An Artistic Giant in Human Scale

By , April Austin is the Monitor's Home Forum page editor.

GEORGIA O'KEEFFE: A LIFE by Roxana Robinson, New York: Harper & Row, 639 pp., $25

GEORGIA O'KEEFFE: IN THE WEST

edited by Doris Bry and Nicholas Callaway, New York: Alfred A. Knopf,

Recommended: 15 best books of 2012 – nonfiction

114 pp., 98 plates, $100

DESPITE the commercialization of her work and public saturation with her images, Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986) lived a rich, full, private life, a life ahead of her time, a life captured in detail by her latest biographer, Roxana Robinson.

Georgia O'Keeffe: A Life is a nonstop journey along every downturn and upswing in O'Keeffe's private and public career, chronicled in letters to friends and family. Robinson treats her subject with a light sensibility, a clean touch, and, despite the weight of detail, with a sense of proportion. O'Keeffe is represented here not as a caricature or goddess but as a whole woman: complete with wrinkles of self-doubt, anger, exultation, remorse, hesitation, maternal instincts, and career aspirations. The artist's indomitability and rare capacity to not take herself too seriously are recurring notes throughout.

Robinson goes to great pains to show how O'Keeffe's independence, both personal and artistic, could be traced to her family's rural Wisconsin roots. She emphasizes lack of artifice, a spirit of self-reliance, and strong kinship with the land as early lessons in the O'Keeffe family.

When Georgia O'Keeffe began to paint in earnest, she was sure enough of her vision to keep herself isolated mentally from other influences, Robinson tells us. She eventually chose to study with William Merritt Chase at the Art Students League in New York during the bustling, exuberant years after World War I.

Around her swirled the currents of growing art movements, including modernism, precisionism, and Robert Henri's social realism, which depicted urban and underclass subjects. O'Keeffe kept apart from these movements, but she was not immune to their influence.

Into this world exploded the persona of Alfred Stieglitz, an art impresario and a fixture of the New York avant-garde. He was attracted first to O'Keeffe's work and thought, then to her physical presence. He and O'Keeffe, despite the 20-year difference in their ages, began a liaison that lasted to the end of Stieglitz's life. Robinson traces their relationship meticulously through letters that O'Keeffe had sealed until after her passing.

A little too much conventional '80s feminist interpretation accompanies the story of their love affair and subsequent marriage, especially the dilemma of work and self-development versus love and responsibility. Robinson seems to think, paradoxically, that O'Keeffe abandoned her artistic goals when she was emotionally involved, and yet declares that the tension between work and love was what gave O'Keeffe's art energy and power.

NO discussion of O'Keeffe can sidestep the fact that the artist flouted social conventions. Although she never became politically active on behalf of women's rights (in fact, the book describes an incident in the '70s when Gloria Steinem appeared at O'Keeffe's New Mexico house with a bouquet of flowers and the artist refused to see her), it was clear where her sympathies lay.

On every level, from the loose-fitting, androgynous clothes she favored to her determination to retain freedom inside her marriage, she outstripped her contemporaries in force of character and broadness of outlook. This, as Robinson describes it, gave O'Keeffe an aloof beauty and charisma that Stieglitz captured in his photographic portraits of her.

The O'Keeffe story contains no small amount of irony, as the book never fails to remind us. The man who launched her art career (Stieglitz) was also her toughest critic and her deepest, most enduring love. In later years, that relationship caused her to divide her time between Stieglitz in New York and painting in her cherished New Mexico. When she posed for him in the famous series of nude portraits, she ``surrendered'' her image to his camera and forever altered the way her own art would be treated, because, Robinson tells us, the public knew her so intimately from the photographs.

The biography puts forward the theory that, as a woman charting her emotional landscape in a repressive era, she was especially vulnerable to criticism from the male art establishment. She painted flowers magnified a hundred times, and chose smooth, rounded edges and ovals that gave a warm sensuality to shapes in her paintings.

Robinson explores, without exploiting, the critics' determination that O'Keeffe purposely used female sexual symbolism in her painting, a judgment that O'Keeffe found ridiculous. The author quotes a critic who admitted that, in the early days of Freudian analysis, perhaps it was the viewers who found sexual undertones in O'Keeffe's canvases; she herself denied an erotic intent.

Beyond the controversy of O'Keeffe's emotional and sexual life, Robinson is at her best when describing the artist's determined approach to her painting. There are some wonderful passages that reveal O'Keeffe's discipline and concentration. She was unafraid of hard times. Robinson explains: ``Georgia's response to unhappiness, her own or others', was always the same,... she wrote: `The vision ahead may seem a bit bleak but my feeling about life is a curious kind of triumphant feeling about - seeing it bleak - knowing it so and walking into it fearlessly because one has no choice - enjoying one's consciousness.'

``Emotion, she felt, should be used as a creative force but the work should be `colored ... by love rather than - other things': pain, rage, and hatred were not large enough emotions to use.''

The fact that Robinson has written about other members of the Stieglitz circle, artists Marsden Hartley and Arthur Dove, and is herself an art historian, aided her in pinning down the disparate elements of O'Keeffe's oeuvre. Despite some academic tendencies, Robinson has put together a lucid, highly intelligent book on a woman whose reputation rests as much on her feisty personality as it does on her painting.

FOR devotees of the painter who aren't tired of cow skulls, Georgia O'Keeffe: In the West is a handsome coffee table book, the second in a projected four-volume series on O'Keeffe's work. Compiled by Doris Bry, who for years was the artist's dealer in New York, it focuses on the red, hollow landscapes of New Mexico. It contains pages of some of her best-known images: black Penitente crosses, bleached bones, abstract skies, and fiery dark hills.

In leafing through the thick pages, it's impossible not to reflect on the simplicity and clean swipes of rich color that made up O'Keeffe's vocabulary. There is a grandeur to her work, even as swells of a wide Western sky inspire remembrance of a larger existence. Despite the current fad for things of the West, the images reproduced here signify a more personal response, of someone who felt the land from the inside out. And painted it that way.

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