Nearly two hundred pages into the correspondence* between Georgia O’Keeffe (in Canyon, Texas) and Alfred Stieglitz (in New York City), I’m feeling claustrophobic. On every page, another angst-filled stream-of-consciousness. Both O’Keeffe and Stieglitz feel like misfits — lonely, and needy. She is the aspiring artist needing affirmation. He is the aging man needing a shot of youth and ambition — what he calls “spirit.”
By now (late 1917), they have become sexually provocative. Well, Stieglitz is sexually provocative. O’Keeffe is a hesitant flirt.
Here he is, the most powerful man in her profession, telling her how brilliant she is. Of course she is seduced.
What I wonder is: At this point, does O’Keeffe think of herself as an artist? It appears not. The way she writes about her paintings (and immediately ships them off to Stieglitz, unable to deal with them), she is following her instincts, even as she understands how preposterous the paintings look to the rest of the world. She doesn’t indicate an aesthetic agenda or describe any problems she’s trying to solve. She is following her experiences out in the Palo Duro Canyon – the big sky, the lightshow, the dramatic nothingness. Clearly, something drives her to paint more, to paint again. But what? What drives her?
She never really says, or even intimates. She writes endlessly about her flirtations, her excursions, the locals, some about teaching, a bit about painting, but nothing about what drives her painting. Why bother making art? Maybe in these early days she doesn’t know.
I can make a provisional guess.
From her own account in these letters, O’Keeffe was largely ignored by her family as a child, dismissed for her odd ideas. In response, consciously or not, she comes up with the oddest of ideas – to become an artist – and effectively transforms that childhood invisibility into a public identity. Making art, for O’Keeffe (she explicitly says so), is about “expressing” herself, such as was the rallying cry for all modern artists. Her painting was driven, perhaps, by the desire to receive acknowledgement, even validation, for her odd ideas.
In the conservative town of Canyon, she is considered an outsider for her iconoclastic ways, and that outsider status bestows upon her extraordinary visibility. No one can miss Georgia-the-artist, the way she walks down the street with her hands jammed into the pockets of her dark, mannish clothes.
But O’Keeffe is ambivalent about her newfound visibility, both resisting and embracing being seen so conspicuously. (She tells Stieglitz that she hates being looked at.) Now that I think about it, this is the ambivalence that persists throughout her career: posing nude for Stieglitz and resenting been seen as a nude; fleeing the city for the desert, and cultivating her career as assiduously as ever. And the stress she felt each time she exhibited her paintings.
* My Faraway One: Selected Letters of Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, Volume 1, 1915-1933. Selected, annotated, and edited by Sarah Greenough. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2011
Addendum, one week later: A Facebook meme posted by my brilliant friend/artist/thinker George Russell puts the point on my description of O’Keeffe’s ambivalence about visibility:
“Artists are people driven by the tension between the desire to communicate and the desire to hide.” – D.W. Winnicott