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The Young and the Restless : O'KEEFFE & STIEGLITZ: An American Romance, By Benita Eisler (Doubleday: $29.50; 560 pp.)

June 02, 1991|Kristine McKenna | McKenna writes about the arts for The Times

The relationship between artists Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O'Keeffe is one of the art world's most elaborately embellished and best-loved myths. Though the aristocratic Stieglitz was older than poor farm girl O'Keeffe by several decades, this unlikely pair married in 1924, forging a creative partnership that served both of them well despite the fact that it was wracked by endless emotional upheaval that continued up until Stieglitz's death in 1946.

A visionary art dealer obsessed with the promotion of what he saw as the future of art, Stieglitz is largely credited with introducing America to the work of the European avant-garde during the first two decades of this century. At his taste-making 291 Gallery located in the heart of Manhattan, he hosted the debut U.S. showing of countless European modernist masters, was an early champion of photography, and worked tirelessly to define and establish an American modernist school. As an artist, Stieglitz experimented with various modes of abstraction in photography, and turned out a handful of images regarded as ground-breaking classics. However, his best-known contribution to art history is the "discovery" of Georgia O'Keeffe.

Born in 1887 into a poor family in Sun Prairie, Wis., O'Keeffe rose--with considerable help from Stieglitz--to become the first woman artist in America to be regarded as an equal in the male-dominated art world. Blending elements of Cubism, Precisionism and Realism, her work takes its central cue from organic forms occurring in nature, and her intensely sensual landscapes and still lifes of flowers are celebrated as a distinctly feminine--and pointedly sexual--interpretation of abstraction (a reading she loathed).

An outspoken and fiercely independent woman, O'Keeffe retired to an isolated existence in the deserts of Abiquiu, N.M., during the '50s, and she continued to live there until her death in 1986. Viewed as a pioneering feminist hero by many women, O'Keeffe has been the subject of countless major exhibitions and several books over the past two decades, and at this point, she's nothing less than a legend.

We all know what America does to its legends, so Benita Eisler's revisionist view of Stieglitz and O'Keeffe should come as no surprise. Nonetheless, this book is quite an eye-opener. In taking an objective look at this mythical couple (O'Keeffe in particular has been fast approaching sainthood of late), Eisler has done something long in need of doing, but she performs her task a little too well.

The undisguised glee with which she reports the dirt she's dug up--and there are mighty shovelfuls--is disturbingly mean-spirited; Eisler seems to view O'Keeffe and Stieglitz's every utterance in as negative a light as possible, and in her hands both of them come off as thoroughly reprehensible people. In fact, it's initially difficult to stay with this book because the central characters are so cold-blooded and unlikable. One soon becomes fascinated, however, as the story picks up speed and the Stieglitz/O'Keeffe web of abuse and revenge grows ever more labyrinthine.

Eisler establishes at the outset that both O'Keeffe and Stieglitz were products of dysfunctional families, yet she shows remarkably little empathy for the behavior that handicap induced in them. This is surprising, considering that Eisler grounds her book in psychoanalytic theory. She's particularly big on Freud--Oedipal interpretations turn up in chapter after chapter--and she suggests that unresolved infantile rage coupled with misguided sexual energy was the rudder that steered the ship of O'Keeffe and Stieglitz's life together onto the rocks.

It's hard to say which of the two comes off looking worse, but Eisler's picture of Stieglitz certainly is not a pretty one. A controlling narcissist who insisted on dominating everyone around him, he's portrayed as a lying, dogmatic blowhard whose favorite pastime was haranguing anyone within earshot with his grandiose art manifesto. Eisler also suggests that photographer Edward Steichen was the real guiding intelligence behind Stieglitz's legendary 291 Gallery, that Stieglitz was an anti-Semitic Jew who was unspeakably cruel to his invalid mother just prior to her death, and that he spent his life freeloading off his relatives.

Among other character flaws Eisler attributes to Stieglitz: He was a manic-depressive hypochondriac; he enjoyed being bitten, scratched and clawed; he drove both his daughter and O'Keeffe into depressions so severe as to require extensive hospitalization, and he wanted his daughter to have a lobotomy. Sexist and misogynist, he tolerated only women he had created; he dumped one girlfriend when she became pregnant because he found pregnancy "unaesthetic," and he cruelly informed a model (O'Keeffe's sister Ida) that her behind had become too fat to photograph.

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