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Debating American Modernism: Stieglitz, Duchamp, and the New York Avant-Garde


Debating American Modernism: Stieglitz, Duchamp, and the New York Avant-Garde presents approximately 70 paintings, sculptures, photographs and works on paper that explore the dialogue that took place among New York's avant-garde in its search to identify what characteristics would define American modernism. On view at the Terra Museum of American Art from August 30 through November 30, 2003, the exhibition proposes a new reading of early American modernism through its examination of the similarities and differences between modernist ideas associated with New York photographer/gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz and French artist Marcel Duchamp and their respective circle of artists and patrons. (right: Georgia O'Keefe, From the Lake No. 1, 1924, oil on canvas, 36 X 30 inches, Purchased with funds form the Coffin Fine Arts Trust; Nathan Emory Coffin Collection of the Des Moines Art Center)

"Though other exhibitions have examined individual artists within the context of American modernism, Debating American Modernism focuses on the artistic discourse that framed the production, reception and critique of art in New York in the early decades of the twentieth century," stated Elizabeth Kennedy, Curator, Terra Museum of American Art.

The rich dialogue between the circles of artists associated with American photographer Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) with that of French artist Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) spurred the development of modern art in the United States between 1915 and 1929. Early in the twentieth century, Stieglitz was the undisputed leader of avant-garde art in New York. His "291" gallery 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 leading figures, such as Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso had their first exhibitions in the United States there. Though familiar with European art and its attendant theories, Stieglitz also tirelessly promoted the work of contemporary American artists such as Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, John Marin and Georgia O'Keeffe. His leadership position in the field of avant-garde art was secure until Duchamp's 1915 arrival in New York.

Within a few months of arriving in the United States, Duchamp publicly expressed his disappointment with American art that presented predominantly nature-based abstraction (often considered a defining characteristic of the art produced by Stieglitz's coterie of artists). He proclaimed in newspapers and magazines that American artists were too dependent on outmoded European traditions and had overlooked far greater subjects such as the skyscraper and the machine. Duchamp's comments generated a critical discussion that lasted through 1929, prompting Stieglitz and his circle to define what made their work innovative,original and American.

Debating American Modernism is organized in three thematic sections. The first presents the work of Stieglitz and his circle, including Stieglitz's celebrated photograph series "Equivalents," a selection of Arthur Dove's abstracted landscapes, and sensuous oil paintings of natural phenomenon by Georgia O'Keeffe. The second section, devoted to Duchamp and his colleagues, illustrates the appeal of mass-produced and mechanical objects, and within it a selection of Duchamp's readymades and the charged sculptural forms of Man Ray will be displayed. The third focuses on the art of a group of young artists during the 1920s - the last phase of early American abstraction-such as Charles Demuth, Charles Sheeler and John Storrs.

Debating American Modernism: Stieglitz, Duchamp, and the New York Avant-Garde is organized by the American Federation of Arts. It is a project of ART ACCESS II, a program of the AFA with major support from the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund. Additional support is provided by the National Patrons of the AFA. A fully illustrated exhibition catalogue, published by the AFA in association with Distributed Art Publishers Inc. accompanies the exhibition.

Debating American Modernism: Stieglitz, Duchamp, and the New York Avant-Garde is part of MODERN MATTERS, a series of exhibitions and programs spanning summer 2003 through fall 2004 at the Terra Museum of American Art. MODERN MATTERS presents fresh perspectives on early modernism in American art.


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