Dada in New York: Artists in Exile, Part Two

Francis Picabia and Marcel Duchamp in New York

The Americanization of Dada, Part One

In an interview with Pierre Cabanne, decades after the Great War, Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) explained how he became an artist and how it was that he came to be exempted from military service–and the two events were linked together. In pre-war France, a nation anticipating a war with Germany, there was a “three year law,” which allowed a young man to do one year instead of three, if he fell under certain exemptions. Feeling, as he put it, “neither militaristic nor soldierly,” Duchamp stumbled upon the fact that there were exemptions for doctors and lawyers and, surprisingly, “art workers.” For the military, “art worker” meant someone skilled in typography or printing of engravings and etchings. It is at this point that Duchamp shamelessly cheated: his grandfather had been an engraver and had left behind some copperplates with “extraordinary views of old Rouen.” The grandson worked with a printer and learned how to print his grandfather’s plates and impressed the jury in the same city and Duchamp was classified as an “art worker.” However that promising start to his military career ended under the withering disapproval of his commanding officer and he was discharged and forever exempted. And so it was that Marcel Duchamp, discouraged by the emptiness of a sad Paris during the Great War was able to come to New York and find Dada there.

It is during that brief period of time, from 1915 to 1918, that Duchamp concentrated on a theme he inherited from the Futurists: the machine. In his introduction to The Writings of Marcel Duchamp, Michel Sanouillet explained,

Duchamp’s attempt to rethink the world rests on two supports, the machine, the image and incarnation of our epoch, and chance, which for our contemporaries has de facto replaced divinity. Towards 1910 he was in contact with futurist experiments and conceived the vision of a society where the automatic and artificial would regulate all our relationships. it was to better affirm his humanity that he integrated himself into this new world. He was going even beyond our own time, which still persists in wishing to adapt the machine to man. Duchamp was trying to imagine a state of affairs where man would humanize then machine to such as extend that the latter would truly come to life..What if the machine, stripped of all anthropomorphic attitudes, were to evolve in a world made in its image with no reference to the criteria governing man, its creator? What if, like Kafka’s monkey, it servilely imitated all human grimaces and gestures with the exclusive goal of freeing itself of its chains and of “leaving” them? Then, if the machine were to love, desire and marry, what would be its mental processes?..According to Duchamp, the machine is a supremely intelligent creature which evolves, in a world completely divorced from our own; it thinks; organizes this thought in coherent sentences, and following the technique describe above, uses words whose meaning is familiar to us. However, these words conspire to mystify us..On the other hand, what would happen if the machine admitted the possibility of accident, or non-repetition, exclusive attribute of man? Better yet, if having gotten ahead of us, it learned to use chance for utilitarian or aesthetic ends?

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Mechanical drawing of Bolts and Screws

This rather long speculation on the machine owes more the contemporary science fiction than to the mindset of 1915, but there is no question that Duchamp and his friend Francis Picabia (François Marie Martinez Picabia)) though long and hard about machines as humans and considered the possibility that humans were also machines or mechanical in their operating systems. When Picabia returned to New York, he paused in his career as a painter for almost a decade and embraced on an interesting series of “mechanomorphs,” or portraits of those in the New York art scene as corresponding machines. In other words, if his friends were machines, what kind of machine would he or she be? It was, at this stage of his career , for Picabia to give up painting for it was a medium too “fat” and shiny and sensuous for the machine and its mechanical nature.

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Francis Picabia. I See Again in Memory, My Dear Undine (1913)

Like the artists of New Objectivity who would emerge in a decade, Picabia turned to mechanical drawing, dry and circumspect, straightforward and pragmatic. The source material was plentiful and industrial designers and their drawings, artless and presentational, were available in catalogues and manuals. Mechanical drawing itself is an acquired skill, with the artist working at a drafting table with instruments such as compasses and straight edge rulers. It is an art or precision, designed to show and tell without introspection and without need of interpretation. Or course,
reading” these complex renderings is a skill in itself, but, for artists, the reading was less important than the emotionless rendering itself.

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Francis Picabia

When Picabia returned to New York in 1915, his sponsor and colleague, Alfred Stieglitz, was in a bit of a holding pattern. A successful photographer, art dealer, sponsor of avant-garde in America, publisher of a major art journal, Camera Work, Stieglitz had been the main conduit for contemporary art but the Great War had stymied the free international exchange of ideas and art. Middle aged and in an unhappy marriage, the photographer faced a crossroads, and, indeed, in 1916 he would close 291 and end that chapter in his life. But, as always the older man surrounded himself with young protégées, in this case, the poet Paul Haviland and the poet Agnes Ernst Meyer, who convinced him to start a new and innovative art magazine, 291, after the famous gallery. Picabia eagerly joined this new enterprise and filled the pages of 291 with a series of “object portraits,” or mechanical drawings of notable members of his artistic circle, pictured as machines. This idea of a person as a metaphor would be copied a decade later by Charles Demuth who painted the poet William Carlos Williams as one of his own poems, I Saw the Figure Five in Gold. But Picabia was far more rigorous in both is approach and his drawing of these “portraits.” No painting is involved, a renunciation similar to that of Duchamp, who was also moving towards a mechanistic form of rendering, as seen in his linear recreation of one of his earlier paintings of a chocolate grinder on the cover of The Blind Man. Picabia explained later that it was his time in America inspired his turn to the machine:

This visit to America has brought about a complete revolution in my methods of work..Almost immediately upon coming to America it flashed on me that the genius of the modern world is machinery, and that through machinery art ought to find a most vivid expression. I have been profoundly impressed by the vast mechanical developments in America. The machine has become more than a mere adjunct of human life–perhaps the very soul.

Picabia was in and out of America between 1915 and 1917, before declaring his farewell to Dada in 1918. During this time of restless traveling, he was in Barcelona where he published a European version of 291, called 391, in which a number of his machine drawings appeared. Using industrial catalogues as a resource, Picabia seems to have favored cars and their many parts as his main source of inspiration. For a man as fascinated with cars as he was, it would not be surprising that he would not only know of manuals of parts but would also be familiar with the actual experience of being a mechanic. Early cars were temperamental and the owners were expected to be able to do their own repairs at a basic level. As Mariea Caudill Dennison explained in her interesting article, “Automobile Parts and Accessories in Picabia’s Machinist Works of 1915-17,”

His American residency gave him ample opportunity to browse in contemporary American printed material, finding illustrations and diagrams of auto parts in magazines, advertisements, handbooks, manuals and even window dis- plays..By the summer of 1915, combination starting, lighting and ignition systems were becoming increasingly common in cars, both as standard equipment and add-on packages.

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Francis Picabia. Ici, c’est ici Stieglitz /foi et amour (1915)

In one of the finest of these “portraits,” Alfred Stieglitz was, predictably, a camera or his exact camera to be precise, a vest pocket Kodak model. But Picabia added additional “equipment,” so to speak, a gearshift, which gives the car instruction, and a brake lever that perversely put the camera/car in an immobile position. The brake on Stieglitz has been interpreted as the stalemate the photographer faced as he was a decade past his breakthrough as a “straight photographer.” Both William Innes Homer and William Camfield assert that the brake should be thought of as the photographer at a creative standstill. Appearing on the cover of the July-August 1915 issue of 291, this crisp drawing indicates the speed with which Picabia, who arrived in New York in June, found his métier. As William Rozaitis descried the drawing in “The Joke at the Heart of Things: Francis Picabia’s Machine Drawings and the Little Magazine 291:”

The viewer is confronted with a crisply rendered machine. Its parts are easily identifiable as those of a camera: a lever and a handle appear to the right; a bellows puffs out of a film box at the bottom; and connected to the box by a series of overlapping, riveted supports is a lens. The drawing bears the inscription and title, Ici, c’est ici Stieglitz /foi et amour (Here, this is Stieglitz / faith and love), an apt description of the master photographer (1864-1949) who selflessly worked, with “faith and love,” to raise the status of photography to an art form and to introduce modern painting, drawing, sculpture, and photography to the American public. The word “ideal” appears in Gothic script above the camera’s lens, while 291-the title of the magazine as well as the name of Stieglitz’s well-known gallery-appears to the left, suggesting that the contents of the magazine will champion the same “ideal” standards for modern art that led inspired artists and devotees to crowd Stieglitz’s small room.

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Francis Picabia. Le Saint des saints (1915)

The meanings of the suite of five “mechanomorphs” are as complex and personal as the drawings are simplified and impersonal. Picabia’s own self portrait, Le Saint des saints, is a braying automobile horn, also called a “canter,” by the artist, that is one who speaks “cant” or a local language. At the bottom, Picabia wrote “C’est de moi qu’il s’agin dans ce portrait,” which means: “The holy of the holies is to me that it is in this picture.” Le Saint des saints is a portrait of an artist as a conveyor of a message, but, as a prophet, he arrives in a fast car, a machine, the object of the future. If Picabia was a source of noise, then Paul Haviland was a portable electric lamp–a source of light. the poet was wealthy, representing Limoges china to American consumers, and was a financial backer of 291. The portrait, titled, La poésie est comme lui. Voilà Haviland, is a relative simple one, suggesting that Picabia was politely paying tribute to the man who was making his work possible.

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Francis Picabia. De Zayas! De Zayas! (1915)

If we overlook the curious fact that the cord for the lamp lacks a plug, in contrast, the rendering of Stieglitz was borderline insulting, if art historians are to be believed, and the portrait of the close associate of Stieglitz, Marius de Zayas (1880-1961), and their benefactor Agnes Ernst Meyer were also less than flattering. Much ink has been spilled on figuring out the many parts of De Zayas! De Zayas!, the portrait of De Zayas, the editor of 291. Indeed, it was De Zayas who had introduced the idea of Apollinaire’s petit revue to New York and published twelve issues of the magazine. He soon left the association with Stieglitz to open his own gallery, The Modern Gallery in 1915. Stieglitz, used to being the only game in town, objected to this sudden move towards independence and the two collaborators drifted apart. Perhaps as an acknowledgment of the estrangement, the gallery was renamed the De Zayas Gallery in 1919.

That said, in 1915, the object diagram of De Zayas is complex and undeciphered, part machine and part fashion illustration, complete with an old fashioned woman’s corset, with no woman in it. Homer noted that the inscriptions were equally strange: “J’ai vu/et c’est de toy qu’il s’agit,” or “I have seen you and it is you that this concerns.” Even more puzzling, the artist wrote, “Je suis venu sur les rivages/du Pont-Euxin,” or “I have come to the shores of Pont-Euxin.” As suggested by the presence of the empty corset, this portrait seems to have sexual content, from a male perspective. Indeed as Mariea Caudill Dennison remarked

Given Picabia’s inclination for linking women and sexuality with machines, it is no surprise to find a woman’s corset here..The female sphere in De Zayas! De Zayas! is clearly the black electrical schematic drawing. Picabia equated a female to a spark plug in Portrait of an American girl in a state of nudity (1915) and here the spark plug is linked by a diagonal line..This point of contact between the red and black systems in Picabia’s rendering suggests that the female creates a spark or surge of electricity that excites or activates the base of the connecting rod. In a car engine the connecting rod moves with the piston (not shown in Picabia’s work) up and down inside the cylinder. The plunging movement within the cylinder is analogous with sexual intercourse..Picabia has seen machinery and females as sources of art and has conquered them both.

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Francis Picabia. Portrait d’une jeune fille américane dans l’etat de nuditié (1915)

Next to the famous portrait of Stieglitz, it is the spark plug, perfectly copied in its simple entirety but titled Portrait d’une jeune fille américane dans l’etat de nuditié of 1915, that is the most well-known of the object portraits. Homer suggested, although others disagree, that the jeune fille was a portrait of Agnes Meyer, a married woman, with a wealthy husband. The money she was able to contribute to the “cause” of avant-garde made her a “spark plug” for the artists. As a patron, she made their engines go, sparking their progress. Engraved on the side of the spark plug was the word “Forever,” an ironic inscription, given that it was she who funded De Zayas’ gallery, considered a rival to Stieglitz. The “young girl” was copied from a very deluxe spark plug called a “red head,” but, viewing this homage from the vantage point of one hundred years later, the analogy between a mature married woman and a spark plug in the service of male artists is patronizing and condescending. However, the equation between women and machines and sex was one of the conceptual foundations of Picabia’s work of this interim period. In Picturing Science, Producing Art, Peter Galison noted,

Here we get to the heart of the matter, or rather, the sex of the machine. Surely the spark plug is a phallic woman (which is to say a metaphoric hermaphrodite). Yet she is rendered quite explicitly unthreatening by her very “nudity” and controllability–by our recognition that she stands naked of the larger apparatus that controls her sparking. .PIcabia’s vision of the plug’s erotic potential is suggested by is statement that he chose the spark plug for his girl because she was the “kindler of the flame.”

Sadly, shortly after this remarkable series of machine portraits or mechanomorphs, Picabia had a mental and physical breakdown and in 1916 left New York for Barcelona where he produced a new magazine, 391, nihilistic and alienated and aggressive. Reflective of the personality of Picabia himself, the issues also presented some of his ”portraits mécaniques.” In the third issue, Marie, a fan belt represented the artist Marie Laurencin, who was associated with Apollinaire. Then in 1917, Picabia returned to New York and continued his publication. Subsequent studies of the work of this artist during the years of the War have been somewhat sloppy in assuming his art was a critique of the New Woman or the Flapper, but these liberated women asserted themselves only after the war was over, and in America at peace, women were safely in their traditional places. There is no evidence to suggest that the Spanish-French artist was aware of the Suffragette movement, taking place in front of the White House in Washington D. C. Both Picabia and Duchamp had complex and varied experiences with many women and these events often found their way into their art in what David Hopkins called “male self-referentialty.” It seems more likely that, like Duchamp, Picabia’s interest was less in women and their social position and more in the mechanics of sex itself–Stieglitz is old and impotent and women, as sex machines, exist for the pleasure of the young male, also a sex machine.

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Dada in New York: Artists in Exile

Francis Picabia and Marcel Duchamp in New York

The Americanization of Dada, Part One

Francis Picabia (1879-1953) arrived in New York for his second visit early in 1915, a few months before the Lusitania was sunk by a German submarine in May 1915. Born in Cuba to a wealthy family, a Spanish father and French mother, Picabia, early twentieth century Euro-trash, was a rolling stone who drifted through his life and roamed the art worlds of Paris and New York, sampling many styles and expressing multiple moods. Much of his butterfly art was derivative and only mildly interesting but he had an eye for the main chance and hung about some of the bigger players in the very interesting new game called “Dada” during the Great War. It can be argued that, inspired by Alfred Stieglitz and his old friend Marcel Duchamp, Picabia enjoyed a brief flowering as an interesting artist. As Michael Gibson wrote for The New York Times on the occasion of yet another exhibition in 2002 attempting to sort out his complex oeuvre: “The exhibition at the Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris demonstrates with dazzling clarity that Francis Picabia was, in fact, a pretty awful artist.” In November of 2016, the Museum of Modern Art received a traveling exhibition, Francis Picabia: Our Heads Are Round So Our Thoughts Can Change Direction, which has a section on his machine drawings, products of his Dada experiences. Moving past Picabia’s Impressionist, Post-Impressionsit, Cubist works, Roberta Smith concentrated on the most famous segment of the artist’s work: “The Mechanomorphs line the walls of the show’s largest gallery while vitrines of Dadaist material occupy its center, reflecting the artist’s activities from 1915 to the early 1920s, during which he abandoned painting for drawings, prints and magazines and pursued Dada first in New York, with Duchamp, then in Switzerland with Tristan Tzara, the movement’s founder, and finally in Paris.”

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Picabia à dada (1919)

Picabia who had come to New York in 1913 for the Armory Show was already a character in Paris, who cut a flamboyant figure with his penchant for fast cars and fast women and an accomplished wife. New York in 1913 was not exactly a frontier of avant-garde art, but there was one gallery in the city and one man who was interested in contemporary artists: Alfred Stieglitz. Stieglitz held parallel exhibitions of cutting edged European artists in his gallery, 291, and Picabia wisely made his acquaintance. Stieglitz showed two of Picabia’s early abstract paintings, Udnie (1913) and Edtaonisl (1913) at his gallery, adding to the shock of the provincial New Yorkers. Looking back on this famous exhibition that changed American art, Life Magazine noted in 1959 that Picabia’s painting, Dancers in the Spring, was a close rival in shock effect to Duchamp’s nude.” Like Marcel Duchamp, Picabia became well-known on New York as a result of the Armory Show and this fame beckoned once the Great War began. Like many of his peers, Picabia was drafted into the Army. Sent on a mission to America, Picabia managed to disembark in New York in 1915 and simply did not return to his military life. New York was now home to Parisian artists in exile: Albert Gleizes, the famous Cubist painter and Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), who had given up painting, thanks in small part to Francis Picabia. Thus Picabia had a small part in the fold of the career of Duchamp, who was shocked by the rejection of his 1912 painting, Nude Descending a Staircase from the Salon des Indépendants. Smarting over the betrayal of his brothers, who failed to back him or protect him with their colleagues of the Salon, Duchamp joined Picabia and his wife Gabrielle Buffet and the poet Guillaume Apollinaire on a road trip through the Jura Mountains in the fall of 1912. Already, the artist had decided to exit the art world and to take another path–whatever that might be–towards being a different kind of artist.

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Francis Picabia. I See Again in Memory My Dear Udnie (June-July 1914)

During this weekend journey, Duchamp began making notes on his future conceptual direction, scribbling down ideas that would eventually become The Bride Stripped Bare by the Bachelors, Even, The Large Glass. Roaring along the mountain road with Francis Picabia at the wheel of one his large and elegant cars, Duchamp imagined what Richard Hamilton described as “a prose fantasy. A machine, with an animal component, is describe as absorbing the long, straight empty road, with its comet-like headlights beaming out in front towards a seemingly infinity.” One hundred years later it is hard to recognize just how novel such an experience would be in these early years of automotive traveling. Surely it was one of the eventsthat shifted one’s attention towards all things mechanical–the machine, upon which one was totally dependent in the mountains. Already Picabia was fascinated with the motor car, an object of desire that drove him, so to speak, to collect one hundred twenty seven of them during his life time. But there is more to this experience–driving at night on a road then innocent of highway markings with the headlights attempting to penetrate the dense darkness, like comets streaking across the sky–an idea that make a tremendous impression on Duchamp.

Speeding over the mountain roads, hardly suited for the fragile cars and their thin tires, there was a sense of not seeing and not knowing what was ahead. While Picabia was driving, Duchamp was writing: “On one hand, the chief of the five nudes will be ahead of the four other nudes towards the Jura-Paris road. On the other hand, the headlight child will be the instrument conquering the Jura-Paris road..The term ‘indefinite’ seems to me to be more accurate than infinite. The road will begin in the chief of the five nudes, and will not end in the headlight child.” Later Duchamp, thinking of glass, wrote, “Use ‘delay’ instead of a picture or painting: picture on glass becomes delay in glass–but delay in glass doesn’t not mean picture on glass..” This delay could be seen as the “delay” in seeing that happens when one drives in a fast car, approaching a new sight but not quite there yet–a scene that lies ahead but is delayed in time and space but is always being anticipated by the passenger. Picabia and Duchamp, then, had a history of being outsiders and iconoclasts in the Parisian art world and it was to be expected that they would reconvene in New York in 1913 and again in 1915 in with anarchy on their minds. Casting around for like minded artists, equally alienated for whatever reason, they met the American Man Ray, who was still painting in his pre-Dada phase, and joined cause with John Covert and Morton Schamberg and the collector and collaborator, Walter Arensberg. For lack of a better name, this “group” was later called “New York Dada,” because it was supposedly “anti-art.”

However characterizations and definitions came later, often after the Second World War. In 1966 fifty years after the fact Hans Richter stated of New York Dada, “..its participants were playing essentially the same anti-art tune as we were. The notes may have sounded strange, at first, but the music was the same.” The term anti-art is a broad idea that is not only an anachronistic historical determination but is also an umbrella for all the different manifestations of Dada. But, if one thinks of Dada emerging in a number of cities, more or less sequentially, then the fact that Dada may have arisen avant la lettre in New York, emerged full blown in Zurich a year later and ended with a few clever gestures in Paris before being absorbed into Surrealism, signals that there were different artists thinking different thoughts in different cities under different conditions. The New York group shared in common with the Zurich artists the condition of exile but they were visual artists who were fascinated with the mechanical. This interest in mechanics suggested an anti-aesthetic or a non-sensuous approach in traditional artmaking procedures. Machines were the way “out of” art, the path that allowed them to think beyond the hand and the “talent” of the artist, and this fascination with machines, learned in Paris before the war. was only enhanced in the most modern city in the world–New York City. Picabia, in particular, was struck by the modernity of a city sprouting skyscrapers, elevated by machines that hoisted steel beams agains the open sky. Duchamp was fascinated by the products of the city and one of the first Readymades he purchased was a shiny new snow shovel, the like of which did not exist in Paris. Both artists were anti-art in the sense that they were pro-machine or pro-mechanics and they understood well that an old way of making art was coming to an end.

For the artists who had fled the war, the stalemated trench warfare, the modernity of suffering, the mechanization of death made it imperative to rethink the role of art and, even, what “art” would or could be in this conflagration. In an interview for The New York Tribune, probably conducted in French, in 1915, Duchamp predicted a new “severe, direct art,” suitable for the beginning of the twentieth century. He continued, “One readily understands this when one realizes the growing hardness of feeling in Europe, one might almost say the utter callousness with which people are learning to receive the news of the death of those nearest and dearest to them. Before the war the death of a son in a family was received with utter, abject woe, but today it is merely part of a huge universal grief, which hardly seems to concern any one individual.” Duchamp was speaking in this, the second year of the war, which had already defined itself as a simple bloodletting. Although the myths of the Great War have tended to emphasize the high casualties on the British side, especially those of the highly educated classes, it was the French who were nearly wiped out in the first month of the war. In November 1918, once again, it was the French who, at the end, suffered the greatest losses, an entire generation was simply gone. Duchamp, who was in France in that terrible first year, would have been well aware of the high cost the French Army had paid in holding the German Army at the Marne. Duchamp was deemed unfit for military service but his brothers Raymond and Jacques were in service, as was Guillaume Apollinaire, while he was a bystander observing the unfolding of random mass death without “glory.”

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Paris, Place d’Alma 1915

Duchamp describe the deserted art scene in Paris: “Art has gone dusty,” he said, referring to the stalled creativity. “Paris is like a deserted mansion. Her lights are out. One’s friends are all away at the front. Or else they have been already killed.” He noted the toll the War took on creative and artistic thinking: “Nothing but war was talked about from morning until night. In such an atmosphere, especially for one who holds war to be an abomination, it may readily be conceived that existence was heavy and dull.” Once he came to New York he noted, he had stopped painting altogether. Therefore as a wanderer, who did not depend upon cultural nourishment, he wryly asserted that “it is a matter of indifference to me where I am.” But this posture of indifference was used, as it often would for the rest of his life, to elide a more significant truth. For Duchamp and Picabia, New York was a no-place, a private place, a refuge away from the hard critical eyes of the art world they had left behind. Here in this new city, leaping skyward, one could become a new person and one could make new art. Here there were no rules. Here there was only freedom. Both artists thrived in this open minded milieu and produced, in the middle of a nihilistic war, a new way of making and thinking about art. Part Two will discuss the individual ways in which Picabia and Duchamp broke with the art of the past.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

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Pictorialism in America

Photo-Secession as Pictorialism

Part One

At the turn of the century, as the nineteenth century waned, it was quite possible to speak of a “beautiful photograph” or, more precisely, of a photograph of something “beautiful.” But that photograph had been made by a machine, the camera, and, thus, according to conventional wisdom, had no claim on aesthetics, that is, no claim upon art itself. In the collective mindset of the art world, “art” had to be a reflection of the artist him or herself, involving hand work and imagination, both of which were inherently unique to the artist and the individual’s personal touch. This accepted definition of “art” excluded any object touched by a machine from the precincts of art. Although it had been made through and with mechanical tools, even a piece of furniture had more status than a photograph, because the object had been designed by an artist. The only people who could question the prevailing definition of art were a new breed of photographers, known as “amateurs.” Today, the term amateur means untried and untrained and untested, in other words an individual who has little to offer, a hobbyist, someone who is simply not serious. Although the word is not necessarily a negative term, there are implications of a certain lack of polish or finish and certainly lacks the criteria famously put forward by Malcolm Gladwell in his 2013 New Yorker article, “Complexity and Ten Thousand Hours” as being the minimum expenditure for expertise. But in Europe, especially in England, the idea of an “amateur” was an honorable one, a concept that was tangled up in class. Only middle and lower class people needed (financially) to be “professional.” If one had the means, one should remain an “amateur” and devote oneself selflessly to a field. In fact the “amateur athlete” held up as the ideal for Olympic competitors can be traced back to the English tradition of gentlemen participating in sports. William Henry Fox Talbot, the great amateur scientist of the previous generation of scientists and photographers comes to mind as being part of the tradition of aristocratic dedication to progress. Talbot, more of a scientist, than a photographer, stated from the start that a photograph was a trace of “the pencil of nature.” Indeed, the very definition of a photograph, its raison d’être, was that it was a passive mode of recording reality. But even as a scientist Talbot was deliberately artful in his compositions, pointing to artistic possibilities for a photograph. Following in his footsteps, a new generation of amateurs, men and women of some monetary independence, who were photographers out of conviction, not out of necessity, put forward the revolutionary suggestion that, under certain circumstances, photography could be art.

There were really two questions: How could a photograph be a work of art and how could a photograph become accepted as art? Generally speaking in both Europe and in America, amateur photographers, who were also educated lovers of art, decided that a photograph had to visually demonstrate the attributes of a work of art–from the artistic creativity invention, experimentation and the willingness to push a medium to its limits to the formal and studied qualities demonstrated by a work of art. What is little noted in relation to the growing amateur movement is that decades before avant-garde tactics became accepted, the amateur photographers, many of whom were financially comfortable, did not hesitate to manipulate the supposedly fixed sequence of how a photograph was taken and developed. Intervening in the action of a machine, thwarting its supposed purpose of documenting and recording, was in itself an innovative act. The hand of creativity and experimentation could intervene with the machine and could disguise and even refute the supposed automatism of the camera. The idea that the hand of the artist could be present in a photograph and the argument that this artistic intervention transformed a mechanical product into the work of the talented mind and skill of a creator was brought to New York City by the son of German immigrant, the American photographer, Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946). Much has been written about Stieglitz and yet, perhaps because of his many roles in the art world, he remains under appreciated. In order to properly discuss this artist, it is necessary to slice his life into career parts–art dealer, artist, art collector, art gallery owner, supporter of European avant-garde art, entrepreneur of American art, publisher of photographic journals, organizer of photographic communities, and the motivator behind the novel idea that a photograph could be a work of art. And these are the elements of his life’s work are not necessarily in that or any particular order. Famous for his boundless energy and penchant for not-stop talking and his need to dominate any situation, Stieglitz was a man of many parts, not the least of which was his role as the photographer of, the husband of and the dealer for America’s best-loved and most profitable artist, Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986). But for the purposes of this post, Stieglitz will be discussed as the leader of the Photo-Secession movement in America, the movement that supported and promoted the idea of photography as art.

In the fin-de-siècle period, the art world in America was not just small, it was tiny, consisting of a two dozen or so dedicated individuals who were involved with creating a modern institution for modern art and of about that many artists who were interested in being contemporary. There was an equally small audience in New York for the kind of avant-garde art being produced in France or Germany. At the turn of the century, New York’s most “cutting edge” artists, The Eight or the Ashcan School, were no less than three decades behind French Realism. Until Alfred Stieglitz began exhibiting art, “modern art” hardly existed in New York. On one hand, New York, as the headquarters for modern art in America, offered little scope for the avant-garde, but on the other hand, the field was wide open. All one needed was money and audacity, and Alfred Stieglitz had more than enough of both. Most historical accounts of Stieglitz stress his American identity and glide swiftly past his Jewish roots, but, like many sons of recent immigrants, he returned to the old country, Germany in 1881, for his education as an engineer to the Technische Hochschule in Berlin to be trained as an engineer. There are suggestions that Stieglitz lived a life of freedom and self-indulgence but it should also be remembered that his family had also moved back to Berlin, supposedly to keep him company. But despite the familial presence and instead of being shaped and polished with a European gloss, the wealthy American student found his vocation in a new art form, photography.

Having spent much time working with his mentor, Hermann Wilhelm Vogel (1834-1898), who was a photochemist, Stieglitz decided to make a vocational change–instead of educating himself of a job as an engineer, he would live the life of an artist. Vogel’s career path and achievements provided a model for the young Stieglitz. Vogel was a pioneer in the research into color photography. Before his work, photographers were irritated that uniform of gray tones suppressed the true intensities of actual colors. But Vogel’s new color sensitive process allowed the camera to acknowledge colors as higher pitched or lower pitched tones of grays. In addition, Vogel was a tireless promotor of photography as art, publishing not only a technical manual for photography, Photographische Mitteilungen, but also founding the Photographic Society in Berlin in 1863 which gave birth to numerous successors, the Society for the Promotion of Photography, the German Society of Friends of Photography in 1887 and the Free Photographic Union in Berlin in 1889. While he can hardly be termed an “amateur,” Vogel, who trained Stieglitz at the Berlin “high” school, was a promotor of photography, and this role as promoter would be the destiny of Stieglitz. The American, who also studied at the Realgymnasium in Karlsruhe, honed his skills in Europe and was soon published in the British journal Amateur Photographer. His work in this early period followed the now established cadences of what is now called “Pictorialism,” soft focus, narrative scenes of every day life, and romantic views, all resembling traditional prints or watercolors. He also began writing articles, such as, “A Word or Two about Amateur Photography in Germany,” which gave him even more cultural capital, to take back home to America. It is possible that his family gave up on keeping their son under their control and, by 1884, the Stieglitz household had returned to New York. Fully prepared to bring New York to the level of Europe when it came to art photography, Alfred Stieglitz arrived in 1890, ready to make his mark.

In New York, Stieglitz continued his direction as an art photographer, finding some like-minded colleagues. Recognized as a natural leader, by 1893, he became the co-editor and main contributor for The American Amateur Photographer, where his energy and ambition proved to be overpowering for a genteel organization which roused himself to fire him.

Camera_Notes_cover

Undeterred, Stieglitz then joined the Camera Club of New York and founded Camera Notes in 1897, undoubtedly in hopes of using another group of amateur photographers and the in-house publication as a vehicle for what were essentially his personal ambitions. Camera Notes, often overshadowed by its successor, Camera Work, but it set high standards for printing photographs as photogravures. A photogravure is not an actual photograph but a print, an engraving, of a photograph, so artistic in and of itself that it is considered an artistic equivalent of the original. It was here in this publication in 1898 that a beautiful example of the Pictorialism of Alfred Stieglitz, Canal in Venice, taken in 1894 while he was on his honeymoon.

Stieglitz-Venetian_Canal

This image embodies not only the precepts of Pictorialism–that a photograph should look like a picture–but also demonstrates how a photographer can emulate the aesthetics of an artist. To anyone familiar with the history of art, this photograph reflects the etchings of James Whistler and even the drawings of John Ruskin.

nocturne_palaces_venice-400406px-Part_of_St_Mark_Venice_Ruskin

James Whistler. Nocturne. Palaces. Venice (1879-80) and John Ruskin. Part of St. Mark’s. Venice (1846)

One can determine the divergence between the interests of the Camera Club of New York and the restless Alfred Stieglitz by pursuing an account of the December 1899 proceedings of the Club in which “..the committee on photo research, it was stated, was carrying on a series of experiments with persulphate of ammonia, and would soon report results to the club..” The writer reported that a certain “Mr. Waterman” was awarded “the President’s cup” for “a sketchy landscape, artistically attractive, of a very simple subject..” There was also a “Murphy cup” competition in which “The award went to Mr. Stieglitz.” Having disposed of the artistic events, the Camera Club settled down to the feature entertainment, “an exhaustive and interesting scientific paper on ‘The Chemistry of Gelatin Emulsions and of the Dry Plate.’ It was based on one or more of the halides of silver in gelatine,” the write-up began and continued for a long paragraph which makes for exhaustive readings. One can only imagine was sort of torment was suffered by those present but these proceedings show the fascination amateur photographers and for scientific experimentation and suggest that, at the turn of the century, much of the advances in photography would have been literally donated by these dedicated individuals. But one also get the sense of how Camera Notes and its emphasis on art is at odds with a paper which instructed that “Experiments showed that it is always necessary in solutions of gelatine and silver mohave the silver in excess.” It should have been of no surprise to no one, and perhaps to the relief of some, that in 1903, Alfred Stieglitz determined that the Camera Club of New York and Camera Notes had served their ends and no longer served any of his needs.

In 1902, the term “Photo-Secession” was used by Stieglitz as the designation for a group of photographers following his artistic lead in the exhibition, mounted by the photographer himself at the National Arts Club, of the American Pictorial Photographers. By the twentieth century, the tireless efforts of Stieglitz as a promotion, American Pictoralists were as respected as those of Europe, but there was no outlet for this growing movement of art photographers beyond private clubs and exhibitions. What was needed was a more public forum so that the real task of introducing to the public at large or at least to the wider art world the photograph as a work of art. The word “Secession” was not an American word, nor was it an American concept, except as a political act. In England, vanguard Pictorialists seceded from conservative associations and formed their own groups, most famously, The Brotherhood of the Linked Ring in 1892. The word “secession” was an English translation of the action taken by vanguard German artists in Munich 1891 to “secede” from the conservative art establishment Künstlergenossenschaft. Eight years, the artists in Berlin, led by Impressionist Max Liebermann, seceded in 1899 from the Verein Berliner Künstler. It was remarkable at how quickly the provincial city of New York, led by Stieglitz, followed in the footsteps of these sophisticated art centers. Stieglitz, who was working closely with his protégée, Edward Steichen (1879-1973), studying in Paris, was well acquainted with European avant-garde movements–from a distance, thanks to Steichen. However, the older man understood well enough that it was impossible to reform a conservative organization from the inside; it was necessary to step outside to start again and to fully realize the avant-garde dream of doing something new, something else. It is beyond the scope of this post to develop this point, but the founding of the Photo-Secession by Alfred Stieglitz in New York, mirrored the Secessionist movements in Berlin and Vienna, both of which were funded and supported and led by Jews in the art world. This fact seemed to mean little in New York in the early 1900s and Stieglitz did not go out of his way to stress his Jewishness until the Hitler years of the 1930s aroused his consciousness and his fears. But there were those who were profoundly aware of his religion and Waldo Frank’s seminal description of Stieglitz in Our America (1919) defines the very nature of his work as Jewish:

Alfred Stieglitz is a Jew. He takes up the ancient destiny where the degenerate Jew whom we have observed had let it fall. He is the prophet. And his ways are the old ways of his people. He has been the true Apostle of self-liberationina in a destructive land. His means was art. But art always as a means. Stieglitz is primarily the Jewish mystic. Suffering is his daily bread: sacrifice is his creed: failure is his beloved. A true Jew.To him, art is simply the directest conduit to human consciousness–to self and to the world; the most urgent incentive left to man. For the most surely a man finds itself, and finds the world he lives in, the more surely he finds God. Art with a message is a profanation. The artist must simply be the servant of the soul, worshiper of the revelation of his life. As such, Stieglitz made a place for him in the American world, gave him warmth and courage. He is a man who has seen God and who has dared to speak..

The next post will discuss Alfred Stieglitz and the Photo-Secession.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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The Art of the Steal (2009)

THE ART OF THE STEAL (2009)
The Barnes Foundation and Art Collecting

The story of how the world-famous Barnes Collection was moved from its long-time home in Merion, Pennsylvania to downtown Philadelphia is told in tones of indignation as a vast conspiracy of moneyed interests who “stole” the art in the name of the people. This film, The Art of the Steal, has a couple of lessons to teach. First, if you want to convince people of your perspective, present only one side, and second, if you are asked to present your side—the other side—give an account of yourself, otherwise your silence will indict you. I have no doubt the people who fought to keep the Collection in its original site were as well-meaning as they were passionate, but their insistence presences hide the fact that many people was simply not present to defend their perspectives. The absence of many important art world figures, who surely have opinions about this “steal” is notable and is explained away as not wanting to get on the wrong side of the Pew Foundation, presented as one of the thieving parties. Still the silence of art historians and curators who specialize in Modernist art or in Impressionism is strange. Not one Cézanne scholar, not one Matisse specialist, not one specialist from other museums, no authorities who specialize in modern art were presented in this film. This absence is very strange.

As interesting as this film is, it is also profoundly manipulative and uneven and disjointed. The Art of the Steal begins with a statement made by Alfred Barnes himself, stating that his purpose is to “attack” the art establishment. Not that there was much to attack. The Museum of Modern Art was not in existence when the Barnes Foundation was established in 1922. The interest in Modernist art in America was small and confined mostly to a couple of groups in New York City, with Walter and Louise Arensberg and Alfred Stieglitz as the centers. Alfred Barnes was able to amass the huge collection of French art, from Impressionism to Post-Impressionism to Fauvism, because the French didn’t like these movements either. The avant-garde dealers in Paris had learned to depend upon American collections, who, since the days of the Impressionists, had been happy to buy anything “French.” Duncan Phillips, whose home in Washington D. C., is a case in point. Incidentally his art filled home is now a museum, just like the original intent of Barnes and his collection.

But to stick to the point and try to understand why Barnes went on the “attack:” when Barnes showed his collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, he was mercilessly “attacked.” Barnes must have been either naïve or self-destructive to not foresee that the conservatives of a conservative town would not understand his art. Back in Paris, the public was just getting its first glimpse of the collages of Braque and Picasso from the sequestered collection of their dealer, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler. The Parisian artists were horrified at the mere sight of revolutionary multi-media work when the collection, including collages, was auctioned off. Even Barnes did not like Cubism, so it is inconceivable that he did not expect an art public that still worshipped Thomas Eakins to reject the Impressionists.

Barnes may have been an insightful collector, but he overdid it in his collecting of Renoir—almost 200 Renoirs and less than a half dozen Monets?—and, as a result, the collection is more a personal response to modern art and less a historical overview. But more of Barnes and art history later. According to the film, he was so distraught over the reception of his collection, he withdrew his art from the ignorant and provincial art world and sequestered it in a carefully constructed private museum. Barnes lacked the courage of his convictions and was not as brave as the artists he collected. His retreat had a cowardly air about it and the atmosphere of being hostile to the public and to the established art world surrounded the collection.

The construction of the Foundation and its disposition in his later wills was built on a foundation of spleen. The entire idea of secreting the art was to keep it from the public. All information about the collection was as controlled as the access. Only those who were willing to be taught by Barnes himself were allowed in. By the time I was in graduate school, Barnes was long dead and the fearsome Violette de Mazia, who guarded the Foundation with the ferocity of a lioness. The inaccessibility of the famous paintings was legendary. One needed special permission, almost impossible to obtain, to study the collection.

Art historians exchanged war stories of their adventures, of trying and failing to see the fabled art. One such urban legend involved two of the most famous people in the world: Alfred Einstein, the physicist, and Erwin Panofsky, a Renaissance scholar. Both men were German refugees at Princeton, but Einstein the scientist, as The Art of the Steal points out, was a friend of Barnes. Panofsky, however, was only a revered art historian and did not count. He begged Einstein to get him inside the Barnes Collection so he could see the art. The only solution Einstein could come up with was to smuggle Panofsky, disguised as his chauffeur, through the gates of the estate. Innocently, Einstein asked Barnes if his “driver” could have lunch in the kitchen while he was waiting for his “boss” to visit the famous collector. Barnes agreed, not knowing he was allowing an art historian to enter his domain. Panofsky sneaked around the rooms, gazed upon the legendary art and then drove Einstein back to Princeton.

The story may be apocryphal but it is indicative of the reputation of “The Barnes,” as the collection was known. The film insists that the goal of the collector was to teach, but, in fact, teachers of art history were not allowed to have color photographs of the art in the collection. There is a legend of an art historian who managed to take a bad color photo of one of the Matisses, possibly Bonheur de Vivre, and smuggled it out of the institution; but the collection could literally not be taught in an art history class. There were no images and no reliable eye witness testimony.

All of that secrecy changed when it was discovered that the building was in bad shape and that the art as suffering from mold and mildew. The Art of the Steal does not mention that the main problem with the art was the non-archival way in which it was displayed—on burlap-covered walls. Much is made of how the collection is shown in a home-like setting, but Barnes did not know how to conserve art. Burlap was used, for example, in Stieglitz’s famous gallery, 291, where the burlap hung as curtains below the painting rail, not where the art was hung. Take an old house, a damp climate, and moist walls covered with a fabric that collected all kinds of bacteria and mold, now combine those conditions with paintings on canvas pressed against the burlap and you have a perfect recipe for disaster.

The paintings were in actual danger until The National Gallery in Washington, D. C. restored them. In return, the Gallery was the first place to exhibit selected paintings from the Collection so that the broader public could see them. Excitement in the art history world was great. In the summer of 1992 the Chicago Tribune announced that the Barnes Collection was “freed.” At last the famous paintings could be seen! And in color! I was in awe of Bonheur de Vivre—-those wonderful pinks and yellows. I must confess that a friend of mine, now deceased, who worked at the Gallery, sent me a color slide taken directly off the actual painting. He was not supposed to slip me the extra copy and I was not supposed to receive somewhat stolen goods. But I was then and probably still am the only person on the West Coast with such a possession. There is a great deal to be said of a pristine collection that has not been handled, for the restored art that I saw at the National Gallery exhibition was in perfect condition. But the art was not shown in the way that Barnes had designed his installation.

The Art of the Steal implied that the new building in Philadelphia will recreate the original design of how Barnes hung the paintings, salon style. The concept that ruled the installation is problematic today: Barnes dispersed African masks and Native American blankets among the Modernist paintings to point to the connections between tribal art and modern art. Today we would called this arrangement colonialism or eurocentricism. Although in 1905, artists thought nothing of appropriating tribal art (they called it “primitive” art) as the inspiration for their own work, today such acts are considered politically suspect, or, as Robert Hughes called it, “cultural imperialism.” In making the tribal connection, Barnes was certainly correct, for certain artists, such as Matisse and Modigliani, who were directly inspired by tribal artifacts; but the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists knew nothing of African art.

Ever since the Primitivism and Modern Art exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1984, the formalist comparison between modern and tribal art has been discredited. Today we flinch at the term “primitivism.” Certainly European artists at the beginning of the 20th century used African art to infuse modernist painting and sculpture with something new and “exotic,” but for a contemporary museum to be complicit with cultural requisitioning, unless the historical context is fully explained, is unthinkable today. The question of whether or not the colonialist approach as followed by Barnes for the installation of his art will be replicated remains a question.

The film does not discuss the link between the collection and African art, even though the fact that Barnes left his collection to a black university–Lincoln University–is staring them in the face. Also passed over rather lightly is the fact that a group of rich white people stand accused of stealing a valuable ($25 billion and counting) art collection, which was whisked away from poor black people who were too ignorant to know what they owned. Complicating matters are the black men who were complicit in transferring the property of Lincoln University—the Barnes Collection—over to the city of Philadelphia. No one seemed to feel any ethical qualms of violating the terms of a will or show any particular interest in helping the now-impoverished school.

In the art world, Richard Glanton was a well-known villain, not because he managed to pry the paintings from the dubious burlap walls of the Foundation, but because he mismanaged the money and left the Foundation in apparently dire straits. Whatever money the Foundation made from the tours of the Collection, the profit was apparently handed over to lawyers who had to defend “The Barnes” from neighbors who were rightfully resentful of the steady stream of art lovers coming to pay homage to the paintings. As anyone who watched the battle between another private museum, The Getty, and another powerful and wealthy public community, Brentwood, can tell you, the museum will lose. The Art of the Steal interviews some of the Merion-dwellers, who wisely told their side of the story, and it is clear that these were people with deep pockets. When the neighbors eventually relented, it was too late and Glanton had put the Foundation in a vulnerable place, ripe for the picking.

Despite the rear-guard and last minute efforts of the last of the die-hard supporters of the wishes of Alfred Barnes, the Collection will be housed in a new building and will be open to the public in 2012. Barnes set up his Foundation nearly one hundred years ago, when it may have made sense to try to teach a ignorant public about modern art, albeit in small and exclusionary groups. But one hundred years later, the public loves Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Matisse, et al. One can imagine that the mean old man would be delighted that so many people love his art so much. He would say, “I told you so.” He would have the last laugh. Much of made of how his will was slowly dismantled and written off, but the times that inspired the writing of such a mean-spirited document are in the past.

In its own time the Barnes Collection was an anachronism, an enlarged version of the secret cabinet of a Renaissance prince, who opened the doors only to the select few. Presumably, the French Revolution ended the private and exclusive nature of art and museums became public. Salon exhibitions were open to the people. Artists learned to take public criticism and to enjoy public adulation. We came to believe that art was for the public; that culture belonged to the people. While The Art of the Steal exposed political chicanery and suggested collusion between political power and money, but we learned nothing new, expect that Barnes made his money from a cure for venereal disease and that these profits, well-deserved, no doubt, were used to buy art. Art, power and money have always been cultural triplets. At least the politicians and the power mongers are giving the art to the public, or should I say, they have “stolen” the art only to give it away…to us. Thank you. I am planning my trip to Philadelphia.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Podcast 69: Georgia O’Keeffe and The Bomb

Georgia O’Keeffe, Part Four

During the 1940s, Georgia O’Keeffe split her time between Taos and New York and while in the Southwest she was present at some remarkable little discussed events. Her home away from home, Ghost Ranch was the site where dinosaurs have been unearthed for over a century. The Ghost Ranch was a vacation refuge for the atomic scientists from nearby Los Alamos. Although it is rarely mentioned in texts on O’Keeffe, she was present at the dawn of the atomic age—the explosion of the first bomb called “Trinity.”

 

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Important Announcement

The Podcasts from this Website

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available through iTunes and can be listened to on your iPad or iPhone.

Remember that you must download iBooks on your iPad or iPhone.

Art History Unstuffed: The Podcasts

Also the complete

Art History Timeline Videos

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available and can be viewed on You Tube

This twenty-seven episode series of five minute videos span Western art history, from the Caves to Romanticism. The videos can be used by students and teachers as introductory, supplementary or review material. Each video is written,narrated and produced by the author of this website, and is reinforced by written text and is richly illustrated by many images. The entire Timeline can be accessed through

this link: Art History Timeline

Podcast 67: Georgia O’Keeffe and the Skyscrapers

Georgia O’Keeffe, Part Two

Refusing to be trapped by demeaning art writing that discussed her flower paintings as inherently female, Georgia O’Keeffe defied gender expectations by taking up that most masculine of subjects—the new towering skyscrapers. This podcast discusses the practicalities of actually building and living with the skyscraper and the challenges faced by O’Keeffe in depicting this new subject matter. The skyscraper became the gateway to the artist’s getaway out of New York and into the West.

 

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Important Announcement

The Podcasts from this Website

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available through iTunes and can be listened to on your iPad or iPhone.

Remember that you must download iBooks on your iPad or iPhone.

Art History Unstuffed: The Podcasts

Also the complete

Art History Timeline Videos

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available and can be viewed on You Tube

This twenty-seven episode series of five minute videos span Western art history, from the Caves to Romanticism. The videos can be used by students and teachers as introductory, supplementary or review material. Each video is written,narrated and produced by the author of this website, and is reinforced by written text and is richly illustrated by many images. The entire Timeline can be accessed through

this link: Art History Timeline

Podcast 66: Marketing Georgia O’Keeffe

Georgia O’Keeffe, Part One

The career of Georgia O’Keeffe was a paradox: on one hand, she was dependent upon the patronage of her husband, photographer and art dealer, Alfred Stieglitz; on the other hand, she always had an independent vision. The podcast, the first of four parts, focuses on her first mature phase: the flowers and how she broke away from gendered art writing.

 

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Important Announcement

The Podcasts from this Website

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available through iTunes and can be listened to on your iPad or iPhone.

Remember that you must download iBooks on your iPad or iPhone.

Art History Unstuffed: The Podcasts

Also the complete

Art History Timeline Videos

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available and can be viewed on You Tube

This twenty-seven episode series of five minute videos span Western art history, from the Caves to Romanticism. The videos can be used by students and teachers as introductory, supplementary or review material. Each video is written,narrated and produced by the author of this website, and is reinforced by written text and is richly illustrated by many images. The entire Timeline can be accessed through

this link: Art History Timeline

Abstract Expressionism: The Field of Cultural Production

The Historical Context of Abstract Expressionism

The historical context of Abstract Expressionism can perhaps best be mapped out according to the theories of Pierre Bourdieu who coined the phrase “the field of cultural production.” What was the “field” which “produced” the culture of Abstract Expressionism? One should also add the thinking of Giesele Freund who wrote of the “preparedness” or the “readiness” of society for photography. Abstract Expressionism marks the shift of Modern Art away from Paris and towards New York, the movement of the avant-garde from Europe to America. New York, as Serge Guilbault remarked, “stole the idea of modern art.” The theft of modern art was the result of the preparedness of the artists in New York City in the 1940s to take advantage of the shift of the field of cultural production from the Old World to the New.

First, European politics stymied and stifled the free circulation of avant-garde art around the continent. Fascism in Italy in the 1920s, Nazism in Germany in the 1930s and their totalitarian control of art was prefaced by the crushing of the vanguard Russian artists in the Soviet Union. Totalitarian regimes cannot tolerate freedom in the arts and a political party that seeks absolute power will always move against the artists first. Major sources of art making and art thinking were shut down and many of the artists impacted simply packed up and left. Many artists came to America, bringing with them ideas of art theory and concepts of art practice to provincial shores.

Second, even in Paris, where there was open acceptance of avant-garde art, the art market had a dampening effect upon the development of new and innovative ideas. The time between the wars in Paris was a conservative one, an era of consolidation of the pre-War avant-garde movements. Fauvism, Cubism, Futurism, et al. were now “historical” movements and their leaders were now Old Masters. A tendency towards a conservative approach to art evidenced itself very early on, during the Great War, in the work of Picasso. After the war the mood was one of “Return to Order” and restoring all that was classical in French art in The School of Paris. Nostalgic conservatism after a devastating war is a common reaction and would be exemplified by the Ingres-esque classicism of Amedeo Modigliani. After post-War economic recovery, French collectors were eagerly flocking to the revived and expanded art market. The dealers sold their clients “a Picasso,” or “a Matisse,” art done in the characteristic styles of the masters, but tamed down. A case in point is Picasso’s 1921 Three Musicians, which is a painted collage, in other words, not innovative mixed media, but a conservative and salable painting.

Surrealism emerged in 1924 out of the ashes of the last provocative avant-garde movement, Dada. Conservative Surrealism was an inward looking movement that possessed no particular stylistic “look,” but was a placeholder for the avant-garde. In contrast to the pre-war avant-garde movements which were stylistic change, Surrealism produced not so much new styles as new approaches to the process of making art, such as automatic writing. Another historical footnote worth noting was the fact that the history of pre-War avant-garde movements was largely written by the art dealers, such as Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler and Léonce Rosenberg, thus legitimating their art and elevating the price. During the Nazi occupation of Paris, avant-garde artists either sought safety in America—-Chagall, who was Jewish, moved to New York—-or were forced to keep a low and safe profile in France to survive the Nazi occupation.

Third, European artists immigrated to America over the course of ten years. Some of these artists, such as the Bauhaus architects, Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, and Mies van der Rohe, simply moved their practices to the American cities of New York and Chicago. The coming of the Bauhaus architects to the United States paved the way for the International Style that would characterize architecture after the Second World War. Indeed, Modernist architecture was a case in point of how inhospitable Europe had become to avant-garde architects. While those in Russia were doomed to produce mostly “paper architecture” or models, other architects concentrated on domestic architecture, such as Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye and the De Stijl architect Gerrit Reitveld’s Schröder House in the 1920s. Thwarted by wars and oppression, Modernist architecture finally found itself in great works of public and corporate works only after the Second World War. The Seagram Building by Mies van der Rohe in New York was the achievement of the prosperous Fifties in America.

But architects weren’t the only Europeans to seek safe haven. Even as Hitler was moving into power in Germany, Hans Hofmann was moving out to become an art teacher in New York in the winter and Providencetown in the summer. Bauhaus faculty members, Josef and Anni Albers, found themselves at the famous Black Mountain College where they taught the next generation who would overtake the Abstract Expressionist artists. Piet Mondrian, who had fled Holland for London, had to leave London for New York, where he died in 1945. The American Dada photographer, Man Ray, came home and spent the next eleven years in Los Angeles. These artists were joined by intellectuals, such as Hannah Arendt and Theodor Adorno, who changed the climate and the quality of American thinking during the Second World War.

Fourth, the presence of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City was of great significance in educating American artists on European avant-garde art. Since Alfred Stieglitz had closed down his gallery, 291, in 1916, there had been no reliable gathering point were artists could see the cutting edge art of Europe. And then MoMA opened in 1929, headed by Alfred Barr. Barr ended the somewhat specious relationship between the dealers and the museums: dealers would organize and mount shows in museums, giving their art greater legitimacy, and subsequently raising the prices. Like Christ in the Temple with the Moneychangers, Barr barred such practices and art was set apart from commerce. The look of MoMA, the “pure” White Cube, gave the museum of modern art a sanctified air, where art and commercialism did not consort. Most importantly, Barr was able to bring in avant-garde European art in a series of shows that would be hard to mount in many European countries. It could be argued that, thought these important exhibitions, American artists had better access to this new art than did European artists, particularly those who were stranded in totalitarian countries.

Fifth, American artists were being brought together as never before during the Thirties. Government programs employed artists as either easel artists or as mural artists for public buildings, granting them the status of professionals. Many artists were able to take advantage of these employment programs, others, such as Willem de Kooning, who was not in American legally, or Newman, who had political qualms, did not take part. Whether or not one participated or not, the result of the government programs was to bring artists together, to create an artist community that included art critics, such as Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg. This community was ready to hear the new ideas of the European émigré artists and intellectuals. Greenberg learned studio talk at the feet of Hofmann who gave his American audiences a synthesis of Cubist and Expressionist art theories.

Although in the post-war, art history glossed over the art commissioned by the New Deal, the murals and photographs and easel painting stirred up creativity and provided challenges to American artists. In contrast the European artists who were essentially running in place, American artists were keeping active, forced into the innovation demanded by new conditions. Sensing an opportunity, Americans watched closely as nation by nation, territory by territory, Europe shut art down. American artists respected European art, but many felt that the avant-garde movements were played out. The best artists were old and long past their prime. Surrealism was already twenty years old, for instance. No new generation had emerged in Europe.

Sixth, Americans wanted to go beyond European art, but the question was how? Painters in New York wanted to create a new avant-garde art that was uniquely “American,” being robust, reflective of the greatness of the nation. The local artists liked the all-over effects of Cézanne and Mondrian, but found the easel art small and confining. Mondrian, especially, seemed “effeminate” in the precise preciousness of his meditative approach to painting. The New Yorkers were interested in the concept of the powers of the unconscious mind, suggested by Surrealism, but did not like the realistic dream paintings or Freudian theory. They did, however, appreciate the freedom from convention that the practice of écriture automatique or automatic writing could give to artists.

The promise of the all-over effect expanded beyond the portable easel painting could be fulfilled by mural painting, as practiced and taught by the Mexican muralists. The Mexican muralists were highly political and highly specific and many of them had an unfortunate track record of having their murals defaced: Rivera by the Rockefellers in New York and Siqueros by Christine Sterling in Los Angeles. Wary of political content, the American artists preferred the universality of message combined with an impressive scale found in Picasso’s Guernica, temporarily housed at MoMA.

Seventh, as can be seen, it is as important to take note of what the younger generation of American artists rejected. In addition to the Communist statements of the Mexican painters and the dream content of the Surrealists, American artists did not want to continue the nationalistic art of the Regionalist artists, such as Benton and Wood, nor did they want to continue the political art of the Social Realists, such as Ben Shahn and the other Depression artists. During the Depression and the Second World War, much art was dedicated to propaganda which promoted the benefits of the New Deal and then the need to support the War. The new artists appreciated abstract art, and, indeed there was an active group of abstract artists, the American Abstract Artists, but theirs was an old-fashioned abstraction of European formalism. The American artists coming into maturity in New York wanted a new kind of abstraction.

And, last, there was one factor, seldom emphasized but often mentioned in passing—the age of the Abstract Expressionist artists. They were all middle-aged men who had been developing their painting techniques and styles for years, working in obscurity. Unlike their European counterparts, the painters of the New York School had uninterrupted careers, untouched by political oppression or war. When America was drawn into World War II in 1941, these men were too old or too unfit or too ineligible to serve in the Armed Forces. While younger men went to war, sacrificing their careers and sometimes their lives for their county, the Abstract Expressionists were able to remain in the safety of New York City.

These crucial war years were the very years that preceded their individual styles, which would emerge in the fifties. When peace returned, the New York artists had benefited from a period of maturation that placed them at the forefront of the art world. Much of Europe was in ruins, and the European artists had to endure a period of rebuilding and restoration. In contrast, the American artists had to wait only for the emergence of a professional gallery scene that could support their ambitions. In ten years, it had become apparent that New York had inherited the idea of Modern Art.

What did the American artists in New York City want? They wanted to take over the reins of avant-garde Modernist art. They wanted to make modernist art American. The artists, who would form (loosely) the New York School in the Fifties, were ready, they were prepared. The field of cultural production had shifted to the East Coast of America. The result would be Abstract Expressionism.

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The Making of the New York School

THE ART SCENE SHIFTS FROM EUROPE TO AMERICA

In 1983, art historian, Serge Guilbaut, wrote a provocatively titled book, How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art. How, indeed? While the first chapter of this book discusses the politics of the New York intelligentsia and the various stances and shades of Marxism, I wish to look to the cultural matrix between the wars that drove avant-garde innovation to the shores of America. Socially and politically, this was a period of isolation and appeasement in Europe. Artistically, the period between the wars was a Return to Order. The result was a marketable and conservative version of avant-garde in Paris and a radical return to an unflinching realism in Germany.

After the Great War, European powers would have given away anything and anyone to avoid losing another generation of young men. The result of the very natural desire to save lives was to allow a rising tide of Communism in Russia and Fascism in Italy and Germany and a continental drift towards totalitarianism. The Great Depression of the 1930s made desperate people susceptible to the lure of a leader. Whether Communist or Fascist, both types of regimes were repressive to avant-garde art, which was banned by Hitler (collected by his henchmen) as “degenerate” and replaced by socialist realist art in Russia. As Clement Greenberg pointed out art in the Soviet Union devolved into kitsch of which Nazi art, based upon debased classicism, was a perfect example. Less well known is the position of Fascist art in Italy, which was based upon debased Modernism, appropriated by Mussolini in order to ally the new Roman Empire with modernity.

Artistically, the state of avant-garde art after the Great War was conservative. In France this return to traditionalism was termed rétour à l’ordre and this New Classicism was the foundation of the School of Paris. Although Paris as center of international art scene, it was not as dynamic as it had been before the War. The young artists were decidedly minor, compared to the maturing leaders, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. The only overtly avant-garde movement was Surrealism. Surrealism did not originate in the visual arts but in the psychology of Sigmund Freud, used by the poets of the movement to search for different sources for inspiration beyond or “sur” reality. The visual artists, who came to the movement later, adapted and played with Surrealist ideas and techniques, some of which, such as écriture automatique, would have a life beyond the movement.

In Germany, the subject matter of New Objectivity was highly active and provocative and confrontational but the styles employed by the artists were deliberately old world. The famous art school, the Bauhaus, was not innovative in the fine arts but was very avant-garde in the world of design and architecture. In comparison to the acceptance of the French version of the avant-garde and its highly lucrative art market, the artists in German who were trying to challenge the establishment met with hostile reactions from the Weimar government. The Bauhaus designers had ideas that were ahead of the technological and industrial capabilities, which would be achieved only after the Second World War. At any rate this flowering of the avant-garde art scene in Berlin was brief, not well received in its own time and ended abruptly under Hitler in 1933.

Meanwhile, the situation in America was not one of a need for order no matter what the costs. America was not faced with a Hobson’s choice between totalitarianism versus the need for peace no matter what the costs or accommodation to the forces of “order.” Although the nation participated reluctantly in the Great War, America had traditionally been isolationist in its mindset towards European art, preferring its own utilitarian culture of necessity. The idea of art-for-art’s-sake, so dear to Europeans, was alien to Americans. Art was a useless luxury. What art there was existed in New York. Despite the brush with the avant-garde of Europe at the 1913 Armory Show, conservative and backward versions of outdated art styles from the Old Country, such as the regressive realism of the Ashcan School.

But the early twentieth-century artists of the Ashcan School suited American audiences who had always preferred realism and art about themselves. Nevertheless, there were two small groups of avant-garde artists in New York, the group of artists around Alfred Stieglitz, the American Modernists: Paul Strand, Georgia O’Keeffe, Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove, John Marin, Charles Sheeler, and Charles Demuth. Coexisting and crossing paths with the Stieglitz group were a more radical set circulating around the collectors, Walter and Louise Arensberg. The New York Dada, consisting largely of Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray, was only tangentially related to the Dada groups in Europe and was arguably more significant for artists in the fifties than the artists of the forties.

At any rate, these early twentieth century movements were no longer coherent groups by the thirties and the members were scattered and had gone on to follow their personal interests. The exhaustion of American Modernism and Dada left a space that was filled by nationalist art movements, the regionalism of Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood and the political activism of Social Realists, such as Ben Shahn. The decade of the thirties was a decade of “American” art, not the “American” art of Sheeler and Demuth and Stuart Davis and Ralston Crawford, all of which celebrated the industry of the nation, but the folksy, rural agrarian tradition of “Americana.” In contrast, Social Realism and versions of politically active art practiced by the Mexican muralists introduced content that attempted to reveal the grim truth of the Depression.

The Depression, however, was good to artists. The United States government attempted to find work for all Americans who needed work and provided specialized jobs for specialized communities. Artists and writers were allowed to remain artists and writers in an economic climate that would have ordinarily wiped out the careers of most of them. For the first time, artists were recognized as “artists” and were mobilized by the government as professionals and given honest work. Art history has tended to ignore the work done by artists under the New Deal on the basis of aesthetic judgment and because the artists were hired hands with little freedom to invent. However, the New Deal projects were important to the future because New Deal spread art throughout a nation where art had never existed, where artists were unknown. The New Deal kept artists actively making art, whether mural art or easel art and paid them a living wage. Perhaps the Depression artists were given commissions and parameters to follow but their situation was far superior to that of artists under Hitler or Stalin.

Although not articulated at the time, it was clear to the avant-garde American artists involved with the tradition of European modernism, that the avant-garde overseas was exhausted. The previous leaders, from Picasso to Breton, were aging and were intent upon consolidating their careers and reputations. The steam had gone out of the European avant-garde and nothing had happened to take the place of Surrealism as the leader in innovation. Because of the many interdictions on avant-garde art in nations under totalitarian rule, much of the work being done by European artists who could still make art was not widely circulated. The international art scene that had existed up to the thirties no longer existed and the free flow of artistic ideas was dammed up.

But there was an island, and an unlikely island at that, where avant-garde art could be seen in its variety and entirety—New York City. As early as 1921, there was an exhibition at Brooklyn Museum of Cézanne and Matisse and in 1926 very new and cutting edge artists, Joan Miró, Piet Mondrian, and El Lissitzky. And then in 1929 the Museum of Modern Art opened under Alfred Barr. The Museum of Modern Art became a major site for introducing Modernist ideas and modern art to the American public. A number of exhibitions at the museum set up the history of Modernism with shows of the work of Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Georges Seurat, and Vincent van Gogh in 1929, Toulouse-Lautrec and Redon in 1931. And to get the New York art audiences up to date Barr mounted a Survey of the School of Paris, Painting in Paris, a show featuring Léger in 1935, and the iconic exhibition, Cubism and Abstract Art in 1936. Recent movements were also made available with the 1936 – 37 exhibition, Fantastic Art, Dada & Surrealism and the show of the Bauhaus 1919 – 1928 in 1930 to 1939.

Ironically when Barr mounted exhibitions of the art of Vasily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian, American artists became better educated in modernist art than their European counterparts. The Museum of Modern Art used the decade of the thirties to give Americans a crash course and a history lesson (exemplified by his famous chart in the beginning of his catalogue Cubism and Abstract Art) on Modernism. However, these exhibitions also served to convince the local artists that they had to break out of what was clearly an avant-garde that was now part of history. American artists began seeing other sources for inspiration and other approaches to art, from the exhibition, African Negro Art in 1935, the exhibition Prehistoric Rock Pictures in Europe and America of 1937, and a very influential exhibition of Native American art, Indian Art of the United States in 1941.

While of great importance, the Museum of Modern Art was symptomatic of the early evidence of the establishment of a genuine art world in New York. Albert Gallatin’s Museum of Living Art in the library of New York University showed Neo-Plasticism and Constructivist art. The Museum of Non-Objective Painting (later renamed the Solomon R. Guggenheim) opened in 1939. Under the leadership of Hilla Rebay, the museum began to collect the best examples of European modernist art, such as Kandinsky, Arp, Malevich, Léger, Delaunay, Giacometti. A few American artists were included, such as David Smith but for the most part the Museum looked mainly to Europe. Local artists were certainly receptive to modernist art. Art collector, Katherine Dreier and Dada artist, Marcel Duchamp, founded the Société Anonyme in 1920 for avant-garde thinkers, and abstract painters came together when the American Abstract Artists was established in 1936.

Although artists in New York often complained that MoMA was biased towards European artists, half the museum’s exhibitions were of American artists and the range of art shown was astonishing, from photography to design to architecture. As further evidence of the growing importance of New York as a cultural center was the large numbers of political refugees that arrived during the 1930s. German artist, Hans Hoffmann, had a school of fine arts in Munich but he was among the many perceptive artists who saw the handwriting on the wall and closed the school in 1932 and came to America. Hofmann opened his own school in New York City in 1934 and a summer school in Provincetown, Massachusetts in 1935. The Bauhaus artists and architects, fleeing Hitler after the closure of the school in 1933, would join him in exile. Josef and Annie Albers became teachers at the famous Black Mountain College and while their impact upon the New York artists of the forties was certainly less than that of Hofmann, the presence of experienced teachers of modernist art would shape a generation of artists.

For the first time, American artists could hear European art theories, taught by an artist who combined German Expressionism with French Cubism. Clement Greenberg, largely a literary critic, began attending Hofmann’s lectures, learning studio talk and crafting himself as an art critic. Hofmann joined other émigré artists already in place. Arshile Gorky (Vosdanig Adoian) had arrived in New York ten years earlier and had assimilated the same traditions as Hofmann, but from visits to museums. In what would be a typically American strategy of synthesizing European movements, Gorky added Surrealism to the mix. John Graham (Ivan Gratianovitch Dombrowsky) came to the United States from Russian and never looked back, becoming an America citizen in 1927. A decade later he wrote “Picasso and Primitive Art” and Systems and Dialectics in Art. Writing in 1937, Graham, who was in touch with European art, suggested that American artists look to the “primitive” art forms and championed abstract art. Graham was concerned with the development of an art that could be expressive

Graham was one of several figures that mentored the new generation of artists in New York, including the Mexican mural artist, David Siqueiros who experimented with airbrush and spray techniques in his painting. Jackson Pollock, whom Graham knew well, visited this workshop twice, intrigued with the large scale of the murals and with the non-fine art tools. The first mural done by a Mexican artist was produced in 1930 by José Clemente Orozco at Pomona College in the small town of Claremont, California, east of Los Angeles. Jackson Pollock, who had grown up in Los Angeles, went out of his way to see the Prometheus mural on his way to New York. Diego Rivera was also in New York but sadly his mural for the Rockefeller Center was destroyed in 1934 but the concept of a wall scaled work of art would have a lasting impact on the New York School.

The last group of artists to arrive in America was the Surrealists from France. Like Piet Mondrian and Marc Chagall, they came to America in 1940 as a last resort. As the irresistible wave of Hitler’s Wehrmacht rolled over Europe and as London huddled under a rain of bombs, New York was the only safe place for an artist who was avant-garde or Jewish or both. By the time the Surrealists arrived, the New York artistic scene was ready for the last dose of heady European art theory. Although the Surrealists, led by André Breton, were not interested in communicating with the locals, Roberto Matta, a Chilean artist, acted as go-between and the ideas and techniques of the French artists were transmitted to the New York artists. Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, André Masson, and Yves Tanguy circulated more than Breton and Tanguy and Ernst married American artists, Kay Sage and Dorothea Tanning, respectively.

The famous Peggy Guggenheim returned home, but with European booty, a treasure trove of avant-garde European from artists who were desperate to sell their works. She tried to purchase “a work a day,” her motto. This large and significant collection became the foundation of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, established when she returned to Venice in 1946. In addition to collecting art, Guggenheim also collected the German artist, Max Ernst who had been interned as an enemy alien in Aix-en-Provence in 1940. But when the Germans conquered France, Ernst, as a “degenerate artists” was still in danger and was arrested by the Nazis. He escaped from the Gestapo and, with the help of Peggy Guggenhiem, was able to get to America through Portugal. Ernst and the art collector married in 1941 and in 1942 she opened her gallery, Art of This Century.

Always competitive with her uncle, Guggenheim was now a full-fledged rival and became a major player on the New York art scene, presiding over her gallery, designed by Frederick Keisler. At the urging of Lee Krasner, Peggy Guggenheim began to sponsor Krasner’s boyfriend, Jackson Pollock. Major questions faced the artists of the New York School to extend the European tradition of Modernism, now ossified, or stake out new territory and create their own art, a new American tradition. Also up for discussion, what of this European tradition to retain and what to discard, what to take from the “American” scene and what to learn from the Mexican artists. Now, with the arrival of so many European artists, the Americans were able to acquire not just new tools for painting but also the words, the language, which allowed them to talks about art. The stage was now ready and the scene was set. All the players were in motion and the art world had shifted the New York, which had “stolen” the idea of Modern Art.

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Podcast 48: Marcel Duchamp—The Readymades

Marcel Duchamp, Part One

Marcel Duchamp began his career as a painter and ended it as a maker of carefully crafted objects. Using a combination of intellectual, aesthetic, and psychological viewpoints, this podcast discusses Duchamp’s decision to “secede” from the Parisian art world as a counter rejection. In attempting to shield himself from art world politics, Duchamp created a new way to re-make “art” as a Readymade—a defiant gesture of indeterminacy.

   

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