In 1973 Georgia O’Keeffe accepted a young poet’s help organizing her library at her house in Abiquiu, New Mexico. For seven years, C.S. Merrill spent her weekends with the great painter, who was in her eighties, cranky, and nearly blind, but still a formidable figure, attracting acolytes and interviewers and painting with help from assistants. The younger woman rarely asked questions—“if I wanted to last there,” she was advised, “I must consider it like a medieval court and keep a very formal relationship with Miss O’Keeffe”—but sometimes O’Keeffe would reminisce about her artistic beginnings in New York. She confided that the years before her success “were the best of her career because she was surrounded by people who didn’t care. She was free.” One day, O’Keeffe surprised Merrill by opening a desk drawer to show her a photograph—one of the famous early nude portraits of her by Alfred Stieglitz, when she was “young and in love,” Merrill comments. They were the start of an unparalleled serial portrait of more than three hundred images, made over two decades.
Two recent books examine the lives of Stieglitz and O’Keeffe and their astonishingly productive marriage. Carolyn Burke’s group biography, Foursome, explores the friendship and mutual influence between two creative couples: Stieglitz and O’Keeffe, and the photographer Paul Strand and his first wife, the painter Rebecca Salsbury. At its most intense, in the 1920s, their friendship was charged with excitement and aesthetic inspiration. But it degenerated into a Pinteresque drama of complications, betrayals, and rebuffs, with some surprising third-act reversals. While Burke has four narrative threads to weave—and does so with dexterity—Phyllis Rose, in Alfred Stieglitz: Taking Pictures, Making Painters, has only one, to which she brings her characteristic wit and vivacity, offering a fascinating counterpoint to Foursome.
Stieglitz has no real heir in contemporary American culture. No single figure leads the avant-garde—whatever that is now—with his fervor and authority. A dynamo who energized two generations of art and photography enthusiasts, he brought legitimacy and prestige to American art in its own country, and gave many of the giants of European modernism—including Picasso, Brancusi, and Matisse—their first exhibitions in the US. One artist described Stieglitz’s gallery as “an oasis in the desert of American ideas.”
The novelty in Foursome is seeing Stieglitz always in relationship, rather than embattled and alone, as he has sometimes been depicted, thrashing through a thicket of mostly forgotten conservatives and philistines in the New York art world. He gathered followers—most notably, in the early years, the photographer Edward Steichen, whom he heavily promoted—but often drove them away. Steichen and Stieglitz clashed during World War I, when Steichen argued that Stieglitz’s gallery must take a stand politically against Germany, while…
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