Debating American Modernism
Stieglitz, Duchamp, and the New York Avant-Garde
A rich dialogue between the circles of artists associated with American photographer Alfred Stieglitz (1864–1946) and French artist Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968) spurred the development of modern art in the United States between 1915 and 1929. During World War I many European artists, including Duchamp, left their homelands bound for New York, a metropolis thriving with industrial and technological advancement. Skyscrapers, telephones, and automobiles were altering the course of daily life at a dizzying speed while equally significant changes were transforming the social arena, particularly in the realm of sexual politics. Sigmund Freud’s and Havelock Ellis’s theories of sexuality garnered widespread interest during these years, as did the subject of equality between the sexes and the struggle for woman suffrage. The lively debate between the artists associated with Stieglitz and Duchamp ensued against this backdrop of sweeping societal and cultural change.
Stieglitz was the undisputed leader of avant-garde art in New York. His “291” gallery, which opened in 1905 and operated until 1917, was known as one of the only places in New York where one could see the latest developments in modern art, and many of the century’s leading figures, such as Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso, had their first exhibitions in the United States there. Stieglitz’s exhibition program before World War I was diverse, featuring everything from contemporary photography to the work of European and American painters and sculptors working in cubist and expressionist styles. During the gallery’s last two years, Stieglitz concentrated on the work of a core group of American artists. At “291” and in Camera Work, the quarterly literary and artistic journal he published, Stieglitz tirelessly promoted the art of Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, John Marin, Max Weber, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Paul Strand. His leadership position in the field of avant-garde art was secure until Duchamp’s arrival in 1915.
Duchamp was already a controversial figure when his ship docked in New York City that year, his notoriety from the presentation of his painting Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 two years earlier at the Armory Show preceding him. Newspapers and journals of the day provided a ready platform for his proclamations on subjects ranging from the state of contemporary culture to the intelligence of the American woman. Within three months of arriving in the United States, Duchamp began to question publicly the originality of the art he saw here, saying that it was derivative and cautioning that it was a mistake for American artists to follow European models. In interviews for prominent newspapers, for example, Duchamp made provocative statements such as, “If only America would realize that the art of Europe is finished—dead—and that America is the country of the art of the future, instead of trying to base everything she does on European traditions!”1 In his exhortation, “Look at the skyscrapers!”2 Duchamp perhaps most succinctly stated his celebration of manifestations of modern American culture that also included bridges and machines.
Duchamp’s opinions posed a challenge to Stieglitz and the American artists of “291,” forcing them to adopt a defensive position. Stieglitz thus abandoned his earlier attempts to link the art of Dove and Marin, among others, to European precedents and instead began to define anew what was original about American art. Unlike Duchamp’s paean to the machine, Stieglitz’s approach was spiritual and reverent, focusing on organic, sensual, and abstract forms in nature. Likewise, Stieglitz and journalists including Sherwood Anderson, Waldo Frank, Paul Rosenfeld, and Edmund Wilson, writing in publications such as the Nation, the New Republic, and the New Yorker, defended the artists of “291,” asserting that American art was primarily sensual rather than cerebral in orientation. Strong distinctions were made between masculine and feminine imagery, reflecting the then prevalent and widespread public discussion on the sexes and sexual behavior.
From 1917 on, Georgia O’Keeffe and Arthur Dove were often cited as exemplars of an indigenous American aesthetic. O’Keeffe’s abstract paintings, with their sensuous allusions to female genitalia, were seen as the gendered counterparts to Dove’s equally abstracted compositions, ripe with suggestive male sexual references. Natural forms evoking the human body as well as the landscape recur throughout many of the paintings, sculptures, and photographs by artists in the Stieglitz group. In Stieglitz’s own series of photographs, Equivalents (fig. 1), made between 1922 and 1931, the artist framed rectangular segments of the sky with his camera, isolating patterns of clouds that he felt represented subjective states of being. Nature is also resonant in O’Keeffe’s painting From the Lake No. 1 (fig. 2), with its layered curvilinear forms of blue, brown, and grey suggesting a stormy interplay of water, mountains, and sky.
The artists associated with Duchamp, on the other hand— John Covert, Jean Crotti, Francis Picabia, Man Ray, Morton Schamberg, Joseph Stella, Florine Stettheimer, Beatrice Wood, and Marius de Zayas—touted an industrial aesthetic laced with laconic, provocative wit and a preference for forms and materials recalling urban landscapes and mechanical devices. Works by this group, usually identified as the New York school of the international Dada movement, are also often tinged with sexual symbolism. For example, in Francis Picabia’s “machine portrait” of Stieglitz entitled Ici, c’est ici Stieglitz/Foi et amour (fig. 3), the photographer, for all his renown, is represented as a broken camera. Picabia’s machine-surrogate questions Stieglitz’s role as a leader in the arts, and, with its phallic bellows, perhaps mocks Stieglitz’s virility as well.
An icon of twentieth-century art, Duchamp’s own Fountain (fig. 6) is an actual urinal that he placed on a pedestal rather than attaching it to a wall as its usage intended. This “readymade,” a manufactured object presented as a work of art, is composed of sleek curves and sensuous forms. Similarly, Man Ray incorporates the phallic form of a skyscraper in his metal sculpture New York (fig. 5), created by sandwiching an assemblage of wood with a standard C-clamp (later cast in bronze). Both of these works bear comparison to the organic and sometimes erotic shapes evident in the art of Stieglitz’s group from this period.
By the 1920s, the fertile discourse that had taken place in salons at
prominent collectors’ homes, in journals and periodicals, and, above
all else, in the works of art themselves had affected several younger
artists who comprise a third group whose work is featured in this exhibition.
Stuart Davis, Charles Demuth, Charles Sheeler, and John Storrs integrated
the concerns of the formerly polarized avant-garde by forming a hybrid
style inspired by the art of both the Stieglitz and Duchamp circles. Their
works of the 1920s evidence a particular interest in American vernacular
forms. Sheeler and Demuth, for example, make frequent use of an industrial
vocabulary, recalling the preoccupations of the Duchamp circle. Davis’s
allusions to motifs drawn from advertising similarly reflect the interests
of the Duchamp group. Finally, the simple, reductive forms—based
on skyscrapers—of sculptures made by John Storrs (fig. 4) echo the
subject of Man Ray’s New York, however Storrs’s reverential
treatment differs markedly from Man Ray’s witty insouciance. The
synthesis achieved by these artists would have been impossible without
the dialogue initiated by
As curator Debra Bricker Balken writes in the exhibition catalogue, the debates between the artists in the Stieglitz and Duchamp camps had far-reaching results. “The impact, as history has revealed, was simultaneously subtle and trenchant, reshaping the formal languages and content of American art with the ironic result that it finally attained the originality andcultural singularity that Duchamp had found sorely missing.”
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