“My Faraway One: The Letters of Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz"
August 3, 2011 | Source: Monroe Gallery of Photography
Alfred Stieglitz attached this photograph to a letter for Georgia O'Keeffe, dated July 10, 1929. Below the photograph he wrote, "I have destroyed 300 prints to-day. And much more literature. I haven't the heart to destroy this..."
It was a relationship built on white-hot passion, nearly shattered on a fault line of freedom and creativity.
National Gallery of Art photography curator Sarah Greenough leafed through 25,000 pieces of paper exchanged by Georgia OâKeeffe and Alfred Stieglitz to produce âMy Faraway One: The Letters of Georgia OâKeeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, Volume I, 1915-1933,â (Yale University Press, 2011) an 800-page tome as big as the Chicago phone book. Despite its girth, the book represents just one-tenth of their correspondence during this period.
Greenough will be at the New Mexico Museum of Art today to talk about the book.
When Stieglitz and OâKeeffe met in 1916, he was 52 and already considered the nucleus of the New York art world. She was an unknown 28-year-old Texas art teacher.
The book traces the pairâs correspondence ââ hers in squiggles and curlicues, his in thick black lines ââ across their relationship. Stieglitz became entranced by her work when introduced to it by OâKeeffeâs friend Anita Pollitzer. The couple frequently exchanged three to four letters a day. They were sealed, at OâKeeffeâs request, for 20 years after her death.
At first, OâKeeffe comes across as a smitten schoolgirl turned giddy by the attentions of a powerful man. Stieglitz, alternately charismatic, egotistical and narcissistic, yearned for a woman artist after spending years in a miserable first marriage.
âYou can see them really starting to fall in love,â Greenough said.
Stieglitz, the man who had introduced Constantin Brancusi, Paul Cezanne, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso to the U.S., had long been searching for a great woman artist. He was convinced he had found one in OâKeeffe.
âIn the early letters, you see him just getting to know her,â Greenough said. âI think he strongly wanted to encourage her art. Yet, eventually in the correspondence, his fascination with her as a woman artist gets transferred into his fascination of her as a woman.â
By 1916, Stieglitz was writing letters that were 20 to 30 pages long.
As OâKeeffe was about to return to Texas in 1917, he wrote to her: âHow I wanted to photograph you ââ the hands ââ the mouth ââ & eyes ââ & the enveloped in black body ââ the touch of white ââ & the throat ââ but I didnât want to break into your time.â
Before OâKeeffe moved to New York in 1918, he wrote, âWhat do I want from you? ââ Sometimes I feel Iâm going stark mad ââ That I ought to say.â
âThey pretty much fell in love through their correspondence,â Greenough said.
Stieglitz found and cleaned a small studio for OâKeeffe. They began living together almost immediately and married in 1924.
By the mid-â20s, cracks start to snake through their bond. OâKeeffe desperately wanted a child; Stieglitz ââ already the father of a daughter ââ did not. She wanted to travel; he was a dedicated New Yorker. At first, the couple lived with Stieglitzâs brother and his wife. OâKeeffe later wrote that âliving with the brother and the wife had all the emotional warmth of a cold, damp cellar.â
The family also intruded on her time to paint.
âAnd she wanted to live a more independent life than Stieglitz wanted her to,â Greenough said.
Thanks in no small part to Stieglitzâs promotion, OâKeeffe became a famous artist. Restless, she made the trip that would transform both their lives.
In 1929, OâKeeffe traveled to New Mexico to visit Mabel Dodge Luhan in Taos. She discovered a vast expanse of land and light that would flood her canvas. She was surrounded by a circle of artists and intellectuals, including Tony Lujan, D.H. Lawrence and Dorothy Brett.
âThis really isnât like anything you ever saw,â she wrote to Stieglitz from Taos in 1929. âMabelâs place beats anything you can imagine about it ââ it is simply astonishing.â
The letters offer glimpses of OâKeeffeâs take on her own paintings:
âI hate the back of my Ranchos church ââ Tomorrow I must get out at it again ââ It is heavy ââ I want it to be light and lovely and singing.â
The cascading letters reveal the coupleâs contrasting writing styles. Stieglitzâs is flowing and poetic, teeming with imagery. OâKeeffe paired phrases with squiggles and loops. âItâs almost as if she was â¦ sketching out an idea.â Greenough said. âOâKeeffe is very lucid and very sharply rendered, like her paintings are distilled down to their essence.â
âNeither one of them cared about sending carefully crafted letters,â she added. âTheyâre very immediate and free-flowing.â
Greenough first met OâKeeffe through photographs ââ the sparsely iconic black-and-white images by Stieglitz, the subject of the curatorâs dissertation. Greenough organized one-man exhibitions of the acclaimed photographer at the National Gallery of Art. OâKeeffe asked Greenough to edit their correspondence. She annotated each letter with a âyesâ or a ânoâ for publication.
âWhen I met her, it was an extremely different person than the one in the photographs,â Greenough said. âShe had a very dry wit and a real twinkle in her eyes. She was definitely a strong-willed person.â
Greenough is at work on Volume II, which runs from 1934 to Stieglitzâs 1946 death.
âI think it probably wonât be nearly as long,â she said.
If you go WHAT: Sarah Greenough, author of âMy Faraway One: The Letters of Georgia OâKeeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, Volume I, 1915-1933â³
WHEN: 6 p.m. today
WHERE: St. Francis Auditorium, New Mexico Museum of Art, 107 W. Palace Ave.
Via The Albuquerque Journal
Related: NPR - Stieglitz And O'Keeffe: Their Love And Life In Letters