MORE LEGEND THAN PERSON, more artist than woman, Georgia O'Keeffe stands before us "fully individuated and alone, upon a mesa." The rest of us, crowded upon gallery floors, have, like the author of this biography, stood stunned before O'Keeffe's canvases, curious about the little known creator of those powerful paintings. Until now, no one has attempted to satisfy that curiosity in a book-length biography.
Laurie Lisle determined to find out what she could. If she has not created, as her title claims, a portrait of the artist, she has documented the life of a colossus, tutoring us in the price of greatness. Men, we are told, are born to greatness, or achieve it, or have it thrust upon them. A woman of O'Keeffe's stature requires all three conditions. Her life has included nearly every possible accomplishment, landscape, prize and relationship -- except that of mother -- and she may even have encompassed that in her old age. eLisle has shown us the courage and enabled us to guess at the pain. Anyone who has ever wondered about O'Keeffe's life will find rich satisfaction in this rare account of a woman of genius who gathered greatness to her as other women gather flowers.
O'Keeffe was born into conditions that made achievement for a woman possible. Of her many sisters, all but one became professionals, but none had her gifts or determinations. They eschewed domesticity but not convention. O'Keeffe, born gifted, achieving artistry through vigor, had greatness thrust upon her by Alfred Stieglitz.
O'Keeffe's mentor, lover, husband, Stieglitz is the most easily comprehensible part of her life. We understand this: the man who loves a woman and provides her with necessary conditions to paint, to become famous. Until the recent woman's movement, no woman succeeded in the world of art unless a male relative -- father, brother, husband -- offered her the vital space and permission in which to work. Not talent, not even genius, was enough. Stieglitz was unique in having not only rare taste and rarer faith in the female vision, but the power to exhibit and sell paintings.
He stands out from other mentors of women, however, in his ability to see photographs of her declare the loved woman as object as, in the history of male art, woman has ever been. But in his recognition of her genius, in his insistence that such genius prevail, he saw her as subject: the protagonist in her own life story. He recognized from the first, and without condescension, that O'Keeffe could paint "what it is to be a woman"; he never patronized her art. Years later, women artists like Judy Chicago would recognize her as the first to have the fully human, the fully feminine vision.
O'Keeffe has been faulted for her refusal to be the mother of us all; Lisle deals fairly with this harsh problem, tempering the brutal anecdotes with understanding. She reveals that O'Keeffe was long a feminist when that was a gutsy political act; her argument, 50 years ago, with the Marxist Michael Gold about the oppression of women adumbrates the new awakening of radical women in the 1960s and beyond. But like many women whose achievement was impressive enough to be called "virile," O'Keeffe did not offer to other women the support one might have wished for.
Her life, however, has left us the model we require, if we but add to it that element we now know to be essential: the community of women. O'Keeffe knew that "the days of work are the best days." She endured her descents into the abyss, waiting for the vision to return, recognizing that one must know what one wants and pay the price. She once wrote that she was moving "more and more toward a kind of aloneness -- not because I wish it so but because there seems no other way." The sight of her at one of her shows, surrounded by proper women with their beehive hairdos, reveals her, Lisle says, as a nun. bMight one dare to claim that O'Keeffe, in her natural beauty, is revealed as a woman, the coiffured ladies as courtesans, their style dictated by men, convention, and the beauty industry?
Lisle has given us a book which allows us to ponder female greatness; she is to be commended for avoiding the customary pitfall of biographers of women: preaching about the dangers of diversion from the accepted female destiny. Lisle allows us to decide that if O'Keeffe was not always loving to other women, she lived near enough to danger to profit us all. Yet in praising Lisle, one must also regret that she should evoke an atrist "counter, original, spare, strange" (in Hopkin's lovely phrase) with prose carelessly contrived. The elegant O'Keeffe is too often described as though she were a Gothic heroine "eagerly" setting up her easel. Grateful as we are to have a biographer who has unearthed the facts, who understands the courage and clarity, we must be saddened by the undistinguished prose that conveys such sharp purpose and vision.