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In early fall 1915, 27-year-old Georgia O’Keeffe wrote her first letter to Arthur Macmahon, a handsome political science grad student she’d met in summer school at the University of Virginia. An aspiring artist, she was used to bucking convention, so counter to propriety she wrote him first, explaining with classic O’Keeffe forthrightness, “I want to write you so I write.”
The line fits neatly into Roxana Robinson’s pithy assessment of the artist at the close of her exhaustive biography, Georgia O’Keeffe: A Life, where she summarizes O’Keeffe’s core attributes as: “clarity, integrity, and courage.” Initially published in 1989, Robinson’s was the first biography of the artist to appear after O’Keeffe’s death in 1986. A comprehensive (clocking in at over 600 pages) and compassionate look at a singular life, the book has been reissued this fall in an expanded edition by Brandeis University Press. The reissue includes a new preface by the author — a charming account of meeting O’Keeffe when Robinson worked at Sotheby’s in the early ’70s and how the author, a novelist, came to write the artist’s biography — and a new appendix featuring letters from O’Keeffe to Macmahon from 1915 to 1938, that includes the quote above.
The letters are important because, according to Robinson, O’Keeffe’s long-distance romance with Macmahon spurred her first breakthrough abstractions, a sublimation of romantic ardor into art: “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 new letters may offer some art historical insights, but it’s also just fun to hear O’Keeffe’s voice firsthand, a playful one that rings counter to the many brooding photographs of her.
In all other respects, the book remains the same, though after three decades, it feels different. Or maybe it’s just me. I read this biography the first time in the summer of 1989, age 21, between graduating from college and starting grad school in art history. O’Keeffe had long been a major American artist, but in the ’80s her work and image were so ubiquitous on posters, T-shirts, and whatever else, that it felt kitschy and overly familiar. There was, of course, much I didn’t know. Robinson’s biography sensitively rescued O’Keeffe from the flattening mythology of the vigorous old woman in black, a solitary figure endlessly at work in the desert Southwest. O’Keeffe’s life was long — she died at age 98 — and she was almost never wholly alone.
The second of seven children, and oldest of four girls, from Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, as a teenager O’Keeffe had moved with her family to Virginia, where they hoped to evade the curse of tuberculosis that took all the male members of her father’s family, though it spared him. But in Virginia, it came for O’Keeffe’s mother, 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 man who made it happen, the photographer and art impresario Alfred Stieglitz, also 52. He left his wife for O’Keeffe, and they married in 1924.
Reading Robinson’s account 30 years ago, it was mostly the Stieglitz part that seemed to matter. About how O’Keeffe felt first seen and supported by his attention, then drained by it, then driven away. The lesson of her life, so far as I understood it then, was that it was essential to catch the eye of a powerful man, but that in the end art demands solitude. A husband, children, were inadvisable, even impossible.
Reading again now I see there’s much that hadn’t registered, or I’d forgotten. O’Keeffe wanted children, but Stieglitz forbade it. I’d always thought of her as childless by necessity (as a note to self). And I was bemused to rediscover how full of family and friends her life was. Far more than her romantic life, it’s O’Keeffe’s relationships with women friends and her siblings that interest me now, especially her sisters, two of whom, Catherine and Ida, were also painters. Ida’s work was recently featured in a traveling exhibition, Ida O’Keeffe: Escaping Georgia’s Shadow to mostly appreciative reviews.
I’d also forgotten, or overlooked, that it was her friend Anita Pollitzer, a suffrage activist, who first brought O’Keeffe’s work to Stieglitz’s attention. I knew about O’Keeffe’s suffrage connection after reading Linda M. Grasso’s excellent 2017 book, Equal Under the Sky: Georgia O’Keeffe & Twentieth-Century Feminism, though might have known already if I’d paid attention. But at age 21 I was looking for other things. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion famously wrote in the 1970s. We read biographies for some of the same — to learn how to live.
In her first letter to Macmahon, O’Keeffe writes about swinging in a hammock 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 might wish for such impressive influence. Robinson’s thorough and immersive biography offers just that chance: a close-up encounter with O’Keeffe, through all her long life, ready to meet us where we are.
Georgia O’Keeffe: A Life by Roxana Robinson is published by Brandeis University Press and is available online and in bookstores.