Georgia : a novel of Georgia O'Keeffe /

In 1916, Georgia O'Keeffe is a young, unknown art teacher when she travels to New York to meet Stieglitz, the famed photographer and art dealer, who has discovered O'Keeffe's work and exhibits it in his gallery. Their connection is instantaneous. O'Keeffe is quickly drawn into St...

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Main Author: Tripp, Dawn Clifton, (Author)
Format: Book
Published:New York : Random House, [2016]
Edition:First edition.
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I 1979, Abiquiu, New Mexico I bought this house for the door. The house itself was a ruin, but I had to have that door. Over the years, I've painted it many times, all different ways: abstract, representational, blue, black, brown. I've painted it in the hot green of summer, in the dead of winter, clouds rushing past it, a lone yellow leaf drifting down. I painted the door open only once. Just before he died. In every picture after, it was closed. This is not a love story. If it were, we would have the same story. But he has his, and I have mine. He used to say it all began with the charcoal abstractions I made in 1915 before I met him. I was twenty-seven, a schoolteacher, poor, driven only by a singular, relentless passion for my art. One night, I turned my back on everything I'd learned about what art should be, I locked the door of my room and got down on the floor with large sheets of paper and charcoal. I remember the cool hush of the night through the window as shapes poured out of the nub of charcoal in my hand. Finished, I rolled up the drawings and sent them to my friend Anita Pollitzer in New York. She brought them to Stieglitz at his gallery. When he saw them, he told her, "These are the purest, fairest, sincerest things that have entered 291 in a long while." I knew who he was--everyone did. I'd met him once before though he would not remember. The father of modern photography. An icon of American art. In groundbreaking shows at 291, Alfred Stieglitz had introduced New York to the work of Picasso and Matisse. A brilliant photographer in his own right, he was known more for the careers of the artists he'd "made." I wrote to him at 291 and asked him to tell me what he saw in my charcoal drawings. He wrote back to say he wanted to show my work, I should send him more. We exchanged letters back and forth across the country. I spent every extra dollar on brushes, paper, paint. Over the years, this would be the story he told, again and again, until it became The Story: those charcoals; his discovery of me; our correspondence that began shortly after. He would say I was what he had been waiting for. What he had always known was meant to exist. Because Stieglitz used words with a certain unique force, his version of our story prevailed. "You will be a legend," he said to me once. I laughed. "No," he said. "I see it. It's already in you." Legend. A word he would use again and again. He had faith in me. He did not give me greatness, but his faith in my early work gave me the space to achieve it. He knew this then, and perhaps on some level he also knew that for me to fully become the legend he saw, I would have to leave him. Tonight in New Mexico, so many years later, the air is clear. My sight is gone, but I know this view by heart. The ropy silvered turns of the road passing below my window, the shrubby heads of the cottonwoods, the river valley, the distant line of hills. The shapes of the world out there are shadowy. Lean and contoured strokes, they glow. The moon shines and cuts the night open. There's a grain of truth to Stieglitz's version of things: The story of my art in his life did begin the moment he unrolled those charcoals. But to my mind, our story began more than a year later. I was still teaching, at a small college in Texas, sending him my pictures as I made them. A curious intimacy had begun to evolve in our letters. It was late May 1917 when Stieglitz wrote to say he had hung a small show of my watercolors and charcoals. My first show. It would be 291's last. He was closing the gallery. The war. I felt my heart skip as I read those lines. What I'd give to see my things on those walls. For three days, I walked around with his letter in my pocket. Then I went to the bank manager's house on a Sunday and begged him to open, so I could withdraw the last two hundred dollars I had to buy a train ticket from Texas to New York. I did not tell Stieglitz I was coming. II May 1917, New York 291. The walls are bare, already stripped. He looks up and when he sees me standing in the doorway, his face changes, softens to a simple pleasure, lit. "Georgia." He dismisses the two fellows he was speaking with. "You've come all this way," he says. "I had no idea you were coming to New York." "I know, I should have told you." "Your show was taken down two days ago. I'm sorry." His eyes are dark, piercing through his bent spectacles, a kind of deep-set fire in them; his hair thick and wild, turning steel gray. He is in his mid-fifties, nearly twice my age. "Where are you staying?" he says. "With a friend. Near Teachers College." His eyes have not left my face. "Wait," he says. He goes into the back room and reappears with two of my pictures. "Sit down." He gestures to a chair. I shake my head. "I'd rather stand." He pauses. "You aren't going to leave?" "Not yet." "Good." He begins to hang my art, piece after piece. My watercolor skies, my charcoal landscapes of the canyon with the humped shapes of cows, my numbered blues. He hangs them exactly as he'd placed them for the show. A sureness in how he handles them. Prophet. Seer. Giant of the art world. Iconoclast. The small room is hot. I can feel threads of sweat moving down my body, heat in my throat, in my hands. He is married, I tell myself. A wife. A daughter. You're his artist. Nothing more. I think back to a day in February, his letters were piling up--sometimes five in a week--I had begun to dread their coming. Began to dread even more the impatient hunger I felt for them to come. And on that day, in the one free hour I had between classes, instead of going to the post office to see what he had sent, I made myself not go. I bought a box of bullets instead, took my gun and some old tin cans, walked out across the plains, threw the cans onto the ground, and shot at them like I could blow that hunger right apart-- Now, at 291, he strides past me. The gallery walls are no longer empty, as they were when I arrived. The room has sparked to life. One piece does not hang straight. He crosses back to it and gently shifts the frame's edge to be just as he wants it. Then it is done. The room is very still. Light filters through the skylight to the floor. He turns to me. "Look," he says. My eyes flow slowly over the walls, over my art. "You should have been here to see the whole show," he says. "You would have seen how it stunned them. I can't tell you how many times I had that thought: If only she were here." His voice drops. A nameless, burning thing between us. I laugh, an awkward laugh, but it breaks the spell and things are light again. I am light, and he is just a man. I walk with him through the room, looking at my pictures on the walls. We pause at a painting of the Palo Duro canyon--the golden sloped walls, rimmed with fleecy clouds, wet blue sky in the upper right corner. "That country out there is entirely unlike New York, isn't it?" he says. "And you love it, don't you?" "The sky is just so big. The distances. It's hard to describe. It reminds me of Sun Prairie." "In Wisconsin?" "Yes. Where I grew up." Farmland rolling away, wheat like golden snow. But it was the sky I loved most--the beautiful free waste of it. When chores on the farm were done, there was nothing to do but wander out into that sky. We are still facing the picture of the canyon, standing near enough that I realize I could stretch my fingers and touch the point at his sleeve where the wrist disappears at the cuff. "It's important that you work more in oil," he says. "You'll have to--you know." "Oil is stubborn. I don't always like it." He laughs. "You will learn to." It is the future he is speaking of. He quotes from the critics, some of the reviews. I have already seen them. He sent them to me and, though I could not quite bear to read them, I notice the words live on his tongue: exile, privation, flowing, rise, mystical, in a sensitized line. I am aware of him standing near me--so near, it feels almost unsafe. "I want to photograph you with your pictures," he suddenly says. "May I?" I nod. He goes into the back room and returns with the camera and tripod. "Stand there," he says, pointing to one of my blues. "In front of that. No, not to the side, put it behind you. Make it the background of you." Inch to the left, three inches forward, half an inch back. He knows what he wants. "No, less. Turn your chin. Yes. That's it." He disappears behind the camera under the worn black cloth. "Look directly here." His voice snakes into the room like it is not his voice, but another--softer, lower, streaming from the lens. I can feel him, watching me, waiting, the other side of the camera, the silence of the room charged now as he waits for the light to shift and fall a certain way, an expression on my face that he is waiting for, he will wait until he has it. "There," he says. "Now. Whatever you are thinking, don't lose it. Don't move. Don't blink. Nothing." The shutter clicks. I am counting. Counting. It takes so long--but there's a kind of raw pleasure in holding still, like I am stone on the outside, my heart beating through my skin so deep and loud I'm sure he will hear it. I'm aware of his eyes behind the camera, the hot dark work of them, and I feel my body rise. "Don't move," he whispers. "Georgia." III I stay in New York for ten days. He invites me to lunch and we walk the streets, laughing, talking. The buildings seem to shimmer, spring sun striking off them. He tells me about Oaklawn, his family's summer home at Lake George--how he always starts to feel the pull of it this time of year, in spring when the buds swell and the world is busting open. "I love the Lake the way you love your plains and sky." I glance at him. A small white dog runs across the path in front of us, a child running after, long spindling legs churning. He talks about his daughter, Kitty, who will enter Smith College in the fall. He calls his wife Mrs. Stieglitz, a strain in the silence that follows. He asks about my family. I talk about my four sisters: Catherine and Anita are married, Ida's a nurse; Claudie, the youngest, still in school, lives out in Texas with me. I don't talk about our father who turned to drink and disappeared. I don't mention my mother who died last spring. We come to a man selling oranges and stop for one. I peel it as we walk, my fingers tacky with the juice. "Do you miss Texas when you're here?" he asks. "Right now?" I say lightly and smile. "No." There is a push in the silence between us. I am keenly aware of the stink of the horses, the blare of the cars, voices passing, trees like green shadows. A carriage passes by. "You must continue to send me your things," he says. "Even with no gallery?" "I'll find a way to show them. And you must send them carefully--better packaging, more postage. They must arrive safe." "It's hard to imagine there will be no 291." I see him frown. "There was no choice anymore. The war. The expense." "It just feels wrong that something with such meaning would not exist." "It will exist somewhere else. Just keep making your pictures and send them to me." He smiles then. "You, Great Woman Child." He has called me crazy things like this in his letters. "How can I be both?" I say. "Both Great Woman and Child. Tell me. I've wondered this." I expect him to laugh, but he doesn't. "That's what gives your art greatness," he says simply. "You have what a child has--a pure unpolluted instinct. What I call Whiteness. And you are a woman." So casual--how he uses that word, Greatness--as if he's unfolding something I already know. Back at 291, he introduces me to a few of his circle--the men. There's the collector Jacob Dewald, the inventor Henry Gaisman, the painter Arthur Dove. They have already seen my pictures--and are full of compliments and praise. I briefly meet John Marin, the best-known of Stieglitz's artists. He'll render smashed sunlight on a coast in forked block lines. When I first saw his work, it reminded me of Kandinsky. Stiegtliz's newest protégé, Paul Strand, is also there. He has a work apron on, a hammer in his hand. He looks like a boy dressed up in someone else's costume. A solemn round face, blue eyes. He shows me one of his photographs of bowls--four very ordinary kitchen bowls--but cropped close up, disorienting. "So beautiful!" I say. And it is--how the curve of one bowl falls into the curve of the next--a definite, near-perfect balance in resolute asymmetry. "A similar sense of feeling to your blue spiral, Georgia," Stieglitz says, coming over. "Different, though," I say. "How?" "Here, in the bowls, the movement is happening in many directions at once. Not only one. The cropping intensifies that. It magnifies the motion and makes us believe it continues." I point at a shadow in the shape of a blade, sharply cropped, at the print's edge. "Exactly right," Stieglitz says, a beat of triumph in his voice, "although I have to admit I myself didn't see it quite that way before." He looks at Strand, then at the others. They nod assent, his admiration echoed in their eyes, and in that moment I understand: There are things this man values in me, things he wants. He treats me as an equal, more than equal, and for that reason alone, others will see me that way. On June 1, there is only rain, as if the city itself will pour away. I wake at dawn and watch the world outside slide down the window glass. At the train station, Gaisman goes off to check the schedule. Stieglitz and I are alone on the platform. The ache is almost unbearable. A strand of hair falls across my eyes. He moves it. "Lovely, You," he says. Excerpted from Georgia: A Novel of Georgia O'Keeffe by Dawn Tripp All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.