Love letters from Georgia O’Keeffe

A new anthology of the artist's letters to Alfred Stieglitz provides a glimpse into their torrid affair

Topics: Hyperallergic, Art, Books, letters, georgia o'keeffe, alfred stieglitz,

Love letters from Georgia O'KeeffeGeorgia O'Keeffe(Credit: AP)
This article originally appeared on Hyperallergic.

The love letters of Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz number upwards of 25,000. It’s such a prolific amount, it makes you marvel that they had any time at all to live the lives they did. The first published volume of their correspondence is some 700 pages, and it captures all the intimacies and intangibles one suffers for, because of, or in spite of love. It is also a valuable source of art history, self-help, bad spelling, and indulgent use of the em dash.
Hyperallergic

My Faraway One, as the volume is called, titled after an oft-used sobriquet of theirs, encapsulates a way of looking at the world that speaks directly to the art O’Keeffe and Stieglitz produced. The book is an expression of the indelible influence they had upon each other, and upon modern art.

Like all great epic poems (because love letters are nothing if not poetic), the writing is both tacky and penetrating, and captures the sort of anxiety and misanthropy that often accompany the creative mind. Referring to numerous people as “great stains” on the world, O’Keeffe’s letters in particular emphasize the artistic vocabulary of her paintings. “Goodnight,” she writes to Stieglitz, “I hope the stars are very bright — tonight — the sky very clear — I want it to be very still so you can just hear the water —.” This may sound sentimental and schmucky, but one cannot — after reading 700 of such letters — be cynical of their incorruptible desire to describe the world to one another.

It makes you wonder how much richer your experience of life would be if you had to rehash every day of it to someone else, constantly searching through your yesterdays to find something beautiful to tell you lover today. The way they describe life! This is the poetics of remembering, of making remembrance a daily ritual.

Photograph of Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz kissing at Lake George (image via Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library)

Photograph of Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz kissing at Lake George (image via Yale University Library)



In some ways, reading the love letters of other people is a perverted, Peeping Tom thing to do. But eavesdropping in this way gives an uncanny, almost inside-joke quality to the events that are its backdrop: After a dinner party on West 67th Street, Stieglitz writes to O’Keeffe:

Duchamp having his studio a flight up, he took me up to see his work — He is doing a marvelous thing on a huge glass — about eight feet by twelve — Has been over a year on it — it’s all worked with fine wire and lead — a little color — very perfect workmanship — He has a beautiful soul.

A marvelous thing on a huge glass. Indeed.

Missives like this function on many levels, not just offering context for the lives of O’Keeffe, Stieglitz, and their friends, but underlining what it’s like to love art for its own sake. They create a kind of nostalgia for what looking at art before the market boom must have been like. Stieglitz often refers to the souls of the artists he admires most, O’Keeffe notwithstanding, with words like “big” and “honest.” He also tends to capitalize things like Trees, Clouds, Woman et al, stressing his existential sensibilities (and the things he photographed most) as well as his German heritage (capitalization is a fond trope of the German poets).

As World War I becomes a reality, the modernist zeitgeist becomes palpable in their letters, edging into what would become a postmodern riff. “It made me fear for the children,” Stieglitz writes:

A sign or age — Or what? — I who sang the praises of the growing city — loved the huge machine — the developing of it — Tonight — I felt nothing of all that — merely sat there in the rolling machine and stared — and stared — and wondered. And felt no joy — No creative joy.

At the beginning of the war, O’Keeffe is working as an art professor in Texas. She succinctly describes her distaste for war as “sending cattle to market.”

Detail of a letter by O'Keeffe

Detail of a letter by O’Keeffe

The book goes on to chronicle their love affair, marriage, and eventual geographic separation. O’Keeffe was fiercely independent and solitary in nature, and, tormented by Stieglitz’s later infidelity, she moved back to the southwest. Her clemency and unconditional love for him are both infuriating and admirable, although she refused to live with him in New York.

Stieglitz is the man largely responsible for bringing photography into the 20th century and European modern art to America; O’Keeffe, an artist-turned-household-name before the pageantry of the later art stars. But much more than an expression of their life together, My Faraway One offers a gentle reminder of what it is to be a human and a lover — and the difficulty of both.

My Faraway One, edited by Sarah Greenough, is available from Yale University Press and other online sellers. Both Stieglitz and O’Keeffe have work in the current Museum of Modern Art exhibition Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925, with an emphasis on their symbiotic relationship.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>