You may know a thing or two about Alfred Stieglitz -- that he was a great early photographer or perhaps that he was married to American modernist artist Georgia O'Keeffe.
A photo or two of his may even stand out in your mind, like "The Steerage," the iconic image of passengers aboard a ship that had sailed from Europe to what was likely Plymouth, taken in 1907.
But lesser known to the average viewer is Stieglitz' role in the overall landscape of American art.
"Seeing One Another: New Views on the Alfred Stieglitz Collection," open now at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, aims to put his works, those of his friends and personal objects he collected into context. The knowledge that Stieglitz helped father modern photography as an abstract art form and brought the great European artists into common knowledge for Americans can change even works we've seen before with that perspective.
The focus exhibit opened Jan. 28 and will continue until New Year's Day 2024, but curator Jen Padgett urges you not to wait that long to see it, since some items will be swapped out every few months.
The Alfred Stieglitz collection has 19 photographs, a number of paintings and other works on paper, and it's divided into three categories -- works by American artists, others by European artists and some African objects. It is co-owned by Crystal Bridges with Fisk University in Nashville, and in that it is especially noteworthy.
Not only is it rare for Crystal Bridges to show non-American art and items, it is rare for a collection of this importance to be owned by two institutions, one being a historically Black university. They are currently working on a major publication about the collection because of its rich history and complexity and the unique situation of sharing it across their audiences.
Padgett, acting Windgate Curator of Craft at Crystal Bridges, first worked with the collection in 2018. That time, she paired items with works from the museum's modern collection.
"The fact that it goes between these two (institutions) every two years means that there's a lot of change, and it's very dynamic," Padgett says. "It means that when it travels back to Crystal Bridges, it gives us the opportunity to rethink how we show it."
ARTISTS FOREVER LINKED
One fascinating element of the Stieglitz collection is its direct tie to the complex and long-lasting relationship of two household names, Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, people who were important to the history of modern art, Padgett says.
Most of these objects were from his collection when he passed in 1946. At the time, O'Keeffe was executrix of Stieglitz' will and estate. She was trying to figure out where all the items would go, including hundreds of paintings, drawings, sculpture and thousands of his own photographs. She wound up placing them in key locations, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago and Fisk University.
In the segment that went to Fisk, O'Keeffe included four works from her own collection and one by artist Charles Demuth.
"Her making this gift to Fisk was about her legacy, her relationship with Stieglitz, his legacy and thinking about 'What does that look like to carry on education, learning, sharing around modern art with audiences for decades to come?'" Padgett says.
Their return to Crystal Bridges last year gave Padgett the chance to take a deeper dive, thinking of themes that would allow the works to show off with a different resonance and lens than before.
Guests will have a chance to see Stieglitz' work alongside American artists who were in his circle, including John Marin, Arthur Dove and of course O'Keeffe herself.
Some of Stieglitz' most iconic works are in the collection. The most recognizable of them all is his portrait of O'Keeffe, one that was a part of a series of hundreds of photos he took of her. It's a part of a larger view of the making of a portrait of somebody, Padgett says. It's not just about one image or one moment, but about the many parts that make up a complex and modern individual.
The O'Keeffe portrait is displayed next to the self portrait of Stieglitz.
One of O'Keeffe's works, a painting of an African mask that was previously on exhibition at Crystal Bridges during "The Beyond" a few years ago, is on loan and will be in the portraiture section of the Stieglitz exhibit for just three months. Then it will go to an exhibit in San Diego.
Padgett says you can see this painting next to the beautiful object she was working from.
"It's amazing to see this painting next to ... the mask and think about what O'Keeffe was thinking and depicting in this very interesting format, with an apple," she says. "Then she places the mask horizontally in the painting, (and makes them) the exact same size. To see it together is a fascinating moment."
It should give viewers a chance to consider what the mask meant in its community of origin and the layers of how someone might get an object. In that way, Padgett hopes the mask will help make greater connections within the portraiture section. An engagement there explores the history of the objects.
FROM THE WIDER WORLD
A total of five works in the collection are African objects. Those are important within American history since Stieglitz was the first to show them in the U.S. as art rather than anthropological artifacts.
"When thinking about a context for those works, we think of the human stories, not just about artistic inspiration," Padgett says, though there is an element of that too. "(Stieglitz) was inspired by African art and looked to it for visual inspiration."
Stieglitz was also the first person in the U.S. to introduce European heavyweights Pablo Picasso, Paul Cezanne and Henri Matisse. We think of these as major figures now, but during his time, none of them was well known in the States. He began presenting these artists' works in his small gallery spaces alongside his photography. That started to pave the way for Stieglitz to become a key figure in changing the perception of modern photography, by advancing it as art.
"It might surprise us now, but people hadn't fully embraced photography as an art form," Padgett says. "There was an idea that it was great for documentation, that it was useful, but the idea that it was art to display alongside paintings was totally new, radical ... showing it had its own capabilities, too."
Up until that point, most photographers took images of landscapes with a softness around the edges to make it look pictorial, using the same approach and logic as a conventional painting. But Stieglitz' photos were more abstract. He would take images of clouds and other things from the world that despite being real surprised viewers, Padgett says, because it didn't look like something they recognized.
"He was exploring modern styles, exploring the world around him," she says. "That was a part of his legacy."
A DIFFERENT LENS
Simply doing photography differently from his contemporaries wasn't all that Stieglitz did to establish it as a true, modern art form. He also spurred the conversation by gathering fellow artists, writers, critics and other people who were excited about modern ideas for a series of galleries, where they engaged in discussions. He presented a distinctive point of view that pushed American art forward at a time when folks were more traditional and collecting historical or European works, Padgett says.
His journal "Camera Work" also helped build a community of others interested in the revolution of photography becoming modern art, where articles explored the technical side of the work alongside essays, biographies and reviews.
Back in the halls with his collection, Padgett says you'll find other recognizable works aside from Stieglitz, including those by Alice Neel and Charles White's drawing "Oh Mary Don't You Weep" that depicts two Black women and relates to the Biblical story of the resurrection of Lazarus by channeling themes of loss and hope.
You might even recognize the Arkansas connections in works by Philadelphia potter Roberto Lugo, who creates portraits of various figures of cultural importance, many of whom are Black and Latinx. His previous works featured Maya Angelou and Frederick Douglass.
"These are colorful, detailed patterns drawn from street art, bold and beautiful," Padgett says. In this exhibit are two Lugo works with connection to Arkansas -- Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the godmother of rock 'n' roll and basketball player Scottie Pippen. "It's a nice opportunity to highlight and bring Rob's work around with context. It's the first time they've been on view in our galleries."
The conversations surrounding these pieces of art may have started with Stieglitz, but they are ongoing. This unique partnership Crystal Bridges has with Fisk provides a way to get a fresh take on the items. In fact, take the time to read the wall labels, and you'll realize that each one has an author line.
"That's unusual in a gallery context," Padgett says. Last year Crystal Bridges provided virtual internships to Fisk students who researched the collection and wrote blog posts that were released with the exhibition. They also wrote labels for the art works. That gave them more folks "who might have a different perspective. Having them engage with the collection and curatorial work was a small way to expand the partnership."
'Seeing One Another: The Alfred Stieglitz Collection'
When: Through New Year's Day 2024. Certain items will be rotated out of the exhibit every few months due to their fragile nature as paper works, while others will return to other exhibits.
Where: Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville
Don't Miss: Next to the large interpretive element in the focus exhibit, viewers have a chance to ask questions about the objects they've seen. What would you like to learn more about in the future? Submit your question on site or at [email protected] and the answers to your questions will reappear in the exhibit.
April Wallace is Associate Features Editor/Profiles & Our Town for the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email her at [email protected]