The Art and Life of Georgia O'Keeffe
By Hunter Drohojowska-Philp. Norton. 630 pp. $35
From a publisher's perspective, some biographical subjects seem to approach the inexhaustible. As I write this review, I can see on my shelves several books each about Fitzgerald, Hemingway, JFK, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and Frida Kahlo, most published within a decade of one another. Is Georgia O'Keeffe destined to join this company? Is she already there? For a woman who wanted her admirers to focus on her art, not her life, her personal story is simply too striking (and too pertinent to modern gender politics) to be ignored.
Laurie Lisle led the way with her appreciative portrait of the artist in 1980; Roxana Robinson took another step forward with her more critical full-length biography in 1989; and, in 1991, Benita Eisler brought O'Keeffe's relationship with photographer and art dealer Alfred Stieglitz to a mythologizing height in O'Keeffe and Stieglitz: An American Romance. In between and after these capable writers, dozens of monographs, biographical studies and catalogue essays have explored every aspect of O'Keeffe's life, including her formative experiences in Texas, her relation to New York modernism, her ties to Stieglitz and the other men in their circle, her feminism, her anti-feminism, her New Mexico years. It could be argued, though, that all this disparate material needed to be synthesized to provide a vivid account based on newly available papers and interviews with contemporaries who had been less than forthcoming when she was alive. Lengthy, balanced and serious as it is, I am not sure Hunter Drohojowska-Philp's book is quite that.
The outlines of the story are well-known. Born in Wisconsin in 1887 to an aloof mother and a likable but emotionally unsupportive father, Georgia O'Keeffe was raised in the heartland and in Virginia. Her childhood seems to have been neither brutally deprived nor overly loving. ("I was not a favorite child," she once commented.) Moving to New York to study art when she was 20 was a pivotal decision. Between the new work she absorbed in Manhattan's more advanced galleries and her fascination with the landscape of the Southwest, acquired when she worked as a teacher in Texas from 1916 to 1918, she was as psychologically and professionally prepared to let go of the past and enter an uncharted future as any artist of her generation.
For many of us, the early watercolors and forays into color abstraction are among her most striking, original creations. Later, her precisionist city scenes, floral paintings and New Mexico landscapes achieved a tenuous but intriguing balance between representational and modernist principles, and many have become iconic images in American art. Until her death at 99, O'Keeffe remained the kind of painter she always wanted to be -- unaffiliated with any particular movement, a rare combination of severe and lyrical -- and the kind of artist mid-century America craved, a female celebrity with a tough-minded attitude about her power and persona.
Those ends were not achieved with ease. Her evolution, as Full Bloom makes clear, was a matter of fits and starts, of uncertain yearnings and a healthy crankiness about being told who and what she must be. Not surprisingly, then, some of the most engrossing parts of this book are early chapters that give us Georgia O'Keeffe before she became "Georgia O'Keeffe." Too many biographies of major artists imply an implausible greatness and unvarying progress from earliest adulthood, but that isn't a trap Drohojowska-Philp falls into.
O'Keeffe was also blessed with abundant good luck, especially in her relationships with male mentors. She studied under Arthur Wesley Dow, who urged his students to move beyond the narrow ideas about art and academic realism that dominated American life before World War I. She became involved with the avant-garde photographer Paul Strand, whose work influenced her thinking about abstraction, and -- most importantly -- with Stieglitz, who, as the most important art dealer of the day, launched her career and made possible her fame and spectacular sales. Her last, infirm years in rural New Mexico would have been much more trying had it not been for the attentions of Juan Hamilton, a companion 60 years her junior. Fiercely independent she might have been, but without these men, O'Keeffe's life would have taken a very different course.
Yet her relationships with men, especially the much-older Stieglitz, whom she married, were tumultuous. Drohojowska-Philp provides a full, absorbing account of a union marked both by affection and manipulation. Neither Stieglitz nor O'Keeffe, emotionally needy and art-obsessed, would have had much use for a conventional spouse, but neither were they able to sustain their own, less traditional commitment. For O'Keeffe their bond turned out to be a kind of Faustian bargain. She began her life with the already-married Stieglitz as "the other woman" and, once she was established as a cultural force in her own right, was in turn relegated by him to the humiliating position of betrayed wife -- within a few years of their wedding.
The author's access to the late Dorothy Norman, the married woman 40 years his junior whom Stieglitz became involved with in the 1920s until his death in 1946, was crucial in her examination of this aspect of O'Keeffe's life. For decades the wealthy and controlling Norman honed her own public image in Manhattan circles as an acolyte to a great seer, but the true picture is a little less genteel. In her need to worship at the feet of a great male ego, she seems to have been a woman of her time and class, directionless and breathlessly romantic. In her speculations to Drohojowska-Philp about O'Keeffe as a lesbian, she also comes across as robustly catty. No wonder O'Keeffe came to scorn the New York art world.
Of course, O'Keeffe was not a likable person either, to put it mildly. Her rudeness and self-absorption knew no bounds. This fact shouldn't influence how we evaluate her art (my own view is that she is a fine but limited and far from great painter) and should be equally irrelevant to her worth as a biographical subject. One problem, though, is that she wasn't always unlikable in particularly interesting ways. Chronicling every snub, every arrogant gesture, every vindictive remark is a risky approach for any biographer, and we get an enormous amount of that flattening, numbing information in Full Bloom.
Sometimes O'Keeffe's famously difficult temperament had less to do with ego and more to do with respect for her art and those who came to see it. Drohojowska-Philp describes the artist's 1966 trip to the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth to attend an exhibition of her work. Dismayed by the potted pine trees in the galleries and the glare on the glass that covered one of her best paintings, she took matters into her own hands when the curators proved unhelpful, talked her way past the guards before the museum opened the next morning, and got rid of the pines and the glass. I wouldn't describe these acts as "willful demonstrations" so much as a gutsy statement of passion and sound priorities.
The more serious problem with Full Bloom, however, is its polite "Just the facts, ma'am" quality. Drohojowska-Philp's skills as a researcher and an organizer of her extensive material are never in question. There is an admirable crispness to her prose, and she offers sound commentaries on pictures, events and relationships. Yet memorable portraiture, narrative momentum and a distinctive authorial voice -- crucial skills needed to raise a biography to the level of craft we expect from a novel or an essay -- are just not her strong points. The people we meet in this book are a remarkable and eccentric lot by anybody's standards, but she often renders them through accumulations of facts and plausible quotations. She dutifully notes pain, expectation and delight but never truly evokes them.
The book ends with a terseness O'Keeffe might have appreciated (or demanded, if she had any say in the matter), but it isn't appropriate to an immersion in a life we are meant to take as extraordinary, whose end should move us. The ashes are scattered, the estate is settled, the foundation is off and running, but where is the sense that the world is a lesser place without this woman in it? Death on the page should leave an ache. The reader's need for that kind of feeling isn't about cheap emotion or pandering to a tired myth. It's simply about gratitude for a life of struggle, originality and significant accomplishment. *
John Loughery is the author of "John Sloan: Painter and Rebel."