Stieglitz and O'Keeffe: Vision was the product of their union


January 31, 1993|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

Jan. 1, 1916, should be known as a significant date in the history of American art because it was an even more significant one in the lives of photographer Alfred Stieglitz and painter Georgia O'Keeffe. It was Stieglitz's 52nd birthday, but that was the least of it. It was also the day on which artist Anita Pollitzer brought a group of drawings by her friend Georgia O'Keeffe to show Stieglitz at his New York gallery called 291.

Stieglitz was at a low point in his career and his life. Always most interested in promoting what he considered the best of contemporary art, in the early years of the 20th century he had introduced to America the work of Picasso, Braque, Cezanne and other leading European artists. But the celebrated 1913 New York Armory Show had more or less grabbed avant-garde art out of his hands.

Nor was his own photography going especially well. In particular, Belinda Rathbone points out in the catalog of the exhibit "Georgia O'Keeffe & Alfred Stieglitz: Two Lives" at Washington's Phillips Collection, Stieglitz had long sought an ideal woman to photograph without finding her in his wife, daughter or elsewhere.

O'Keeffe changed all that, for which both she and Stieglitz's eye deserve credit. He instantly recognized the quality of her charcoals, as he wrote to the artist later: "Those drawings, how I understand them. They are as if I saw a part of myself."

'Absolute Truth'

And as the world knows, if he saw a part of himself in O'Keeffe's art, he found another part of himself in O'Keeffe. It was as if she completed him by her own independence of spirit as well as her artistic essence, as he acknowledged in 1918: "I never realized that what she is could actually exist -- absolute Truth -- clarity of vision to the highest degree."

They formed a union almost immediately upon meeting and were married in 1924. In their closest years, from 1916 to about 1930, theirs was an extraordinary partnership. His encouragement and promotion helped make her a leading American artist, and she changed every aspect of his life. In those years he championed not only O'Keeffe, but a whole new group of American artists, including Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove and John Marin. And, having found his ideal woman at last, he embarked on a photographic portrait of O'Keeffe that eventually grew to hundreds of images.

Although it is called "Two Lives," the show's central question has to do with how they affected one another's art. It's about time this subject was dealt with in an exhibit -- this one is billed as the first to show their work together since Stieglitz presented a joint exhibition in 1924.

As such, it's unquestionably an important event. But in an almost perverse way it's also a disturbing one; for while the catalog's essays argue intelligently for a developing relatedness of vision, the catalog's -- and to a lesser extent the show's -- visual juxtapositions are at times so pat they come close to turning the whole exercise into a kind of cliche.

What the essayists argue for, to oversimplify it, is that O'Keeffe and Stieglitz drew one another toward a kind of abstraction of the object in an effort to approach something essential that could be expressed through it -- whether "it" was a building, a human form, a flower or a landscape.

In her essay on O'Keeffe's effect on Stieglitz, Belinda Rathbone writes: "With O'Keeffe's help, he literally pruned his vision, as he began to appreciate the landscape as abstract space, waiting to be cut to the shape of his feelings."

For O'Keeffe's part, writes Elizabeth Hutton Turner, "Already during her first year with Stieglitz, O'Keeffe began exploring the photographer's shallow depth of field in which everything is visible. . . . Stieglitz's photographs had made objects out of her abstractions. Her paintings had made abstractions out of his Portrait photographs. Now, sensitive to the subjective side of photography, O'Keeffe declared, 'Nothing is less real than realism.' This realization freed her from the need to choose between abstraction and representation, art and photography. To both their ways of thinking it was an entirely new direction, one which put her and Stieglitz on an equal footing to pursue and capture 'the real meaning of things' in nature together."

The trouble with the visual part of this enterprise is that it too often simply pairs works of O'Keeffe and Stieglitz that look alike, which tends to trivialize what they were doing.

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