Impossible, But True: A New Novel About Georgia O'Keeffe Has Something Original to Say About Her

When it comes to culture, Americans are like baby birds -- we like our nutrition pre-chewed. About the last place I'd go to learn about Hadley Richardson, perhaps Ernest Hemingway's greatest love, is The Paris Wife. And if I wanted an accurate picture of the Lost Generation in 1920s Paris, I wouldn't source Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen's soufflé of a film. But there's always more gold in literary and cinematic tourism, so I didn't do cartwheels when I received a copy of Georgia, Dawn Tripp's "novel of Georgia O'Keeffe."

O'Keeffe was the most famous female American artist of the last century --- and the most written about. I'd read Karen Karbo's charming How Georgia Became O'Keeffe and Roxana Robinson's 675-page biography. I'd spent a day at O'Keeffe's home in Abiquiu, New Mexico interviewing her last assistant, Juan Hamilton, for a magazine profile. And like anyone who'd taken an art history course, I'd seen dozens of the 500 photographs that Alfred Stieglitz had taken of her and could write at least two paragraphs about vaginal imagery in her flower paintings.

Really, what's left to know about Georgia O'Keeffe?

The good news: Georgia is a uniquely American chronicle -- told by O'Keeffe -- that starts with the importance of a good story and a killer bod. Does that sound uncannily like the techniques used to make careers for women a century later? Yes, and to degree that may shock purists, this is a book about branding and marketing, the first two commandments of success in the art world and our world. A book about you, perhaps, if you're female and have a man in your life who wants the best for you and knows how you can get it. And, in the end, a book about a talent so fierce it crushed pretty much everything in its path -- a rare story of artistic triumph.

You know the outlines. In 1915, when O'Keeffe was a 27-year-old art teacher in Texas, she sent some charcoal drawings to a friend in New York. The friend showed them to Stieglitz, who flipped for them and showed them in his gallery. His letters and that show lured O'Keeffe to New York.

From the beginning, O'Keeffe had an exalted agenda: "When someone looks at something I have painted, I want them to feel what moved me to paint it in the first place. I paint as I feel it. Light, sky, air. As I want it to be felt." But O'Keeffe wasn't just heralded for her drawings. She was also a model -- a nude model -- for her photographer lover. Which she liked. A lot: "I've begun to crave the way his eyes rake over me, so I am only a body. No inhibition, no thought. Pure sensation. There is a strange freedom in that, and it begins to fuel my art."

These photographs were, for all Stieglitz's artistic cred, close to exploitation -- the "male gaze" at work. Critics are piano players in the whorehouse of media, and when they come to write about these nudes, they see tits-and-ass:


They describe my body in rudely intimate terms: "the navel, the mons veneris, the armpits, the bones along the skin of the neck...the life of the pores, of the hairs along the shin-bone, of the veining of the pulse, and the liquid moisture on the upper lip... lucent unfathomable eyes, the gesture of chaste and impassioned surrender."

It's the scandal that drew them. They're not after the art. I am his mistress. It's not a stranger's body they're describing, but mine. How could I not have seen this coming? I should have known. What was I thinking?

We know what. She and Stieglitz were in a deep conversation about art and truth. But this was a conversation between two people who didn't have equal power. Stieglitz was a god, O'Keeffe was a child. At the train station in New York, Stieglitz "holds me tightly.... everything in me turns suddenly soft." Then there is "his hand in the small of my back, my body against him." And in this way, as it has been since the beginning of time, she overcame her respect for Stieglitz's marriage.

Tripp expertly makes drama of two traditional themes in the O'Keeffe story -- the romance with Stieglitz and the development of her art -- but it's the track about her art and his management of it and her struggle not to be dominated by him that makes her novel compelling. It's a story of "yes, but." Stieglitz may be the mastermind behind her career, but O'Keeffe's not a willing puppet. She's a one-man woman, but he strays, in at least one instance with a woman who works at the gallery and supports it. He needs O'Keeffe in residence, but she needs to work in the West.

Why didn't she break with Stieglitz? Well, he wrote thousands of letters to her, he was a wordsmith who addicted her to his words. And he adored her. And, though she wished it were different, the money.

These are important questions, but they don't present themselves as questions, the writing is too good for that. In most first-person novels, the character talks to you. Here, she recollects with you -- in her heart as well as her head. Which is to say that Dawn Tripp writes in much the same way as O'Keeffe painted: in vivid color and subtle shade. Reading her, I thought of Light Years and something James Salter said in describing it:

The book is the worn stones of conjugal life. All that is beautiful, all that is plain, everything that nourishes or causes to wither. It goes on for years, decades, and in the end seems to have passed like things glimpsed from the train -- a meadow here, a stand of trees, houses with lit windows in the dusk, darkened towns, stations flashing by -- everything that is not written down disappears except for certain imperishable moments, people, and scenes.

As O'Keeffe looks back on her life, those glimpses lead her to a question I've never seen asked before:

"It occurs to me that perhaps Stieglitz is not my life, but a detour from it."

Discuss: Was Georgia O'Keeffe, popularly regarded as a feminist heroine, oppressed as a woman -- and what do she make of that?

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Dawn Tripp will be reading in Dallas, Scottsdale, Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Decatur, Washington, Mystic Ct., Providence, Newton, Brookline and Westport. For details, click here.

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[cross-posted from HeadButler.com]