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Jottings

Was Georgia O'Keeffe a Feminist?

As O'Keeffe's first biographer and the author of Portrait of an Artist: A Biography of Georgia O'Keeffe, it's been fascinating me to read the latest biographies and other books about this legendary American artist published during the past four decades.

The latest is Linda Grasso's Equal Under the Sky: Georgia O'Keeffe and 20th Century Feminism. Our challenges could not be more different. Forty years ago, I had to rely on my abilities as a journalist, and knowledge of libel law, because ninety-year-old O'Keeffe wasn't about to encourage a young girl she hadn't anointed to tell her life story.

I was able to interview those who knew O'Keeffe--fellow artists, friends, in-laws, sisters, and students--before their deaths. It was exciting to be the first to find revealing letters, early photographs, and tell her story. But in retrospect, I was handicapped by working at a time before email and the internet on a clunky old Royal manual typewriter.

Professor Grasso's challenge has been to synthesize and interpret the voluminous amount of material, including the two-volume catalog raisonne and thousand of letters, published since I wrote my biography.

She has focused on one of the most interesting aspects of the artist's life: her feminism. She analyzes its influence on the youthful O'Keeffe and the older O'Keeffe's rejection of it, while giving readers an impressive study.  Read More 
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O'Keeffe's Style: Integral to her Aesthetic

I took a drive to Brooklyn the other day to see the fascinating O'Keeffe style show at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. It had plenty of the artist's paintings and photographs of her, along with lots of her clothing.

As I left, the question on my mind was--did she dress for herself or for others?

I concluded that it was mainly to please herself. Long before her husband Alfred Stieglitz photographed her, and made her more aware of her image, she stitched and wore blouses, coats, and hats in an original way, with an eye to good design and for fine fabrics.

My other question was about the relationship between the aesthetics of dressing and the aesthetics when using pigment or words.

I decided that O'Keeffe's impulse to fill space in a beautiful way necessitated a simplified and handsome wardrobe. And using words with an awareness of balance and beauty demands getting dressed with the same awareness. My writing uniform consists of comfortable knits in solid colors, and when I go out adding the right necklace, a belt, or a scarf gives me the same feeling as constructing a solid paragraph or finding the perfect words.  Read More 
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Balancing Isolation and Involvement

Last week I dipped into my biography of Georgia O'Keeffe, Portrait of an Artist, for the first time in three decades because psychoanalyst Gail Saltz asked me to talk about the painter in her "Psychobiography" series of extraordinary people at the 92 Street Y in New York.

One of Dr. Saltz's interests is the relationship between creativity and mental illness, so we talked a little about O'Keeffe's debilitating depression in her forties, when she stopped painting for two years. She wanted to paint in New Mexico during the summer months, while her husband, Alfred Stieglitz, wanted her by his side. It was this conflict between intimacy and independence that almost destroyed O'Keeffe.

Our discussion at the Y reminded me that inner conflicts can also inspire creativity, and O'Keeffe recovered to paint marvelous levitating skulls and summer flowers in Southwestern skies. And it also made me reflect about the ways writers must blend the isolation necessary for writing with involvement with others. My way is to try to balance morning writing hours with afternoon and evening hours for other kinds of living, an equilibrium that, when it works, feels just right.  Read More 
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Being Inspired by Georgia O'Keeffe

The Georgia O'Keeffe retrospective in London makes me reflect about my long interest in this artist's images and words. It was in 1970--forty-six years ago--when I first saw her paintings in another large show in New York. New to Manhattan, I was a young journalist trying to find my own form of self-expression.

O'Keeffe's astonishing images impressed me that afternoon. They made me want to find words she had written about how she was able to create them. I began searching for her words, and even words written about her, but there were few to be found.

A few years later, many of her images were published in a volume titled Georgia O'Keeffe, along with a few of her words describing her early experiences as an artist. The book was soon followed by another with intimate photographs taken of her by Alfred Stieglitz, along with her words in the same straightforward and evocative voice about their relationship.

Intrigued, I found more of her words in letters and exhibition catalogs in archives and museum libraries, and realized I had enough to begin to write a biography about her. Portrait of An Artist: A Biography of Georgia O'Keeffe was published a few years later.

Her words have guided and inspired me to discover my own delicate, difficult, ever changing balance of intimacy and independence in my own life, and how to find a way to write about it.

Then five years ago, hundreds of O'Keeffe's letters were published in My Faraway One: Selected Letters of Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz , reminding me of my excitement at her exhibit so long ago. So this week it is deeply gratifying to see the videos and read the rave reviews of her largest exhibition outside the United States.  Read More 
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Georgia O'Keeffe's ventriloquist

What a shame for a work of historical fiction to be written in an imagined, imitation voice of Georgia O'Keeffe, when her real, riveting voice can be read by dipping into My Faraway One: Selected Letters of Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz 1915-1933, an enormous and masterful volume, edited by Sarah Greenough and published by Yale University Press. Yet that is what Dawn Tripp had done in her new novel titled Georgia.

O'Keeffe's own letters are full of plainspoken words and phrases--at times erotic, always evocative about nature, and sometimes rich with esoteric thoughts, like these from her first summer in New Mexico: "I have never had a more beautiful walk--the mountains and the scrubby cedar were so rich and warm colored they seemed to come right up to me and touch my skin...I seem to be hunting for something of myself out there--something in myself that will give me a symbol for all this--a symbol for the sense of life I get out here."  Read More 
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