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Reviewed by:
  • Creative Composites: Modernism, Race, and the Stieglitz Circle by Lauren Kroiz
  • Marcia Brennan
Creative Composites: Modernism, Race, and the Stieglitz Circle. Lauren Kroiz. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012. Pp. 267. $49.95 (cloth).

The literature on the Alfred Stieglitz circle represents an extensive and thriving area of inquiry for both academic and museum audiences in the United States and Europe. Lauren Kroiz’s Creative Composites: Modernism, Race, and the Stieglitz Circle contributes significantly to this literature by offering a complementary perspective on the photographer and entrepreneur and on his extended modernist circles. From the turn of the twentieth century to his death more than four decades later, Stieglitz was associated with a diverse and often provocative group of artists, critics, and cultural theorists. In this analytically insightful and beautifully illustrated volume, Kroiz focuses on a group of important but under-examined figures in the Stieglitz circle, including the German-Japanese critic Sadakichi Hartmann, the Mexican caricaturist and entrepreneur Marius de Zayas, and the Sri Lankan curator and filmmaker Ananda Coomaraswamy. Drawing on a deep historical and archival base, Kroiz skillfully reconstructs how period discourses on race, ethnicity, and identity informed the critical thinking and artistic productions of Stieglitz’s “first” and “second” circles, the groups that coalesced around him before and after the closing of his groundbreaking art gallery 291 in 1917. At the same time, Kroiz’s scope extends well [End Page 143] beyond Stieglitz’s inner circles as she considers the complex ways in which national debates on race, ethnicity, immigration, urbanism, and assimilation shaped the production and exhibition of this composite modernist project, one that arose in one of the most influential artistic venues of the early twentieth century.

Creative Composites opens with an intricately developed account of how national debates on assimilation, pluralism, and ethnic diversity were reflected both in Hartmann’s critical writings and in Stieglitz’s straight photographs of the 1890s and early 1900s. Hartmann first theorized the concept of “straight photography” in 1904; the term referred not to photographs that emulated traditional media like painting to produce romanticized pictorial effects, but rather to photographs that showcased qualities that were distinctive to the new technological medium. Straight photographs included “objective” representations of subjects that were typically presented in sharp focus and crisply printed. As Kroiz points out, neither Hartmann nor Stieglitz used the term “straight” to promote a unified or essentialized conception of American identity, but rather to describe an aesthetic approach that they saw as particularly suited to New York’s newly pluralist, immigrant, urban contexts. Notably, Kroiz is careful to contrast the differences between Hartmann’s and Stieglitz’s respective approaches. While Hartmann the critic sometimes produced sensationalist accounts that characterized straight photographs as being at once picturesque and real, Stieglitz the photographer took an approach that was more complex and ambiguous. As Kroiz observes of Stieglitz’s photograph of a lower Manhattan immigrant neighborhood, Five Points, New York (1893), “The pictorial resistance and moral ambiguity of Stieglitz’s photograph provoke questions of how and why to visualize the unique diversity of new urban populations” (28). In short, Stieglitz sometimes walked a delicate line through an urban voyeurism that offered privileged audiences glimpses into immigrant neighborhoods and other unfamiliar settings; some of these representations remained unclear no matter how “straight” the photograph.

Kroiz follows her discussion of Hartmann and straight photography by exploring how the “abstraction and constructive miscegenation” (49) of de Zayas’s caricatures provided an effective counterpoint and complement to Stieglitz’s contemporary photographs. Stieglitz and de Zayas’s collaborative relationship extended between 1907 and 1917; throughout this decade, de Zayas produced caricatures that ranged from traditional figure studies to modernist abstractions that sometimes featured cryptic symbolic languages involving chemical formulas and mathematical equations. De Zayas characterized these representations as a form of “constructive miscegenation,” a term that he used to describe the productive interbreeding of diverse elements within a new, composite American modernism. Drawing on sexually and racially charged language, de Zayas saw American modernism progressing through fertile ethnic and artistic intermixing that, he posited, would produce a vital, new synthesis. In her multilayered account, Kroiz looks both outward and inward as she locates de Zayas...


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pp. 143-145
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