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The Heart--and Art--of Georgia O'Keeffe : GEORGIA O'KEEFFE: A Life by Roxana Robinson (Burlingame/Harper & Row: $25; 496 pp., llustrated) : GEORGIA O'KEEFFE: In the West edited by Doris Bry and Nicholas Callaway (Alfred A. Knopf: $100; 116 pp., illustrated)

November 12, 1989|Suzanne Muchnic | Muchnic is a Times art writer

It is a measure of women's place in the art world that so much has been made of Georgia O'Keeffe. In a more equitable atmosphere, the doyenne of American modernism would be one of many prominent female artists whose talents have been provided with a forum for exposure, criticism and growth.

But even then, it's unlikely that O'Keeffe would blend into the elite. The facts of her life and art are too seductive.

What audience-minded journalist could ignore a love affair between the fiercely independent O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, the intensely sociable photographer and romantic impresario who made her a star but failed to control her?

An artist credited with being the first to paint women's emotional experience?

A recluse who so ardently claimed the Southwest that she has become identified with bleached bones, red hills and open skies?

A nearly blind old woman who became so dependent upon her handsome young assistant, Juan Hamilton, that he gained extraordinary power over her property and work?

A legal battle that chastened Hamilton when evidence appeared that he may have hoodwinked the aged artist into signing over most of her estate to him by pretending that a codicil to her will was a marriage certificate?

This tantalizing material has gushed forth during the last several decades and created a popular myth in dozens of publications. But never have the controversial events and minutiae of O'Keeffe's life been presented so completely and even-handedly as in Roxana Robinson's "Georgia O'Keeffe: A Life."

This sweeping biography, the first done in cooperation with the artist's family, already has been branded a feminist work--and probably will be dismissed as such. Writing from a feminine perspective, Robinson delves into literature on pioneer women, emphasizes O'Keeffe's female role models, exposes Stieglitz's refusal to let O'Keeffe's desire for children interfere with her career, and probes O'Keeffe's relationships with her sisters. But far from being a limitation, this viewpoint enriches a profoundly humane treatment of O'Keeffe and all the people who figured prominently in her long life. Robinson offers no heroes or villains, only fallible human beings with conflicting passions, personalities and motivations.

It's a refreshing approach to forceful characters who often invite blame: O'Keeffe for her high-handed and occasionally cruel treatment of family and friends; Stieglitz for his manipulative, imperious, philandering ways; Hamilton for his ambition and greed. Robinson's way to is lay out all the dirty linen and explain how it got so soiled.

The story begins with the founding of Sun Prairie, Wis., in 1837, half a century before O'Keeffe was born there, and roots her firmly in pioneer stock. O'Keeffe was the second of seven children, the oldest girl and her sisters' queen. "She was it. She had everything about her way," her sister, Catherine, recalls.

The women were a hardy lot, but art fell within their domain. O'Keeffe marched off to drawing classes at age 11 and announced, "I'm going to be an artist" when she was in the eighth grade. Interrupted by illness, depression, the family's move to Virginia and subsequent loss of fortune, her idea shaped up at Chatham Episcopal Institute, Chicago Institute of Art and--most important--the Art Students League in New York.

O'Keeffe was a hit at the League but not only for her art; she had to choose between being a social star or a serious artist. On one often-recounted occasion, an older male student made the decision seem irrelevant. "It doesn't matter what you do," Eugene Speicher declared. "I'm going to be a great painter and you will probably end up teaching painting in some girls' school."

O'Keeffe did teach--presenting herself as an eccentric in Virginia, South Carolina and Texas--but not before she had visited Stieglitz's Manhattan gallery. She wasn't impressed with his exhibition of Auguste Rodin's "scribbles," and she was put off by Stieglitz's fits of "fantastic violence," but she was entranced by his presence. Once she fell under his spell, she was smothered by his style and stung by his attentions to other women. It was all part of O'Keeffe's battle between the creative and destructive aspects of his personality. "I feel like a little plant that he has watered and weeded and dug around," she wrote in a serene period. At other times she bolted away from Stieglitz to preserve her sanity and find the space she craved.

The story is convoluted and racy enough to sustain a soap-opera series. Robinson delivers it calmly, in human terms. While "A Life" is the big issue here, the development of O'Keeffe's work gets considerable attention through excerpts from exhibition reviews and Robinson's analysis. Pages of black-and-white photographs are largely reserved for people and places--not artwork.

In sharp contrast, "Georgia O'Keeffe: In the West" presents 98 paintings in glowing color along with a scant afterword by Doris Bry, the artist's longtime friend and agent. That some of the paintings are previously unpublished lends an air of anticipation, but these "lost paintings" were only buried in the artist's private collection. There are no surprises, nothing out of character. This handsome volume simply sandwiches O'Keeffe's expansive vision of the Southwest between two covers.

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