Alfred Stieglitz was the most famous photographer in America, and a forceful advocate for advanced art of all kinds, when a nervous 25-year-old Paul Strand brought his photographs to Stieglitz’s influential Manhattan gallery at 291 Fifth Ave. in 1915. The work gained Strand a favored position among the acolytes dedicated to the older artist’s mission of “offering new ways to see the world.”
The Stieglitz-Strand connection was the first in the tangled weave of personal and professional ambitions anatomized in “Foursome,” Carolyn Burke’s sharp-eyed group portrait of two artistic couples.
The year after Strand arrived, Georgia O’Keeffe dispatched a roll of her charcoal sketches to 291, inspired by the gallery’s exalted atmosphere. Her swirling expressions of “a woman’s feeling” so overwhelmed Stieglitz that he put them on display without telling the artist. When she stormed in to complain, it launched a charged relationship in which O’Keeffe played multiple roles as Stieglitz’s protegee, muse, lover and — reluctantly, in 1924 — wife.
Rebecca Salsbury, who married Strand in 1922, completed the quartet. Accompanying Strand to an exhibit of Stieglitz’s scandalously intimate portraits of O’Keeffe, Salsbury saw “the kind of woman [she] hoped to become,” uninhibited and free. Vaguely “artistic” without knowing which particular art she might want to practice, she made a place for herself in the group as ever-helpful “Beck,” typing manuscripts and organizing files while earnestly striving to develop the “creative seeing” Stieglitz patronizingly claimed she lacked. Although Burke’s treatment of her four subjects is deliberately dispassionate, she does seem to empathize with Salsbury, insecure about her abilities and desperate for respect as an artist.
O’Keeffe, by contrast, would not be distracted from her drive to paint. Stieglitz liked to fill their homes with admirers and never seemed to need to be alone. O’Keeffe did: She firmly designated for herself a studio Stieglitz assumed they would share, and when the socializing made that an insufficient refuge, she left town altogether.
Burke depicts with intelligent nuance the evolution of the couple’s intertwined personal and professional connection. Their powerful sexual bond grew from Stieglitz’s inflamed response to O’Keeffe’s work as the embodiment of a new, distinctively female artistic sensibility, and he made it his business to support that work. He gave her frequent shows at his various galleries and he made sure that critics paid attention.
O’Keeffe knew she owed her sales and glowing reviews in large part to Stieglitz’s shrewd promotion. But she grew annoyed by the relentless critical focus on even her most abstract paintings as “the world as it is known to woman,” especially when Stieglitz’s nude photos of her were seen as evidence of his “love of the world.”
Burke eschews feminist outrage, preferring to quote examples of oblivious sexism with no commentary beyond such dry asides as, “One wonders what Beck thought.” She shows Salsbury and O’Keeffe determinedly navigating a male-dominated world with the tools at their disposal. Salsbury cultivated a flirtatious relationship with Stieglitz as part of her campaign to persuade the competitive older photographer to give her husband another show. During the decade of the two couples’ greatest intimacy, Stieglitz’s and Strand’s views on photography were diverging; Burke traces Strand’s growing interest in more objective, impersonal work, while Stieglitz continued to view photography as an act of personal revelation, “perhaps even a philosophy.”
Strand is the most enigmatic of the foursome. Correspondence among them is Burke’s primary source, and his letters are guarded. Flamboyant, self-dramatizing Stieglitz is the most vivid personality, though increasingly unsympathetic as he seeks to retain O’Keeffe in his smothering embrace. His hysterical reaction to her months-long stay with Salsbury in New Mexico in 1929 marked a turning point.
Although Burke dismisses speculation that the women had an affair, they certainly grew closer as they explored new horizons without their husbands. Salsbury finally found her métier in oil painting on glass, as well as a group of local friends who appreciated her as more than a helpmeet. O’Keeffe discovered the landscape she would paint for the rest of her life, which prompted long periods away from Stieglitz. Both men felt threatened. Strand wrote coldly that Salsbury was “wasting her time.” Stieglitz embarked on a manic, 18-hour tirade that prompted Strand to write to O’Keeffe, “Never have I seen such suffering.”
Matters were smoothed over for a few more years, until in 1932 Stieglitz gave Strand and Salsbury a joint exhibit with such obvious disinterest (no catalogue, no publicity) that Strand angrily turned in his keys to the gallery. Salsbury, ever placatory, continued to write to Stieglitz even after the Strands’ divorce in 1933, and she and O’Keeffe kept in touch. But what she remembered as “the warmth and understanding of the ‘old days’ ” was gone.
Burke’s coolly detached chronicle of those years prompts the thought that a lot of this warmth came from the overheated rhetoric of the early 20th-century avant-garde, and that “understanding” depended on the visionary Stieglitz receiving the total, unquestioning support of everyone around him. Volatile and needy though he was, Stieglitz set O’Keeffe, Strand and Salsbury on individual paths toward artistic fulfillment. Burke must have noticed the irony that these paths led away from him, but she does not comment on it. She’s not interested in making grand statements, preferring to focus her sharp analytical skills on explicating in rich detail the complex interactions among four vibrant people during a seminal era in American culture — a task she accomplishes in astute, lucid prose.
Wendy Smith, the author of “Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940,” is a finalist for the National Book Critics 2018 citation for excellence in reviewing.
By Carolyn Burke
Knopf. 432 pp. $30