291 was an arts and literary magazine that was published from 1915 to 1916 in New York City. It was created and published by a group of four individuals: photographer/modern art promoter Alfred Stieglitz, artist Marius de Zayas, art collector/journalist/poet Agnes E. Meyer and photographer/critic/arts patron Paul Haviland. Initially intended as a way to bring attention to Stieglitz’s gallery of the same name (291), it soon became a work of art in itself. The magazine published original art work, essays, poems and commentaries by Francis Picabia, John Marin, Max Jacob, Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes, de Zayas, Stieglitz and other avant-garde artists and writers of the time, and it is credited with being the publication that introduced visual poetry to the United States.
Alfred Stieglitz was one of the most active arts promoters in the world in the early 1910s. He was already famous for his own photography, he published the well-known magazine Camera Work and he ran the progressive art gallery 291 in New York. After the Armory Show in 1913, a trio of artists and supporters (de Zayas, Meyer and Haviland) gathered around Stieglitz at his gallery, encouraged by his recent interest in promoting other art forms in addition to photography. In January 1915 they proposed the idea of starting a new magazine that would showcase the most avant-garde art of Europe and the U.S., and at the same time bring attention to Stieglitz’s gallery. They named the new magazine after the gallery, and with Stieglitz’s blessing the four of them began working on the first issue.
Compared with his other publications, Stieglitz was fairly detached from the project. He later said, “I was more or less an onlooker, a conscious one, wishing to see what they would do so far as policy was concerned if left to themselves.” Nonetheless, Stieglitz was not one to sit idly aside while something went on around him. He helped set the tone and direction of the magazine, beginning with its design and production.
Wanting to live up to the high standards set in Camera Work, Stieglitz and his colleagues decided to publish two editions of the magazine: a standard subscription printed on heavy white paper and a deluxe edition, limited to 100 copies, printed on Japanese vellum. Both were published in a large folio format (20″ x 12″/50.8 cm x 30.5 cm).
Each issue contained just four to six pages, sometimes hinged together to provide a fold-out spread, and there were no advertisements. Due to its size and cutting edge presentation, it had the look and feel of a work of art itself, not a magazine about art. It has been called a “proto-Dadaist statement” in part because much of the content was in the form of visual poetry, a literary and design format attributed to Picabia’s friend the French surrealist Guillaume Apollinaire. The design and layout was inspired by the second series of the magazine Les Soirées de Paris, edited in France by Apollinaire, and it was de Zayas who brought the concepts from the French magazine and put them into place in the new magazine. Because of these influences art historian William Innes Homer has said “In design and content, there was no periodical in America more advanced than 291.
A regular subscription initially cost ten cents per issue or one dollar a year; the deluxe edition cost five times as much. Little attempt was made to attract subscribers, and no more than one hundred signed up for the regular edition. There were only eight known subscribers to the deluxe edition.
Stieglitz had 500 extra copies printed of Issue No. 7–8, which featured his photograph The Steerage. Because it had recently been published for the first time and attracted very positive comments, he anticipated a huge demand for the image. The demand did not materialize, and none of the additional copies was sold.
Only twelve numbers of 291 were published, but three of them were double numbers so just nine actual issues were printed. It never attracted a wide audience, and the high costs of production became too much to sustain. Stieglitz had hundreds of unsold copies at his gallery when he closed it in 1917; he sold all of them to a rag picker for $5.80. In 1917, Francis Picabia founded the magazine 391 in Barcelona, the title inspired by 291.
All issues are highly valued now, and a complete set of the original issues is very rare. One of the complete sets is in the collection of the U.S. Library of Congress in Washington, DC (LC Control No 00204566). A bound reprint edition was published by the Arno Press in 1972 (ISSN 1054-7193) and may be found in large university and public libraries.