they apply an astringent corrective to the Francophilia that dominates U.S. recollection of the era.

Even Hartley’s manipulation of American iconography is tempered by his German identification. The spiritual romance of the Native American-themed Amerika pictures is one directed from the modern Old World to the ancient New; it’s as if Hartley had hybridized the work of two other honorary Germans, crossing Kandinsky’s “folk” paintings with Kafka’s “The Wish to Be a Red Indian.”

Of course, it’s more than just Germanism that keeps Hartley underrated and underattended to. Hartley tips his hand with the Freyburg paintings, but the voice of officialdom would be content to keep it concealed. Unsettled by the painter’s sexuality, the National Gallery persists in calling Freyburg Hartley’s “friend,” when “crush” would be more to the point.

Hartley always had a thing for men in uniform. And in his mind, he built his spiritual, intellectual, and erotic fascination with Freyburg into a monument to the way of life he had found in Berlin—hospitable, cosmopolitan, and free. When the Great War threatened to destroy it utterly—and indeed it succeeded in snuffing Freyburg—Hartley turned to the easel to rebuild his monument from fragments. It’s possible to intuit Freyburg’s outline in the clashing collages of insignia, helmets, and flags, but ultimately it’s the brokenness of his body and the absence of his company that are evoked in these crazy quilts of the military flash that had rendered the flesh, blood, and bones behind it so much materiel.

Hartley’s talent for elegy is more bluntly evidenced in Crow With Ribbons (1941-1942). A dead bird hangs upside down against a piece of paper, its flat, matte blackness playing against the bruised lavender-grays of the mottled sheet. A flipped-up corner of the paper is pinned against this trompe-nobody tackboard, making a triangle, as the red heads of the tacks delineate another. The form of the crow breaks down into extensions of their geometry. Mystical symbolism joins the drama of shapes in Eight Bells Folly: Memorial for Hart Crane, painted in 1933, the year after Crane drowned himself. It’s a tense, violent picture that links John Singleton Copley’s shark and Stephen Crane’s wafer sun with numerology amid bulging, black-centered, triangular clouds that loom over the horizon like the eye sockets of a giant skull.

Though less outlandish than his memorial pictures, Hartley’s landscapes, craggy and coarse, their colors raw, their lines brusque, their forms hewn as though with an ax, contrast favorably with those of O’Keeffe, the member of Stieglitz’s circle who has received the public’s anointing and who is likely the show’s big draw. In O’Keeffe’s pictures, the natural world submits to a sleek stylization that doesn’t seem all that far removed from art-deco illustration. That she would represent nature, then deny the pull of all beauty but the abstract (a general rule, a specific case of which is her rejection of sexual interpretations of her flower paintings) clearly indicates her failings. O’Keeffe is virtually all eye—little heart, little soul, little hand.

Hartley, however, is the complete package. A physical, intellectual, balls-out (as long as I’m playing the manly homosexual against the

wispy lady, I might as well go whole hog) painter, he eventually broke with Stieglitz because he resented not getting the recognition he deserved. How thoughtful of the National Gallery to have given him this show! CP