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An Artistic Giant in Human Scale

By April AustinApril Austin is the Monitor's Home Forum page editor. / January 3, 1990

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

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

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.