O’Ke­effe, Stieglitz and the artists they in­spired

The Buffalo News - - GUSTOSUNDAY: BOOKS - Wendy Smith, au­thor of “Real Life Drama: The Group The­atre and Amer­ica, 1931-1940,” is a fi­nal­ist for the Na­tional Book Crit­ics 2018 ci­ta­tion for ex­cel­lence in re­view­ing.

and or­ga­niz­ing files while earnestly striv­ing to de­velop the “cre­ative see­ing” Stieglitz pa­tron­iz­ingly claimed she lacked. Although Burke’s treat­ment of her four sub­jects is de­lib­er­ately dis­pas­sion­ate, she does seem to em­pathize with Sals­bury, in­se­cure about her abil­i­ties and des­per­ate for re­spect as an artist.

O’Ke­effe, by con­trast, would not be dis­tracted from her drive to paint. Stieglitz liked to fill their homes with ad­mir­ers and never seemed to need to be alone. O’Ke­effe did: She firmly des­ig­nated for her­self a stu­dio Stieglitz as­sumed they would share, and when the so­cial­iz­ing made that an in­suf­fi­cient refuge, she left town al­to­gether.

Burke de­picts with in­tel­li­gent nu­ance the evo­lu­tion of the cou­ple’s in­ter­twined per­sonal and pro­fes­sional con­nec­tion. Their pow­er­ful sex­ual bond grew from Stieglitz’s in­flamed response to O’Ke­effe’s work as the em­bod­i­ment of a new, dis­tinc­tively fe­male artis­tic sen­si­bil­ity, and he made it his busi­ness to sup­port that work. He gave her fre­quent shows at his var­i­ous gal­leries and he made sure that crit­ics paid at­ten­tion.

O’Ke­effe knew she owed her sales and glow­ing re­views in large part to Stieglitz’s shrewd pro­mo­tion. But she grew an­noyed by the re­lent­less crit­i­cal fo­cus on even her most ab­stract paint­ings as “the world as it is known to woman,” es­pe­cially when Stieglitz’s nude pho­tos of her were seen as ev­i­dence of his “love of the world.”

Burke es­chews fem­i­nist ou­trage, pre­fer­ring to quote ex­am­ples of obliv­i­ous sex­ism with no com­men­tary be­yond such dry asides as, “One won­ders what Beck thought.”

She shows Sals­bury and O’Ke­effe de­ter­minedly nav­i­gat­ing a male-dom­i­nated world with the tools at their dis­posal. Sals­bury cul­ti­vated a flirtatious re­la­tion­ship with Stieglitz as part of her cam­paign to per­suade the com­pet­i­tive older pho­tog­ra­pher to give her hus­band an­other show.

Dur­ing the decade of the two cou­ples’ great­est in­ti­macy, Stieglitz’s and Strand’s views on pho­tog­ra­phy were di­verg­ing; Burke traces Strand’s grow­ing in­ter­est in more ob­jec­tive, im­per­sonal work, while Stieglitz con­tin­ued to view pho­tog­ra­phy as an act of per­sonal rev­e­la­tion, “per­haps even a phi­los­o­phy.”

Strand is the most enig­matic of the four­some. Correspondence among them is Burke’s pri­mary source, and his let­ters are guarded. Flam­boy­ant, self-dra­ma­tiz­ing Stieglitz is the most vivid per­son­al­ity, though in­creas­ingly un­sym­pa­thetic as he seeks to re­tain O’Ke­effe in his smoth­er­ing em­brace. His hys­ter­i­cal reaction to her month­s­long stay with Sals­bury in New Mex­ico in 1929 marked a turn­ing point.

Although Burke dis­misses spec­u­la­tion that the women had an af­fair, they cer­tainly grew closer as they ex­plored new horizons with­out their hus­bands. Sals­bury fi­nally found her métier in oil paint­ing on glass, as well as a group of lo­cal friends who ap­pre­ci­ated her as more than a help­meet.

O’Ke­effe dis­cov­ered the land­scape she would paint for the rest of her life, which prompted long pe­ri­ods away from Stieglitz. Both men felt threat­ened. Strand wrote coldly that Sals­bury was “wast­ing her time.” Stieglitz em­barked on a manic, 18-hour tirade that prompted Strand to write to O’Ke­effe, “Never have I seen such suf­fer­ing.”

Mat­ters were smoothed over for a few more years, un­til in 1932 Stieglitz gave Strand and Sals­bury a joint ex­hibit with such ob­vi­ous dis­in­ter­est (no cat­a­log, no pub­lic­ity) that Strand an­grily turned in his keys to the gallery. Sals­bury, ever pla­ca­tory, con­tin­ued to write to Stieglitz even af­ter the Strands’ di­vorce in 1933, and she and O’Ke­effe kept in touch. But what she re­mem­bered as “the warmth and un­der­stand­ing of the ‘old days’ ” was gone.

Burke’s coolly de­tached chron­i­cle of those years prompts the thought that a lot of this warmth came from the over­heated rhetoric of the early 20th-cen­tury avant-garde, and that “un­der­stand­ing” de­pended on the vi­sion­ary Stieglitz re­ceiv­ing the to­tal, un­ques­tion­ing sup­port of ev­ery­one around him. Volatile and needy though he was, Stieglitz set O’Ke­effe, Strand and Sals­bury on in­di­vid­ual paths to­ward artis­tic ful­fill­ment. Burke must have no­ticed the irony that these paths led away from him, but she does not com­ment on it. She’s not in­ter­ested in mak­ing grand state­ments, pre­fer­ring to fo­cus her sharp an­a­lyt­i­cal skills on ex­pli­cat­ing in rich de­tail the com­plex in­ter­ac­tions among four vi­brant peo­ple dur­ing a sem­i­nal era in Amer­i­can cul­ture – a task she ac­com­plishes in as­tute, lu­cid prose.

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