‘They got a wall in China/ It’s a thousand miles long/ To keep out the foreigners, they made it strong/ I got a wall around me that you can’t even see/ It took a little time to get next to me.’
- Paul Simon


Georgia: A novel of Georgia O’Keeffe

Dawn Tripp

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Feb 07, 2016
Category: Art and Photography

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When it comes to culture, Americans are like baby birds — we like our nutrition pre-chewed. So if I wanted to learn about Hadley Richardson, perhaps Ernest Hemingway’s greatest love, the last thing I’d read 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’Keefe’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. [To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here. For the audio book, click here.]

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 something James Salter said in describing Light Years:

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’Keefe 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 where did that take her?
Dawn Tripp will be reading in Dallas, Scottsdale, Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Decatur, Washington, Mystic Ct., Providence, Newton, Brookline and Westport. For details, click here.

Short takes

The book to read: ‘When Breath Becomes Air’

At 36, Dr. Paul Kalanithi was finishing his residency as a neurosurgeon. At 37, he died of cancer. In the final year of his life, he wrote a book, “When Air Becomes Breath.” It’s dazzling and important, less about death than you’d expect and more about love — love of his work, his wife, their child, of life. As Janet Maslin wrote in the Times: “Finishing this book and then forgetting about it is simply not an option.” Read Paul Kalanithi on his last day as a surgeon. Read Lucy Kalanithi’s op-ed about a marriage that didn’t end when her husband died. And then… [To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here. For the Audible audio book, click here.]

Treadmill Trails: the 99-cent solution to your New Year exercise resolution

My friend Richard Sandhaus is endlessly inventive. This time he’s created Treadmill Trails, an app that should have special appeal to those of us who don’t like to watch TV or listen to audio books as we work out. And the coolest thing about these videos – you don’t have to listen to the pump-you-up music that’s standard issue in gyms, you can substitute your own soundtrack. The experts have taken notice: Treadmill Trails is the only indoor running/walking app to be included in Runner’s World’s “27 Apps Every Runner Should Know About.” Why are these videos so good? Because Richard, a veteran hiker and trail runner, hiked the trails start-to-finish, shooting with a Steadicam. Where can you be working out? The Appalachian Trail, Mt. Kilimanjaro, Kauai’s spectacular Na’Pali coast, or 21 other locations, with two new locations added each month. Cost: 99 cents for each 30-minute video. Get Treadmill Trails at Google Play or the App Store.

“45 Years” — the movie for those who have attained a certain age

I saw “45 Years” this week — for the second time. I needed to watch the final few minutes again, I needed to see how Charlotte Rampling feels the full force of what has happened to her and realizes that she needs to do something about it. If you are young and new to love or only in the first few decades of a long-playing romance, this might not be the movie for you. (Go see “Spotlight,” “The Big Short,” “Brooklyn.” Avoid “Carol.”) But if you have achieved a certain age, if you have learned that intimacy is everything in a marriage and that there can be a very high cost to keeping your secrets secret, “45 Years” could be the movie of your year. Slow? Yes, like an Ingmar Bergman film is slow. But 95 minutes of Charlotte Rampling, looking every bit her age, fighting for understanding and balance? My God, I could watch that for days.

Married Sex: the audio book

The audio book of Married Sex: A Love Story is finally available. May Wuthrich produced and directed, Tavia Gilbert read the female characters, I read the description and the narrator’s dialogue. I hadn’t opened the book in months, and I’d blocked the simplest fact — it’s drenched with emotion — and I certainly had no idea that Tavia could take the wife’s pain into the Streeposphere and that my response to those scenes would be to read, through tears, in a voice that cracked, but we decided to keep all of that. If you’re looking for a story about a married couple, some harmless sex and an unexpected aftermath, here you go.