Painting Gender, Constructing Theory

Painting Gender, Constructing Theory

The Alfred Stieglitz Circle and American Formalist Aesthetics

By Marcia Brennan

How critical conceptions of gender and sexuality helped to advance the artistic careers of the Alfred Stieglitz Circle and influenced American formalist aesthetics.





How critical conceptions of gender and sexuality helped to advance the artistic careers of the Alfred Stieglitz Circle and influenced American formalist aesthetics.

After the closing of his first art gallery in 1917, photographer Alfred Stieglitz reemerged in the New York art world in the 1920s. He achieved his comeback in large part through the innovative means he used to promote himself and the artists of his inner circle. Stieglitz and a number of well-established critics drew on period conceptions of sexuality, gender, and cultural identity to characterize the artists he championed as the fulfillment of a shared vision of a vital, nonrepressed American art.

In Painting Gender, Constructing Theory, Marcia Brennan examines how Stieglitz and the critics drew on early-twentieth-century discourses on sex and the psyche, particularly the theories of Sigmund Freud and Havelock Ellis, to characterize the artworks of the Stieglitz circle. Critics routinely described the often highly abstracted paintings of Georgia O'Keeffe, Arthur Dove, John Marin, Marsden Hartley, and Charles Demuth as transparent displays of the most intimate aspects of the self, taking both subject matter and painterly form to be guided by the artist's own gendered and psychic energies.

Focusing on the key historical criticism and artworks, Brennan shows how the identities of all five Stieglitz circle artists were presented in terms of the masculinity and femininity, and the heterosexuality and homosexuality, thought to be embedded in their work. Brennan also discusses Stieglitz's relation to competing artistic and critical movements, including Thomas Hart Benton's regionalist art and Clement Greenberg's reformulation of formalism. Arguing that American formalist criticism consisted of a complex and paradoxical mixture of corporeality and disembodied transcendence, Brennan provides insight not only into the works of the Stieglitz circle but into the development of formalist criticism itself.


Out of Print ISBN: 9780262024884 390 pp. | 5.75 in x 9 in 60 illus.


$28.95 T ISBN: 9780262523363 390 pp. | 5.75 in x 9 in 60 illus.


  • Brennan's book clearly contributes to both gender studies and the field of American modernism.

    Margaret Sundell



  • Painting Gender, Constructing Theory unearths the American underpinnings of that old monolith, formalism, and finds the erotic aesthetic of Alfred Stieglitz. Brennan shows how, through subtle, visual, and epistolary modes of influence, the charismatic photographer left a lasting imprint on the language of 20th-century art criticism. She delivers more than a well crafted thesis; her reader assimilates something of the very resonances between body and intellect, intimacy and spiritualism, that must have excited Steiglitz and his circle.

    Susan Elizabeth Ryan

    Louisiana State University

  • Brennan brilliantly demonstrates how Stieglitz's house critics promoted a public image of his artists as revealing a modern eroticized and gendered identity in the abstract forms of their paintings. Her research is groundbreaking, in her reading of this school of criticism as an edifice that was socially constructed and permeated by discourses on sex and the psyche. This book establishes a vivid picture of Stieglitz and his friends as they successfully naturalized their own sexual and artistic ideologies, in the process of interpreting abstract forms as intrinsically shaped by gendered, erotic energies. Brennan's research should become essential reading for scholars of American modernism.

    Kathleen A. Pyne

    Department of Art, Art History, and Design, University of Notre Dame

  • Marcia Brennan has convincingly placed Alfred Stieglitz at the very center of a 40-year debate about erotic energy and aesthetic purity in American modernist abstraction. She shows Stieglitz to have brought sex to the fore both in painting by his following of artists and in the extremely gendered discourse about it. She convincingly demonstrates how the photographer's influence extends as far as Clement Greenberg, who had to construct his position by imagining it in opposition to that of Stieglitz.

    Jay Bochner

    Université de Montréal


  • Winner, 2015 Georgia O'Keeffe Museum Research Center Book Prize