It is tempting to imagine Stieglitz as Pygmalion, with O’Keeffe groomed and marketed until her work sold for sufficiently high prices to make her, according to Barbara Buhler Lynes, “a millionaire in today’s dollars” by 1929. And yet, as one reads the letters and considers the shifting shapes of these complicated careers, one has the impression that it was Stieglitz, past fifty when they first met, who experienced the greater awakening. He felt a renewed sense of purpose in his self-consciously American gallery; at the same time, he rededicated himself to photography, embarking on an ambitious project of photographing cloud formations reminiscent of Constable’s studies. These he named “Equivalents,” suggesting that he was finding sublime metaphors in the sky. On one occasion, he bragged to the poet Hart Crane, with his customary grandiosity, that he had “photographed God.”
In a parallel undertaking, Stieglitz began to compile the series of over three hundred photographic images that comprised his “Portrait of O’Keeffe.” He photographed every part of her body, nude and variously clothed. In one intriguing letter, a meditation on an artist’s relation to her own hands, she tried to make sense of her hand holding one of Stieglitz’s photographs of her hand:
I wondered at my hand—my left one as I saw it on the last printed page of the last book—and my mind wandered to the prints of my hands—I moved to get up to look for them—No—The other hand reached for the book…. So I sat looking at the hand—then at them both—I’ve looked at them often today—they have looked so white and smooth and wonderful—I’ve wondered if they were really mine—
The cloud studies and the portraits intersected when Stieglitz titled a dramatic convolution of clouds, resembling a torso with open legs, Portrait of Georgia.
As Stieglitz’s art moved toward abstraction, in the photographs of clouds and trees at his summer house on Lake George, O’Keeffe’s work moved in the opposite direction. From the radical abstraction of her charcoal drawings, she increasingly painted motifs grounded in the actual world, first flowers, then waves, shells, and other subjects from her visits to the Maine coast. A primary reason for this shift seems to have been her mounting dismay at how her work was interpreted by critics. Prompted by Stieglitz’s public statements about how “the Woman receives the World through her Womb,” gallerygoers were encouraged to find in O’Keeffe’s abstractions imagery of the womb and erotic longing. The artist Marsden Hartley thought he saw in her work “the world of a woman turned inside out” while the critic Paul Rosenfeld wrote, “The organs that differentiate the sex speak.”
O’Keeffe didn’t recognize her intentions in these hothouse responses. She complained bitterly to Sherwood Anderson in 1924:
My work this year is very much on the ground—There will be only two abstract things—or three at the most—all the rest is objective—as objective as I can make it…. I suppose the reason I got down to an effort to be objective is that I didn’t like the interpretations of my other things.
She looked for ways, via titles and explanations, to tether her more abstract work to the real world, asserting some control on how her paintings were understood. She painted flowers in series, where viewers could see increasingly abstract phases of the same subject, as in the remarkable Jack-in-the-Pulpit suite of 1930. Black Abstraction (1927), an unsettling painting of a tiny white pearl of light poised on an oblique angle within black and gray concentric circles was, she explained, based on a memory of coming out of anesthesia.
One might have thought that Stieglitz, with his cosmopolitan education and wide reading, would have produced more absorbing letters, but the reader is confronted on almost every page with his abstract pomposity. “I wondered what kind of a child you’d bear the world some day!” he writes O’Keeffe, “—The Glory of Dawn & the Glory of the Night—& the Glory of the Noon Sun—all combined—within that Womb of Yours.” He complains incessantly about the lousy commercial paper he’s forced to work with and the mediocre film. Laments about his declining health, his aging, and his inadequate medications are eased by momentary sexual distraction. A reader of D.H. Lawrence, he affectionately refers to O’Keeffe’s vagina as Lady Fluffy.
O’Keeffe’s letters, by contrast, are alert to the physical world, to the power of words, and to punctuation. Pages of manuscript reproduced in these books reveal that her dashes, like Emily Dickinson’s, assume all sorts of shapes, from squiggles to playful curlicues to abrupt downward slopes. These expressive dashes recall her charcoal drawings. Often, a passage in the letters will strike one as having a visual analogy to her paintings. She describes, for example, the experience of holding a piece of ritual jade in her hand during a visit to the Asian collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in 1922. Here we can see her instinctual resistance to interpretation yielding to what she feels is an appropriate chain of associations prompted by a suggestive object:
I handled pieces of Jade—They told me it was Jade—I would not have thought what it might be—I only knew that the surfaces were fine and smooth and cold…the pleasure in the thing its self is some what dulled when you begin to wonder how that particular shape can symbolize the earth and that idea seems to take away from the pleasure one feels—just in the thing its self—So—looking up—a row of round shapes catches ones eye—round—flat—and a round hole in the center—the circle serves to fascinate—you take it in your hand…you are told that these symbolize heaven—that idea does not disturb—for the sun seems round—if you have ever stood on the prairie at night—alone and put your head way back till you look straight up so that you half way see all the horizon at once—a circle unbroken by trees or hills or houses—the heavens seem a marvelously round trembling living thing—you would like to go deep into the colors of these round shapes and be lost….
Two departures punctuated O’Keeffe’s life with Stieglitz. She left the Southwest in 1918, accepting his financial support to free her from teaching, and began living with him after he separated from his wife. In 1929, she returned to the Southwest for an extended stay in part to get away from him. One might think that their ten years together followed a scenario from Ibsen’s A Doll’s House: the patriarchal husband who stifles his wife’s self-development. But this isn’t quite the story that the letters reveal. Stieglitz was many things to O’Keeffe: teacher, financial supporter, promoter, lover, artistic collaborator. She served in return as the stand-out American artist of his circle, but also as his mistress and nurse. The nursing seems to have particularly grated on her. She told Sherwood Anderson that Stieglitz was “just a heap of misery—sleepless—with eyes—ears—nose—arm—feet—ankles—intestines—all taking their turn at deviling him.”
She soon realized that their open marriage meant different things to the two of them. “The difference in us,” she wrote from New Mexico in 1934, “is that when I felt myself attracted to some one else I realized I must make a choice—and I made it in your favor…. You seemed to feel there was no need to make a choice.” While she enjoyed the admiration of independent men like Tony Lujan, an American Indian married to Mabel Dodge, and the mountain men she encountered while hiking in the high country of Colorado, Stieglitz had a taste for young women in vulnerable positions: the family cook, for example, and the young daughters of friends who posed for his camera. As tensions mounted with O’Keeffe, he began a serious relationship with a younger woman, the poet and photographer Dorothy Norman. In February 1932, he exhibited photographs of Norman nude, as though announcing their affair. “I feel like a battlefield terribly torn and dug up,” O’Keeffe wrote.
It’s easy to blame Stieglitz for being, at best, an indifferent husband. He made little effort to defend his behavior. But his candidness made it easier for O’Keeffe to strike out on her own. In this sense, he freed her, however painfully and cruelly. “I am very grateful to you for all of it,” she wrote in 1929, adding that her experience with him made it “very difficult” for people “to touch any place in me that hurts.” He had taken her heart, she told him, “and at the same time left it for me in a usable form.” Out West, where Stieglitz tactfully never followed her, O’Keeffe learned to drive the motorcars he hated. She achieved what the art historian Anne Middleton Wagner calls her “purposeful reinvention as O’Keeffe the resolute desert elder, an apparently indomitable character who has moved beyond the mere trivialities of age and sex.”
O’Keeffe’s letters from New Mexico are exultant. She explored the canyons and arroyos, learning what she could, under Lujan’s guidance, of the native people. Her great paintings of skulls and other desert detritus—“bones and rocks and sticks and flowers and feathers”—date from these years. She was bringing dead things to life, both herself and the objects that came her way. Her skulls are not memento mori but resurrections. Instead of painting the skyscrapers of New York as though they were pueblo cliff-dwellings or giant kachina dolls, as she had during the 1920s, she painted the real thing. If there was an element of kitsch in some of these pictures, it was a risk she was willing to run. O’Keeffe recalls the heroines of Willa Cather’s novels, with their openness to the sublime experiences of the West.
One can see Stieglitz’s sharply diminishing place in her life—as she herself might have memorialized it in one of her abstract paintings—in a remarkable letter from the summer of 1928, as the train she is on pulls out of the station in Lake George where they had shared a house, and Stieglitz is left behind:
A little black triangle made by your cape—disappearing into the white triangle of the station pillars—then your black triangle again disappearing into the darker black shape of the station door—your head just a tiny white dot at the top of your own black triangle—your hand a moving waving thing—the disjointed part of the straight shapes—
Then we went around the bend and you were gone—
A Tumor for Mr. Mutt? March 22, 2012