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Hardcover | Out of Print | ISBN: 9780262025805 | 390 pp. | 8 x 9 in | 82 illus. | October 2005
Paperback | $51.00 X | £37.95 | ISBN: 9780262524889 | 390 pp. | 8 x 9 in | 82 illus. | February 2008

An American Lens

Scenes from Alfred Stieglitz's New York Secession


In An American Lens, Jay Bochner looks at a series of milestones in the development of the American avant-garde that capture a pivotal period in artistic consciousness. He focuses on the multiple roles of Alfred Stieglitz—as influential gallery owner, photographer, and impresario of the emerging art scene—at a series of significant moments in his career. These close-ups offer a more intense and expanded understanding of the subject than the familiar long view.

Bochner uses these scenes to recreate for today's readers the birth of modernism in America—what it was like to be an audience for the art of the early avant-garde. Moving from frame to frame, he shows us, for example, a single photograph by Stieglitz of a snowy night in 1893 and a short description by Stephen Crane of just such a snowfall; the preparation, the reception, and the aftermath of the famous Armory Show of modern art in 1913; Gertrude Stein's portraits in prose; New York at the dawn of Dada, with Paul Strand, Francis Picabia, and others; and the intersecting paths of Mina Loy, William Carlos Williams, and Marcel Duchamp in 1917. Bochner also examines Stieglitz's three great photographic series: his photographs of Georgia O'Keeffe, of clouds, and of skyscrapers. These sections of the book include many Stieglitz photos, including some rarely seen portraits of O'Keeffe.

Stieglitz as impresario and artist achieved an almost mythical status, which some recent critics have worked to deflate—casting him, for example, as Svengali to Georgia O'Keeffe's spellbound Trilby. Engaging in neither idolatry nor demolition, Bochner looks instead for the truth about the man and the myth. The scenes from American art in An American Lens create a new version of Stieglitz's biography, allowing us to reread his life and the life of his times by focusing intently on what is visible and not so visible in the art he left behind.

About the Author

Jay Bochner is Professor of English at the University of Montreal.


“I'm sure Bochner is a fine scholar and critic, but he also has that indispensable talent of storytellers: he gets us interested in what fascinates him through what he chooses to describe and narrate. So out of this collection of anecdotes, observations, critiques, forgotten or obscure historical moments that seem formed as responses to unknown interlocutors, emerges an entertaining book and, by the way, an absorbing and gallant portrait of the life and times and undervalued accomplishments of Alfred Stieglitz.”—Books In Heat
“...This is a multilayered study that sheds light on contemporary critical analysis as well as on the birth of modernism.”—The Bloomsbury Review
“[B]ochner gives us effusiveness backed by keen research and seasoned looking.... [U]ltimately, the book is a return to an 'expressive' form of scholarly writing. It may even be a bellwether of a revival of the monograph.”—Bookforum


“Bochner's study of Alfred Stieglitz and American modernism demonstrates intellectual intensity, cultural sensitivity, and archival rigor. In this richly detailed and often poetic account Bochner examines the cultural significance of key modernist exhibitions as both historical events and aesthetic formats, which he views 'through the lens' of the series, the fragment, and the unprecedented 'life force' that collectively characterize Stieglitz's vision of Secessionist modernism. The author's unique approach to the subject matter, the depth of his thinking, and the intensity of his focus make this book unlike anything else in the extant scholarly or popular literature.”
Marcia Brennan, Associate Professor, Department of Art History, Rice University
“How did the avant-garde of the New York Secession, the movement spearheaded by the brilliant photographer, editor, gallery director, and impresario Alfred Stieglitz, look to its own practitioners and their audiences? Jay Bochner's fascinating and lavishly illustrated documentary study casts its 'American lens' on key scenes when modernist poets and visual artists from Williams and Stein to O'Keefe and Stieglitz himself were changing our cultural and aesthetic landscape. The appraisal of the Stieglitz circlethat emerges is as surprising as it is absorbing. A great read!”
Marjorie Perloff, author of Wittgenstein's Ladder: Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary
“This study of the importance of Stieglitz to the avant-garde in America is nothing short of brilliant. Somehow Jay Bochner has managed to interweave photography, art literature, and economic history into a whole at once convincing highly intelligent and intensely readable. I didn't want it to end.”
Mary Ann Caws, Distinguished Professor of English French and Comparative Literature Graduate Center City University of New York