Novelist Dawn Tripp is not a historian, but to research her latest work, “Georgia: A Novel of Georgia O’Keeffe,” she delved deep into the history of the famed artist, studying biographies, catalogs, paintings and letters, many of which she highlights on her website, to craft a vivid work forged from the actual events of O’Keeffe’s life. It’s therefore not surprising that when I mention I have O’Keeffe’s painting “A Celebration” hanging above my desk, Tripp immediately offers up that it was painted following the birth of O’Keeffe’s brother Alexius’ child. These and countless other facts are peppered through the novel, which follows O’Keeffe from Texas to New York to Lake George to New Mexico, tracking her tumultuous romantic and creative relationship with photographer Alfred Stieglitz along with the evolution of her artistic process.
Tripp, winner of the Massachusetts Book Award for fiction, imbues the novel with a protagonist who forces the reader to consider the breadth of O’Keeffe’s talent, business savvy, courage and wanderlust. In Tripp’s telling, O’Keeffe repeatedly argues against the dichotomy of what the Guardian bluntly refers to as “Flowers or vaginas?” in a preview of an upcoming show of her work. Instead, we get a view of her famed flowers from an entirely different angle as Georgia the narrator asks, “But what if I took that simple delicacy of a flower and kicked the shape open?” It’s this inquisitive spirit, one that is constantly seeking, exploring, learning and experimenting in both her personal and professional lives, that drives the novel.
While the book is a fitting read during Women’s History Month, O’Keeffe as a character is vividly alive as she grapples with success, fame, integrity, love and family. She is constantly assessing her output (“I want the thrill of color moving inside me again”), pushing herself as befits a woman who admits as she reflects back on her life, “I’ve never been willing to put my art second.” This holds true whether she’s exploring new materials or landscapes, turning down a commission to paint a mural at Radio City Music Hall after being disrespected, or battling with Stieglitz over the portrayal of her work as a symbol of “the eternal feminine” in the press.
As Tripp explained in a recent phone interview with Salon, she wanted to share the world of O’Keeffe she’d discovered, from the passionate lover to the principled artist, as a way of paying tribute to an icon whose work is still too often pigeonholed.
You wrote in your author’s note that it was a 2009 exhibit at the Whitney that led you down this path. What was it about this exhibit that intrigued you?
I was actually 60 pages into another novel when I saw that exhibit. I don’t always know intellectually what’s driving me into a story, but I feel it in my gut. I’ve always admired O’Keeffe’s art and I grew up with a really strong, vivid image of her in my head from that 1968 cover of Life magazine with the caption “stark visions of a pioneer painter”; that black-and-white image of her as an older woman with the desert spread out behind her. At the Whitney show, her abstractions were, for me, a revelation. They were visceral and cerebral, glowing exquisite shapes of color and form designed to express and evoke emotion. They were stunningly original.
I realized O’Keeffe was making abstractions as early as 1915, when she was only 27. At that time, not many other American artists were bold enough to be mucking around with that new language of art. I was really fascinated by that. I kept wondering at the museum: Who was the young artist who made this work? What did she think and feel and want? And the most driving question: Why is she not known for this? Why have I never seen the full range and scope of her abstract work before?
Also in that exhibit were excerpts from the letters O’Keeffe and Stieglitz exchanged. The language of those letters was sharply intimate; there was sexual passion, but also a deep creative passion. I ditched that other book and started to research her life. I never wanted to write a third person account; there are so many stellar, insightful biographies about O’Keeffe. But I believe fiction can get at a different side of truth that’s more experiential, psychological and emotional.
Throughout the book there’s this tension between what seemed to me like her vision for her art and Stieglitz’s vision for her art. She’s drawn to his belief in her work but that becomes more of a tension as their visions shift. Could you talk about that?
When she first comes to New York, his faith in her is like strong, clean sunlight; it’s buoying and expansive. It’s like nothing she’s ever experienced. His faith in her revolutionary vision isn’t just validating; it becomes fuel for her artistic evolution. As an artist, there’s nothing more meaningful than feeling like your work is seen. Praise is amazing, but what matters much more is when somebody recognizes the driving creative intent behind a work you’ve created and Stieglitz does that for O’Keeffe. He commits to her wholly and he remains committed to her throughout their relationship. In many ways I feel like she outgrows the confines of their world together, but in a certain sense, despite all the petty machinations, his faith in her never wavers.
When she’s talking about the photos he’s taken of her, she talks about the woman in the photos as a separate woman. She can admire them, but from afar. Can you talk a little bit about her relationship to being photographed by him?
My sense, and what I’ve tried to convey in the novel, is that in the beginning, him photographing her was a part of the intimacy between them; it was erotic for both of them. It wasn’t until she realized that other people saw those photographs as personal documents of their affair that she began to distance herself from that element of the relationship. Not from the sex, but from being photographed. She encouraged him to photograph other people after that first exhibit. The photographs and the critical language linked with them became political. As she began to realize that her art was going to be interpreted through the gendered lens of those photographs, that became something that she didn’t want to engage in.
Critics who made her work entirely about her gender, or only related to her art via the photos Stieglitz took of her, play a role in the novel. Can you talk a little about her relationship with critics? Did they affect how she worked?
It became a challenge and a bias that she worked against. She talked about being “written down” by men. She didn’t want to be seen as a female artist; she wanted to be seen as an artist.
When Stieglitz exhibited those photos of her, the language that was assigned to them was personal. I think O’Keeffe consented to that initial show of the photographs because she believed they would be seen as art because she saw them as art, but the photographs were interpreted by early reviews as evidence of the scandal of their affair. She was stunned and furious.
I think she really balked at the explicit gender branding of her art. She began to take clear, methodical steps to get out from under that language. One thing she did in her paintings, even in her abstractions, she started naming those forms, such as the Shell and Old Shingle series. Her early abstractions were not named and so that left them open to interpretation. During the 1920s, she began to claim the language to define how she wanted her work to be seen.
It’s not explicit in the novel, but when O’Keeffe died, she owned half of her known output. She owned many of those early abstractions and many of them hadn’t been exhibited by choice. So she controlled what works were out there.
Was that a tension between O’Keeffe and Stieglitz in terms of that branding you’re talking about? Were they a team around her art or did that start to drive a wedge between them?
That absolutely became a wedge between them, not only in terms of the branding, but when she started to make innovations that he didn’t necessarily approve of or wasn’t a part of. He always wanted to be a part of the business decisions and even the artistic decisions that she made. When she started painting the flowers, he called it silliness but the sale of the flowers became their primary source of income.
When she started painting the city, he told her not even the men do the city well. She kept on painting the city and he refused to hang her “New York Street With Moon” in his group show. A year later, when she had her own show, she hung that painting and it sold the first night for $1,200.
As O’Keeffe grew as an artist, she began to expand beyond the confines of their life together and what he thought she should be. As she devised her own lens and her own language to show the intent of her vision, their relationship gradually evolved into possession and betrayal and control.
I was curious about what kept her with him. They never officially break up, even though he has numerous affairs. Did she consider leaving the relationship?
That’s a really good question, particularly because if it had been me, I would have gone to New Mexico and not come back. I needed to be true to her story and how she reflected on the relationship years later. She said, “It was the art that kept me with him,” but she described their relationship as, “It was as if something hot, dark, destructive was hitched to the highest, brightest star.” The passion between them wasn’t only sexual; it was intellectual, it was philosophic, it was artistic. It was a real source of fire for them, for better or for worse.
At the beginning, that passion was an inspiration for both artists. They were each other’s muse. He wasn’t just her mentor; she was his as well. She got to a point where she was all done with his lies because they were keeping her from being fully present to her life, to the landscape that she loved, and her art. But her love, respect and faith in his art, and his love, respect and faith in hers, kept them together for the rest of their lives.
When she first goes to New Mexico, there’s a sense in the novel that this is where she belongs and maybe in a way always has belonged. She seems like she’s almost a different person there than she is in New York. Did it change her or did it reconnect her to her roots?
I think it reconnected her to who she was. When she met that landscape, there was a sense of deep, powerful recognition because this was going to be a place vast enough to kind of hold that fierce, wandering soul that she was. When she went there, I think it was that sense of vastness and distance that she recognized. It was a reflection of the intensity inside her that she expressed in her art, particularly in her abstractions.
This is obviously going to be conjecture, but at the end of the novel she asks herself “What would I have done with those early abstract forms if I had just continued working on my own?” Do you think she would have become as well known and successful if she had not connected with Stieglitz?
I think at that period of time, to his credit, Stieglitz was one of the few people in the art world who would have looked at a woman’s art and valued it on an equal level as art made by men. So I don’t know. I do, however, believe so much in O’Keeffe’s strength and her genius and the creative innovations that she made. I believe that the art she was creating as early as 1915 presaged important artistic movements of the 20th century, and I don’t always know that she’s given credit for that. One of the driving reasons I took on this story is because I hope the novel gives readers a glimpse into that and I hope it brings people to her art.
Despite all the challenging and aggravating things Stieglitz did, he really did value her art in and of itself, even though he allowed for the gendered terms assigned to it. I believe those gendered terms were originally intended as praise, but they arguably had the ultimate effect of diminishing her art and her significance as an artist. She’s always been known as one of the most famous American artists, but the full range of power of her art is only starting to be seen in recent years. This summer, the Tate Modern is holding the first major retrospective of O’Keeffe’s art, 100 years after her first New York launch. The goal is to reassess her place in the American canon. That is really thrilling, but you have to realize that throughout the 20th century her work has had some significant gender bias that it’s been working against.