At the time of its construction in 1924, the Shelton Hotel was the tallest hotel in the world, drawing praise from critics and heralded as 'A Stately, breath-taking building' by the New York Times. Accordingly, the soaring Deco structure provided inspiration, and later, residence for Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keeffe from 1924 to 1935. Their view from the thirtieth floor granted sweeping views of a quickly changing skyline, studded with architectural marvels such as the Newsweek Building (built 1930-1931) and 444 Madison Avenue (built 1929), both of which occupy the frame in the current lot. Stieglitz, a native New Yorker, had long been fascinated by the city’s growth. And yet, his documentation of the city’s evolution mirrored his own as an artist and a man.
'My New York is the New York of transition,' Stieglitz stated in a letter to Hamilton Easter Field in 1920. 'The Old gradually passing into the New…--Not the ‘Canyons’ but the spirit of that something that endears New York to one who really loves it—not for its outer attractions—but for its deepest worth--& significance.—The universal thing in it.' His earlier depictions of the city date as early as 1902, taken from his window, and are noted for their soft, Pictorialist compositions. Later depictions, first from his gallery 291 (1905-1917) and from the one that followed, An American Place (1929-1946,) embody the Modernist tenets that Stieglitz would later herald, with crisp lines and a near abstraction in form. The images from the Shelton were taken in two different phases: 1931-1932 and 1935, totaling approximately thirty different views. The images from the latter period are notable for their dedication to a single vantage point. Stieglitz authority Sarah Greenough has pointed out that the image offered in the current lot is one of four images taken in rapid succession on the same day in 1935. However, as opposed to the other three images, the one offered is notable for its sweeping cloud formations, which turns the composition from an objective architectural study to a far more nuanced and subjective degree.
Indeed, the feathery brushstrokes of the clouds echo Stieglitz’s Equivalents series (1923-1935), in which the artist presented the naturally-forming celestial abstractions as surrogates for his own personal thoughts, feelings and ideas. By then, Stieglitz was aware of the rapid change of New York, his evolving union to O’Keeffe, his declining health and his advancing age. As Greenough has noted, 'While they are representational images, they do not abandon the idea that photography could embody subjective expression. By contrasting the beauty of the skyscrapers with their unremitting growth, Stieglitz made the buildings symbolic not only of the continuous change of New York, but of change itself as a principle of all being' (Greenough, Alfred Stieglitz, p. 26). As such the image in the current lot transcends the Precisionist style that typifies Stieglitz’s other images to present a psychological meditation on mortality and the inevitable passing of time.
Three years after Stieglitz’s passing in 1946, O’Keeffe donated a major portion of his photographs, art and letters to a number of institutions. The National Gallery received a group of approximately 1,600 images, collectively referred to as the 'key set.' Aside from that collection, the print offered in this lot is the only other known print of this image.