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Tony Bannon Reviews My Faraway One, Selected Letters of Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, Volume One

Friday, March 29, 2013

O’Keeffe-Stieglitz letters paint vivid portrait of an era By Anthony Bannon in The Buffalo News

Far away – nearly a century, now – yet with the bloom and passion of the day before yesterday, this extraordinary collection of letters presents an archaeology of love during a halcyon time, a rare glimpse into the lives of a legendary couple and the cultural heroes they touched.

Maybe Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, perhaps Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner, provided the tempest and talent of O’Keeffe and Stieglitz. But not many others.

Stieglitz was 52 and at the height of his career – an international player as artist and cultural kingmaker. O’Keeffe was 28, a farm girl from Sun Prairie, Wis., teaching art in a Texas high school, still at her studies and totally an unknown. She hoped Stieglitz might look at her drawings. Her first letter is a fluttery request for a subscription to the magazine, “Camera Work,” which Stieglitz published out of his New York gallery, called 291, after its street number on Fifth Avenue.

It didn’t take them long.

Stieglitz was married, but he had a rakish manner, an incisive wit, and an eye for young women. O’Keeffe, as the world knows from Stieglitz’s later nude photo studies, was quite the beauty. It wouldn’t take the world – and Stieglitz – long to know that she also commanded a decisive presence as an artist and intellect.

Their lives and accomplishments, so worthy of fascination, are only magnified by their lives together. Wise, foolish, poetic and sexy, these letters trace in the blush of their own words the negotiation of three decades together, from her first flirtations in 1915 until Stieglitz’s death in 1946.

Moreover, the letters reveal the idylls that they lived – the cascade of encounters with the giants around them, the wild impulses and heady ideas of times that marched from the first into the second war, through remarkable changes in art, and, somehow, through the Great Depression.

These are dazzling characters:

O’Keeffe writing just four months before the Crash of 1929, securely in Mabel Dodge Luhan’s famed gathering place in Taos, lying in a hammock, watching the artist John Marin digging for worms, “just suspended in heat,” with the photographer Lewis Callaghan, dressed all in white, “swinging in … funny spoiled boy – I finally sent him off with Marin – and went hunting for Beck,” who was photographer Paul Strand’s wife.

(Paul Strand was at Lake George with Stieglitz, who wouldn’t venture from his family house.)

“Well, we [O’Keeffe and Mrs. Strand] finally landed out in the Pueblo again – for an Indian corn dance … the simple Pueblo village – all of mud – against as perfect a mountain as once could imagine – and the dancing … everyone in colors of such rich saturated pigment – much black - much long straight black hair – the brilliant sun and blue sky – It went on and on … the monotony of it - the brilliancy of the color – the live eyes …”

It is the writing of an artist, whose words rehearse a painting, and, ultimately, a life’s practice in the Southwest.

In that summer exchange of 1929, Stieglitz, now 65 years old, whines from Lake George about his exhaustion, sleepless without O’Keeffe, and he effuses, “my mind full of you and me – our togetherness …” He recalls that 11 years to the day have passed since they first kissed, and since then “all the days & hours & moments of ecstasy & pain – the growth – of something very exceptional & very beautiful between us…all the wonder & beauty & life - & all the terrible ordeal … Yes Sweetestheart … the whole evolution of US!”

O’Keeffe waits until near the end of her own ecstasy from New Mexico to acknowledge Stieglitz’s romance – “And then I thought of you and your letter of last night …”

She then noted she told the assembly that night at the Luhan dinner table that his “was a real man’s letter – I may read it to them – it is so beautiful.”

Mabel Ganson Evans Dodge Sterne Luhan was a Buffalo native, wife at 21 in 1900 of Karl Evans, son of a steamship owner. Mabel later married several others from the art world, before marrying in 1923 Tony Lujan, a Pueblo native, with whom she remained until her death in 1962. Her homes in Florence and New York City and Taos – particularly Taos – became salons for painters, writers, photographer, mystics and eccentrics. She was the Gertrude Stein of America, some said.

Unquenchably social yet acerbic, she made friends and lost them in the swirl of her insults and intrigues. Fascinating people would show up at her place, a youthful Ansel Adams, for instance – “a blooming young man,” O’Keeffe reported. O’Keeffe spent two summers with Mabel, sharing the sunshine and big sky along with confidences about their marriages and enthusiasms about art.

In that first summer of 1929 Mabel returned to Buffalo for a hysterectomy. Georgia stayed at the estate in Taos and counseled Mabel by mail about her jealousies over her handsome and charming husband. After two seasons, O’Keeffe grew impatient, tired of the pettiness, including her own veniality in piquing Mabel. She later saw Mabel in New York, but never returned to stay in her home.

“My Faraway One” has been a 20-year project of Sarah Greenough, the senior curator and head of photography at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, who was handpicked by O’Keeffe to select these 500 letters from the more than 25,000 in the Beinecke Library at Yale University.

Greenough gently sits on the reader’s shoulder, annotating with grace and scholarship, and selecting with a sensitivity to the thread of conversation that courses through the editor’s self-declared priorities: “… the evolution of the art and ideas; their relationships with many of the most influential cultural figures of their time …; the impact of larger social, cultural and historic events on their daily lives; and the character of both the vibrant New York world of art and culture that was critical to Stieglitz and the rural life in Texas and New Mexico that enriched O’Keeffe.”

The letters are divided into three chronological sections, each with a contextualizing text. A biographical dictionary provides the cast list of the notables the two engaged: Artists Dove, Demuth, Duchamp, Hartley, Marin, Picasso, Rivera, for instance; Frank Lloyd Wright, Duncan Phillips and D.H. Lawrence, to mention only a few of the repeat performers. Generously indexed, the volumes can be read according to interests. One only wished for color reproductions, the equal to the reproduction of their words.

It is easy to get swept away, and not withstanding the heft of 832 pages, it is difficult to put down. Once down, a drive to George Eastman House in Rochester will afford the archive of one of the five key collections of Stieglitz work, the most significant of those donated by O’Keeffe with prescient instructions for preservation to The House, the National Gallery, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art and the Boston Museum of Fine Art. Eastman House lists nearly 200 photographs, including autochromes, gravures and lantern slides; four cameras; complete publications, and correspondence, notably between Stieglitz and George Eastman.

My Faraway One, Selected Letters of Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, Volume One Edited by Sarah Greenough, Yale University Press, 832 pages, $39.95

Anthony Bannon, director of the Burchfield Penney Art Center, is a former News Arts Critic and the former director of Rochester’s Eastman House.