Georgia: A Novel of Georgia O’Keefe
by Dawn Tripp
Read Jan 2, 2017
Dawn Tripp became intrigued by Georgia O’Keefe after attending a show of her abstractions held at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2009. She researched her life extensively and was able to read a large collection of letters between O’Keefe and Stieglitz, initially her mentor, then her lover, then her manager and eventually her husband, while writing this book. Tripp is clear about what she offers us—a novel inspired by the life of O’Keefe, imagining dialogue between O’Keefe and Stieglitz as well as O’Keefe’s internal dialogue. I appreciate her honesty about what she’s written and the extensive research she did to prepare. I did, however, have difficulty with the imagining of dialogue and, especially, the internal thoughts regarding their passion and details of their sexual relationship.
The book did help me substantially expand my understanding of O’Keefe’s life and art and her relationship with Stieglitz, about whom I had no knowledge beyond that he and O’Keefe were lovers and their careers were linked. Tripp wants us to better understand both the positive and negative impact he had on O’Keefe’s career.
Stieglitz enabled her to leave an unsatisfying teaching career and to fully focus on her art—she didn’t have to worry about working to support herself. One can say that the money came from sale of her art, which was true eventually but not initially. His promotion of O’Keefe was essential for the public to know anything of her art. She completely put her art in his hands from a business standpoint. I found it interesting that the first show he included her work in was done without her even knowing it. Because he has an understanding of what will sell, she gets some input on what to paint and not—some of which she follows but most of which she does not, although (I think) the art exhibited was chosen by him. Only once while Stieglitz is alive does she enter a business relationship or exhibition without his support—the commission to paint a permanent mural on the ladies room of the Radio City Music Hall. He does influence the contract eventually after much discussion between them. The project fails and she has a mental breakdown and requires hospitalization. It’s not fully clear what led to the breakdown—the failure of the project or his warning not to take the contract. Her apparent distance from the business aspects of her life and work are exemplified by the fact that following his death, 27 years pass before another major NYC show of her work.
The first major show of O’Keefe’s work that Stieglitz produced in 1923 included not only her work but a number of his photographs of her, many being nudes. This was a rare public showing of his own work; he had focused more on promoting and enabling other artists for some time. The co-exhibition permanently linked together O’Keefe and Stieglitz as more than a producer/artist. This show also established O’Keefe as a major woman artist and set up the critical view that followed her throughout her career—focused on her gender. O’Keefe rejected this interpretation of her work. She wanted her art to be considered through a genderless perspective and she wanted to be known as the greatest living artist—not the greatest living woman artist. Her focus remained on creating art and she profoundly limits interactions critics and others. She actively distances herself from feminism and the feminist leaders of her time, including Gloria Stienem who tried to visit her but was rebuffed. Such was her desire to not be seen through a gender or feminist perspective. Even in the reviews of 1946 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (which Stieglitz arranged) which he shares with her she only partly appreciates. From James Thrall Soby: “She is the greatest of living women painters….Hers is a world of bones and flowers, hills and the city….She created this world; it was not there before and there is nothing like it anywhere.” Stieglitz hears the aspect of creating a unique world but she is offended by the reference to her as a women painter. O’Keefe believed she was a great artist period and rejects the “woman artist” reference because it limited the public’s view of her.
Stieglitz make O’Keefe possible—brings her to the public eye and finds financial support for her (eventually from the sale of her work) so that she can fully devote herself to her art. But Stieglitz also hurts O’Keefe. Stieglitz clearly loves O’Keefe but also enjoys adoration from young women, O’Keefe being one of these early in their own relationship. O’Keefe never forgives Stieglitz’s affairs, especially the one with Mrs. Norman who becomes an administrative assistant for Stieglitz and the studio and whom O’Keefe dismisses after Stieglitz’s death. Stieglitz denies O’Keefe a child, possibly because he understands, although she doesn’t at the time, that O’Keefe does and always would place art first and foremost in her life. There was space for Stieglitz in that obsession with art at least initially as O’Keefe’s obsession with art and with Stieglitz were blurred together for some time. They remain married and business partners through Stieglitz’s affairs but they spend less and less time together, especially once O’Keefe discovers the west and her love for it. She slowly disengages from Stieglitz as she spends increasingly more time in New Mexico. Tripp notes that O’Keefe can pinpoint a moment that her life became wholly hers “more mine than it ever was before because I will never again let it be anything less”.
According to Tripp, O’Keefe wonders about what her art would have become if she had not met him and the obsession between them had not begun. In particular she wonders what direction she would have gone with her early abstract forms which she generally chose not to exhibit to avoid their interpretation through a gender view. In the opening chapter of the book O’Keefe recalls that even while a poor school teacher she was “driven only by a singular, relentless passion for my art”.
Tripp introduces us to O’Keefe and Stieglitz, the results of their mutual obsession, the importance of O’Keefe in art history, the range of her work beyond the well-known flower paintings (only about 10% of her portfolio) and opens the question of what might have been in the absence of the meeting of O’Keefe and Stieglitz and subsequent mutual obsession. I appreciate that Tripp has enabled me to know more about O’Keefe than I would have otherwise. To do it, however, required a willingness to accept Tripp’s imaginings of dialog and internal thinking which remains somewhat problematic for this reader.