D.C. show features avant-garde artists of early in century

August 11, 1991|By Knight-Ridder News Service

WASHINGTON -- The early 20th century produced some of the most creative and daring artists and writers of our age. As social revolutionaries, American avant-garde artists and intellectuals shook the foundations of modern society with artwork that was viewed as immoral, lifestyles that were considered deviant and viewpoints that were looked upon as un-American, if not seditious.

Today, one of the most comprehensive looks at these members of the avant garde is on display here in an extensive exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution National Portrait Gallery (through Oct. "Group Portrait: First American Avant Garde," focuses on four leading personalities of the period and their respective circles of peers, through 105 paintings, drawings, sculptures, photographs and rare literary publications.

The exhibit was organized by New York City-based curator and author Steven Watson, whose latest book, "Strange Bedfellows: The First American Avant Garde" provides a sweeping view of those who were at the forefront of the modern art movement.

Divided into four galleries at the National Portrait Gallery, the show focuses on photographer Alfred Stieglitz in New York, poet Ezra Pound in London, patron and salon hostess Gertrude Stein in Paris and painter Marcel Duchamp, also in New York. Each room holds a variety of artworks in which, interestingly, the creators also serve as the subjects.

Stieglitz, who died 45 years ago, was considered the father of modern photography. The display includes images of Stieglitz by photographer Edward Stiechen, a Cubist-inspired painting by photographer Man Ray and an abstract caricature charcoal by Mexican-born artist Marius de Zayas. Portraits of Stiechen and painters John Marin are also on view, as is a dark, sensuous close-up image of Georgia O'Keeffe taken by Stieglitz.

Marcel Duchamp, the force behind the dada abstract art movement, arrived in New York from France in 1915. By then he was already a hero in avant-garde circles. His cubist painting "Nude Descending a Staircase" incited an uproar during its showing at the 1913 Armory Show in New York and prompted ridicule in the press.

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