Stieglitz and O'Keeffe's union made art, and now a play

March 26, 1995|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

They couldn't have been more different. He was a talker who loved to surround himself with people and the hustle and bustle of the big city. She was a country girl who yearned for the solitude of wide open spaces. Their first conversation was an argument.

Yet the 1924 marriage of photography pioneer Alfred Stieglitz and painter Georgia O'Keeffe lasted more than two decades and was one of the most creative unions in the annals of modern art.

That fiery marriage is the subject of "Stieglitz Loves O'Keeffe: Flowers and Photos," a play starring Stacy Keach and Margot Kidder that begins a three-week run at the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre Tuesday. It will open in New York later this year.

The two-person drama is by Lanie Robertson, whose most widely produced script, "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill," set attendance records at Center Stage in 1993. Robertson has written several plays about people in the arts, but before he began researching O'Keeffe and Stieglitz, he admits, "I knew very little about her and I knew practically nothing about him."

His interest was piqued a few years after O'Keeffe's death in 1986, when he came across a volume of Stieglitz's early photographs of the artist in the New York Public Library. "I found the photographs extremely moving," Robertson said recently from Winston-Salem, N.C., where this production debuted.

"It seemed to me that Georgia O'Keeffe was not simply photographed as an object or as a subject usually is, but that she was indicating and emanating an attitude of collaboration with the photographer," he continues.

"Because of what seemed to be transpiring between the subject of the photograph and the photographer, I wanted to try to discover who they were."

The discovery he made is described by the play's director, John Tillinger, as "an attraction of opposites." But it was also "a powerful attraction," the director stresses, "a bolt of lightning, where two people see each other across the room and it's woo! It's true passion."

As might be expected from opposite temperaments, it was a contentious relationship. Both were unfaithful, and they spent much time apart -- he in New York, she on the New Mexico ranch where she painted many of her famed flowers, animal skeletons and landscapes.

"When they were together, they couldn't wait to be apart, and when they were apart, they couldn't wait to be together. Sounds like most marriages to me," says Tillinger, a British-trained director with numerous Broadway and off-Broadway credits.

Yet the O'Keeffe-Stieglitz union had "an unusual symbiotic" quality, the director explains. "That's very unique and rare in the art world. For the most part, there's competitiveness between two people, between most artists. There wasn't between them." Instead, the artist and photographer nurtured, supported and even inspired each other's work. Initially, this took the form of Stieglitz -- who ran one of the most influential modern art galleries in New York -- exhibiting O'Keeffe's pictures, and of O'Keeffe posing for him.

Both of these events are re-created in "Stieglitz Loves O'Keeffe," which flashes back from Stieglitz's death and includes scenes of a sexually charged photographic session, as well as that first argument, when O'Keeffe lambasted Stieglitz for displaying her drawings without her permission.

As their relationship grew, their "interdependence [was] reflected in the fact that she painted many paintings based on his photographs, and it's possible . . . he may also have photographed many things that she painted," Robertson says.

Despite long periods of separation, when Stieglitz -- who was 23 years older than O'Keeffe -- died in 1946, his widow "felt his death and his loss very deeply," Tillinger says. "She didn't paint for three or four years after he died. So the play is about that kind of painter's block."

Robertson, who lives in New York, read everything he could find about the couple, interviewing people who knew them and studying correspondence in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University.

But, "a play is not history, and it's not meant to be," says Robertson, who has also written biographical plays about Billie Holiday, Maria Callas, Ethel Waters, Hank Williams and playwright Joe Orton.

"I always try, in the historical plays, to ground them in the character of the person involved and the events in the life," he continues, "and zero in on the events that are most symbolic or meaningful to what people are going through generally in our society."

In terms of staging, Tillinger says he tried to avoid making it strictly a biographical piece, "because then it becomes a documentary and not a play." This is particularly evident in the casting of Stacy Keach, who is tall, though Stieglitz was short. "You try to go for the truth of the human being rather than what they look like," Tillinger explains.

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