The elusive Georgia O'Keeffe; Portrait of an Artist: A Biography of Georgia O'Keeffe, by Laurie Lisle. New York: Seaview Books. $14.95.
As the subject of biography, Georgia O'Keeffe evinces the same paradoxical qualities as her famous flower canvasses, those luminously enlarged blooms silently shimmering in space. While seemingly open as images, there is a persistently elusive, even hermetic quality to them, a visual taunting whereby their size mocks the minuteness of any meaning we ascribe to them. O'Keeffe's own life sustains this paradox: the larger her blossoming as an artist, the less she allowed herself labelled.
Throughout her career, O'Keeffe has consciously perpetuated this paradox. With the exception of PBS's fine documentary aired on her 90th birthday, O'Keeffe has systematically shuned interviews, spurned critics, and sequestered herself from admirers who make pilgrimages to her home in Abiquiu, New Mexico. Her attitude towards adulation is ruefully summed up by the photograph she selected for her 1976 "autobiography." It shows the artist with her back to the world.
To atempt the first full-lenght biography of this great, if difficult, artist is a formidable challenge, which, on balance, Laurie Lisle has responded to with resilience and resourcefulness. A former Newsweek journalist, Lisle spent three years researching O'Keeffe's life and interviewing anyone remotely connected with it.
While the thoroughness of Lisle's research is the biography's strong point, O'keeffe's blank refusal to participate in the project has handicapped it somewhat. Forced to rely on O'Keeffe's written words, thus often rephrasing well-known material, Lisle is left to conjecture where none exists. Most notably, for example, when imagining O'Keeffe's childhood. Here the narrative is pocked with "perhaps," "apparently," and "probably."
However inconvenient O'Keeffe's silence has been for her biographer, Lisle has unearthed enough materal from other sources to fashion a remarkably composite portrait. What emerges is a woman as starkly original as her work. Most surprising, perhaps, is that the qualities one so associates with the later O'Keeffe -- the fierce artistic and personal independence, the stringent resolve of will, the aggressive attempts at solitude -- are evident very early on.
These traits, as Lisle notes, had their roots in O'Keeffe's childhood in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. Certainly much was garnered here. From her Irish-Hungarian ancestors who settled the Wisconsin wilderness, she inherited the stubborn habit of survival. From her family's 400-acre farm she learned that invaluable inner resource: work. These rural roots, which indelibly shaped her imagintion, acted as a lifelong emotiaonal and artistic ballast.
"As the solitary hours nurtured her imagintions," Lisle writes, "they also strengthened her natural inclination to have things her own way." Indeed, the rigor of O'Keeffe's self-confidence owes much to the largely unselfconscious atmosphere that nurtured and sanctioned it. Her later tenacity of vision and will stems from the fact that by an early age painting privacy and place had become inextricably linked in her creative imagination.
Any biography of O'Keeffe is inevitably a study of the creative process itself. Lisle has wisely chosen this as her focus. In intricate detail, we learn O'Keeffe's work habits, her influences, her inspiration. Lisle traces the perapatetic art training; the seminal years in Texas where O'Keeffe abandoned traditional methods of painting for her own more intuitive style; the evolution of that style: the austere lyricism, the conflagration of color, the subtle abstractions of organic form.
While Lisle has written a sensitive account of the relationship between O'Keeffe and her mentor-husband, Alfred Stieglitz, she has concentrated on their creative influence on one another. On this level alone, their's is surely one of the most remarkable of partnerships. Nowhere is it better symbolized than in Stieglitz's "composite" portrait of O'Keeffe. Taken between 1917 and 1938, this visual love letter consists of 500 images.
Lisle, however, doesn't shy away from the more human elements to this relationship: The impact of O'Keeffe's fame as it eclipsed stieglitz's; their gradual role reversal; her decision to spend her summers painting alone in New Mexico; the tangle of wills over her exhibiting anywhere but his gallery. (Lisle astutely observers how these events are mirrored in Stieglitz's portrait of his wife.)
While in obvious sympathy with her subject, Lisle is honest enough to illuminate O'Keeffe's darker sides: the wanton willfulness, the caustic tongue, the jealousy of other painters, the indifference to feminist artists ("Less complaining, more work"). This O'Keeffe will shock as much as amuse, chill as much as inspire. And if ultimately she eludes hard and fast definition, we can thank Laurie Lisle for getting us a bit closer to this legendary artist.