In early fall 1915, 27-year-old Georgia O’Keeffe wrote her first letter to Arthur Macmahon, a good-looking political science grad scholar she’d met in summer season college on the University of Virginia. An aspiring artist, she was used to bucking conference, so counter to propriety she wrote him first, explaining with traditional O’Keeffe forthrightness, “I want to write you so I write.”

The line matches neatly into Roxana Robinson’s pithy evaluation of the artist on the shut of her exhaustive biography, Georgia O’Keeffe: A Life, the place she summarizes O’Keeffe’s core attributes as: “clarity, integrity, and courage.” Initially printed in 1989, Robinson’s was the primary biography of the artist to look after O’Keeffe’s dying in 1986. A complete (clocking in at over 600 pages) and compassionate have a look at a singular life, the e book has been reissued this fall in an expanded version by Brandeis University Press. The reissue contains a new preface by the writer — a charming account of assembly O’Keeffe when Robinson labored at Sotheby’s in the early ’70s and the way the writer, a novelist, got here to jot down the artist’s biography — and a new appendix that includes letters from O’Keeffe to Macmahon from 1915 to 1938, that features the quote above.

The letters are essential as a result of, based on Robinson, O’Keeffe’s long-distance romance with Macmahon spurred her first breakthrough abstractions, a sublimation of romantic ardor into artwork: “She was in a state of emotional intensity — concentrated, passionate, and high-keyed — that might have under other circumstances have resulted simply in a love affair; her lover being absent, Georgia directed her emotion, undiluted, into her work. … The 1915 drawings, with their lyric, tender, rounded forms mark the first appearance of O’Keeffe as a strong, mature, and original artist.” So the brand new letters might supply some artwork historic insights, however it’s additionally simply enjoyable to listen to O’Keeffe’s voice firsthand, a playful one which rings counter to the various brooding images of her.

Georgia O’Keeffe’s first letter to Arthur Macmahon, from 1915

In all different respects, the e book stays the identical, although after three a long time, it feels completely different. Or perhaps it’s simply me. I learn this biography the primary time in the summer season of 1989, age 21, between graduating from school and beginning grad college in artwork historical past. O’Keeffe had lengthy been a main American artist, however in the ’80s her work and picture had been so ubiquitous on posters, T-shirts, and no matter else, that it felt kitschy and overly acquainted. There was, after all, a lot I didn’t know. Robinson’s biography sensitively rescued O’Keeffe from the flattening mythology of the vigorous outdated lady in black, a solitary determine endlessly at work in the desert Southwest. O’Keeffe’s life was lengthy — she died at age 98 — and he or she was nearly by no means wholly alone.

The second of seven kids, and oldest of 4 ladies, from Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, as a teenager O’Keeffe had moved together with her household to Virginia, the place they hoped to evade the curse of tuberculosis that took all of the male members of her father’s household, although it spared him. But in Virginia, it got here for O’Keeffe’s mom, who died of TB in 1916 at age 52. By then O’Keeffe had already exhibited work in New York, and had begun corresponding with the person who made it occur, the photographer and artwork impresario Alfred Stieglitz, additionally 52. He left his spouse for O’Keeffe, they usually married in 1924.

Reading Robinson’s account 30 years in the past, it was largely the Stieglitz half that appeared to matter. About how O’Keeffe felt first seen and supported by his consideration, then drained by it, then pushed away. The lesson of her life, as far as I understood it then, was that it was important to catch the attention of a highly effective man, however that in the top artwork calls for solitude. A husband, kids, had been inadvisable, even unimaginable.

Reading once more now I see there’s a lot that hadn’t registered, or I’d forgotten. O’Keeffe wished kids, however Stieglitz forbade it. I’d all the time considered her as childless by necessity (as a be aware to self). And I used to be bemused to rediscover how stuffed with household and buddies her life was. Far greater than her romantic life, it’s O’Keeffe’s relationships with ladies buddies and her siblings that curiosity me now, particularly her sisters, two of whom, Catherine and Ida, had been additionally painters. Ida’s work was lately featured in a touring exhibition, Ida O’Keeffe: Escaping Georgia’s Shadow to largely appreciative critiques.

I’d additionally forgotten, or missed, that it was her good friend Anita Pollitzer, a suffrage activist, who first introduced O’Keeffe’s work to Stieglitz’s consideration. I knew about O’Keeffe’s suffrage connection after studying Linda M. Grasso’s glorious 2017 e book, Equal Under the Sky: Georgia O’Keeffe & Twentieth-Century Feminism, although might need recognized already if I’d paid consideration. But at age 21 I used to be searching for different issues. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion famously wrote in the Seventies. We learn biographies for a few of the identical — to learn to reside.

In her first letter to Macmahon, O’Keeffe writes about swinging in a hammock together with her youngest sister, Claudie, age sixteen. “I wonder if you know what a wonderful thing — a little girl like that is,” she wrote. “It scares me when I think how what I might say or do might influence her — she is so curious.”

Any of us would possibly want for such spectacular affect. Robinson’s thorough and immersive biography provides simply that likelihood: a close-up encounter with O’Keeffe, via all her lengthy life, prepared to satisfy us the place we’re.

Georgia O’Keeffe: A Life by Roxana Robinson is printed by Brandeis University Press and is out there on-line and in bookstores.

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