Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 7, 2017
Nancy J. Scott Georgia O'Keeffe Critical Lives. London: Reaktion Books, 2015. 253 pp.; 40 b/w ills. Paper $16.95 (9781780234281)

Nancy J. Scott has added another biography to the long list of studies of Georgia O’Keeffe. Like these earlier efforts, Scott organizes her book chronologically, with each chapter focusing on a different phase of O’Keeffe’s life and career. However, unlike her predecessors, Scott has had access to the extensive correspondence, which only became available in 2006, between O’Keeffe and her husband, the photographer and promoter of early American modernism, Alfred Stieglitz. She quotes passages from this cache of letters, many of which are also included in Sarah Greenough’s My Faraway One: Selected Letters of Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, Vol. 1, 1915–1933 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011). As Scott explains, O’Keeffe and Stieglitz corresponded for a little over thirty years (1915–47). The “over 5,000 . . . letters, notes, and telegrams” that passed between them reveal their evolution from acquaintances to lovers and then husband and wife (49). In addition to this treasure trove of private correspondence, she draws upon the letters between O’Keeffe and Dr. Albert C. Barnes (1927–49), which Scott discovered in the Barnes Foundation Archives. Has access to these papers resulted in a new understanding of O’Keeffe’s art or a new perspective on her career? On the evidence of Scott’s biography, the answer is mixed. The book is a relatively brief survey of O’Keeffe, and as such, it might appeal to general readers and some scholars. Although Scott does provide new information based on the O’Keeffe/Stieglitz correspondence, she fails to engage critically with the materials at her disposal.

In terms of her work, readers learn that O’Keeffe created Blue Lines X (1916) while looking at skyscrapers at night “over her windowsill” (52); previously no one has indicated that this seemingly nonobjective blue watercolor marks O’Keeffe’s earliest foray into the subject of New York cityscapes. Scott also recounts Stieglitz’s response to Marcel Duchamp’s Large Glass (1915–23), in which he noted its “very perfect workmanship” through the use of “fine wire & lead.” “He has a beautiful soul,” Stieglitz noted, and recognized his love of “the age of machinery—its significance, orderliness—precision” (64). Although scholars, notably William Innes Homer in Alfred Stieglitz and the American Avant-Garde (Boston: New York Graphic Society, 1977) and Wanda Corn in The Great American Thing: Modern Art and National Identity, 1915–1935 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999) (click here for review), observed the intersection between the Stieglitz group and New York’s Dada movement, here Stieglitz’s admiration for Duchamp and his recognition of Duchamp’s machine aesthetic are significant, especially within the context of Stieglitz’s own photographs of trains and skyscrapers.

Scott is strongest when she discusses the historical context for O’Keeffe’s life and works. Other scholars have read the meanings of O’Keeffe’s paintings of skulls, pelvis bones, and crosses either as a response to Stieglitz’s affair with Dorothy Norman (Vivien Green Fryd, Art and the Crisis of Marriage: Edward Hopper and Georgia O’Keeffe, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002, 184 [click here for review]) or as a signifier of “New Mexico’s special sense of place,” the Wild West, and Native Americans (Corn, 266). Scott instead convincingly suggests that after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, O’Keeffe’s southwestern paintings “shifted from skulls and mountains to pelvis bones against the blue” to show an “eternal solitude of the desert” that takes on meaning within the context of World War II and O’Keeffe’s pacifist convictions (166). She furthermore notes that O’Keeffe lived close to where the atomic bomb was being developed and tested. More information would be appreciated if it exists in the letters; if not, then Scott could have made this clearer.

The O’Keeffe/Barnes letters indicate that despite some scholars’ claims, O’Keeffe was familiar with French modernist paintings, which she saw in Barnes’s collection (109). Barnes invited O’Keeffe to a weekend party in Merion, Pennsylvania, in March 1930; he also attended the winter 1931 exhibition of O’Keeffe’s southwestern paintings at Stieglitz’s New York gallery An American Place and purchased two works directly from the artist, bypassing her dealer-husband. Barnes then informed Stieglitz that he had decided not to keep the paintings and requested a full refund from O’Keeffe at a time when she and Stieglitz were experiencing financial hardship. Scott provides other important information heretofore unknown, for instance, that Barnes returned the paintings because of the then-current critical assessment that they “owe their appeal to the revelations of her intimate sexual life” (137). He suggested that Stieglitz should respond to such interpretations by “killing the ignorant sons-of-bitches” (137).

Scott, however, fails to analyze critically the information in these letters. Rather than commenting on the significance of O’Keeffe directly negotiating with Barnes for the sales of her paintings, or explain the well-known fact that Stieglitz initiated the critical reception of O’Keeffe’s art as gendered and as embodying erotic themes, Scott moves on to O’Keeffe’s focus on flowers at Lake George in upstate New York, which in fact resulted in additional readings of her works within the context of female sexuality, something Scott omits. Moreover, in a 1918 letter to O’Keeffe, Stieglitz wrote that she embodied “the one human soul I’ve found—A Woman—A little Girl—a Child—All Innocence—And Purity Unheard of” (Scott, 80). What does it mean in this context to call a model and lover “a child, a little girl, all innocence?” How does this fit with O’Keeffe’s thwarted desire to have children because of Stieglitz’s refusal? Stieglitz tried to assuage her disappointment by referring to her paintings as her children, a statement that deserves discussion.

I had hoped to find new information about the impact on O’Keeffe of Stieglitz’s affair with Norman, which began two years after Stieglitz and O’Keeffe married. Scott states that in 1926 O’Keeffe became “increasingly exhausted by the threat of a new love interest in Stieglitz’s life” (109), and she intermittently returns to O’Keeffe’s response to Stieglitz’s budding romance with Norman, but specific letters and quotations would add more to an understanding of the significance of this affair. Scott attributes O’Keeffe’s visit to New Mexico in the summer of 1929 to her “see-saw relationship with Stieglitz” as well as critical responses to her work, but surely this affair served as a major catalyst for her summers in the Southwest, beginning in May 1929, and the new direction in her art. Her crosses, which Scott discusses as containing “individual expressive power” (119), also signify death and regeneration, and they may relate specifically to her sense of failure within her marriage and hopes for its resurrection (Fryd, 184). Scott quotes Stieglitz’s self-pitying letter of July 6, 1929, in which he complained that O’Keeffe’s departure meant “this is the first time in thirty-seven years” that he did not have “a woman near me to take care a bit for me” (127), but she fails to mention that Stieglitz in fact was sleeping with Norman. Three pages later Scott finally admits that Stieglitz’s depression was “mitigated by summer correspondence with the attentive Dorothy Norman” (130), but this sentence provides no information about what those letters contain.

Scott continues to chart chronologically Stieglitz’s affair with Norman; thirty-two pages later she notes that Stieglitz’s forty-year retrospective of his photography in 1932 included not only nude photographs of O’Keeffe, but also of Norman—“a cruel blow,” indeed. Scott writes: “If Pygmalion had sculpted his Galatea to life, now he could destroy her as well, or create a new one” (141). However, the reader wants to know if O’Keeffe said anything about Stieglitz’s exhibition in her letters; if not, this would also be important. Eleven pages later, Scott suggests that O’Keeffe and Stieglitz “established a new balance where Stieglitz continued to see and collaborate with Norman (both vowed they would never divorce their partners), while O’Keeffe gained her separate space for painting in her wide world of the Southwest” (152). In fact, O’Keeffe was devastated but found new subjects and ultimately peace in the Southwest—but not without sadness and extreme pain, which Scott glosses over. Twenty pages later Scott explains that when Stieglitz was hospitalized in 1947, O’Keeffe and Norman alternated bedside vigils and both joined a small group of friends at his funeral. Again, I wonder whether O’Keeffe wrote anything about this beyond saying in 1929 that Norman “was one of those people who adored Stieglitz, and I am sorry to say he was very foolish about her” (Roxanna Robinson, Georgia O’Keeffe: A Life, New York: Harper Perennial, 1989, 341).

Scott’s book would have benefited from an index and a more complete bibliography. Scott omits numerous secondary sources, such as Homer’s Alfred Stieglitz and the American Avant-Garde; Ann Middleton Wagner’s Three Artists (Three Women): Modernism and the Art of Hesse, Krasner, and O’Keeffe (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996); Kathleen Pyne’s Modernism and the Feminine Voice: O’Keeffe and the Women of the Stieglitz Circle (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007) (click here for review); and my own Art and the Crisis of Marriage. Although Scott provides some new information and her proposal of a World War II context is illuminating, her failure to delve deeper into her material is disappointing.

Vivien Green Fryd
Professor, Department of History of Art, Vanderbilt University