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Tag Archives: Georgia O’Keeffe

It can be said that our perception of our history is an integral part of our identity both as a nation and, more importantly, as a culture. History can be pretty malleable as we continue to reexamine our path and alter the record to suit the moment, but Americans tend to cling pretty tightly to their own mythology even in the face of evidence to the contrary. I learned in school that Columbus was a hero, the Indians were bloodthirsty savages, and that immigrants of all nations were welcomed with open arms. Additional information has called these assumptions, and many others, into question.

History is indeed written by the winners, but in the case of the history of American Art , who are these “winners” exactly? Who gets to decide who’s in and who’s out?

There are times when today’s winners can become tomorrow’s afterthought, and I am reminded of this very poignantly by an ancient book on American painting that I have in hand today. The book, Three Hundred Years of American Painting, was written by Alexander Eliot (who, now in his 90s, has his own website) and produced by the editorial staff of Time Magazine. I picked the book up on a recent trip to Hoyt Library, a beautiful relic of the early 1900s in Downtown Saginaw. It was published in the year of my birth (1957),  when Eliot, not exactly a canonical figure in art historical circles, was art editor at Time Magazine when not only Time but the popular press in general featured art with great depth and frequency.

My first reaction upon reading Eliot’s book was how far publishing has advanced in my lifetime. The illustrations are dreadfully muddy and dull in color but probably well up to the standards of the day. They were prepared originally for Time, which had only begun using color images six years before. By the time my brain started recording memories of color images in magazines, color photos and ads in Life Magazine in the mid-1960s, technology had already made these pictures look dated. Today, when I can access thousands of high-quality digital images of just about anything I want in a matter of seconds,  they look a little dated.

Despite the now-substandard publication quality, the book is a fascinating survey or American art history as understood in the middle of the 20th century. Abstract Expressionism was the well along the way toward making New York the Art Capital of the World. The Great Depression and Second World War were recent memories and the baby boom was in full swing. Pop Art was just beginning to take its first wobbly steps, everyone was paranoid about being nuked by the Commies, and the Space Age was in its infancy. America was a very different place.

The long arc of American Painting is well represented in this book, but what really struck me was the inclusion of painters who have all but vanished from our consciousness. Not just a few of them, a lot of them. The chapter based loosely on the painters in the circle of Alfred Stieglitz (including 20th Century heavyweights Georgia O’keeffe and John Marin,  themselves now considered passe’ by a lot of Art Hipsters) includes a group I’ve never heard of, a group who have pretty much vanished from the more contemporary literature of American art. These guys were regarded highly enough for inclusion, yet can’t even seem to merit a seat that the proverbial table today.

Take for example the case of Karl Knaths. You have to dig a little to find out much about him (this brief biography is courtesy of the Phillips Collection, which owns a number of his paintings). Knaths enjoyed some prominence as an artist and educator right up until his death in 1971. Stylistically, he transitioned from representation through cubism to abstraction,  yet the historical record on him is so sparse that I can’t even find a reproduction of the painting featured in Eliot’s book, Horse Mackerel, anywhere on line. Ah, the fleeting nature of fame.

Green Squash (Karl Knaths, 1948 - from The Phillips Collection)

Green Squash (Karl Knaths, 1948)

The same fate has befallen William Kienbusch (1914 – 1980), who was respected well enough to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1958 but has since been largely purged from Art’s memory banks. At his creative peak, Kienbusch was associated with the same New York School that gave us Abstract Expressionism, a artistic malaise that that I’ve discussed before; now, he’s an historical asterisk. At the Kienbusch that Eliot featured in his book (owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art) is available online, sadly only in black and white. Instead, I give you Early Morning Baker Island, a painting that went for the very affordable sum of $1,700 in 2005.

Early Morning Baker Island (William Kienbusch, 1957)

Early Morning Baker Island (William Kienbusch, 1957)

Of the six artists added the tail end of the chapter in question, only Milton Avery seems to have survived the murky, fog-shrouded 1950s to enjoy a measure of notoriety today. although none of the others seem to suffer the obscurity of Knaths and Kienbusch. One of them, Theodoros Stamos, actually enjoys a fairly prominent place in art history not for his art but for his role as the executor of Mark Rothko’s estate and his involvement in in a lawsuit brought by Rothko’s wherein he lost his ass.

Bird and Breaking Wave (Milton Avery, 1944)

Bird and Breaking Wave (Milton Avery, 1944)

The lesson here, I suppose, is that no matter what you think you may have accomplished in your life, history is a harsh and fickle mistress. Your life will be better served if you simply do good work for its own sake and let others worry about your legacy because you can’t control it. Fame is fleeting, art endures.

Full Moon (Theodoro Stamos, 1948)

Full Moon (Theodoro Stamos, 1948)




Note: I’ve been away from this blog for nearly five months. The reasons behind my absence will be the subject of a future post but had nothing to do with anything sinister like illness or incarceration. Truth be told, I was utterly sick of the internet for reasons entirely political. At any rate, my sabbatical is over and it’s time to get writing again. 

Today is the birthday of one on the most influential people in the history of American Art, a man who established a reputation as one of the world’s foremost photographers, helped drag a reluctant America into Modernism, and launched the careers of some of the 20th Century’s revered painters. He was a study in paradoxes. He was a nurturing tyrant. He worked tirelessly to promote “his” artists, privately relishing the role while claiming to detest it. He was of the leisure class yet feigned poverty. He enjoyed the uncritical admiration of a posse of followers while being passionately despised by his enemies. He spoke engagingly of the spiritual power of love but was a bit of a philandering pig.  His life story is a fascinating mix of privilege,  vision and dedication, situational ethics, and luck.

That man is Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946), who was born on New Year’s Day in Hoboken, New Jersey, the first child of German immigrant parents. His father was a successful merchant who provided his children with first-rate European educations. One of his twin brothers went on to become a chemist and educator; the other a physician. Alfred himself abandoned his scientific education (his father wanted him to study engineering) and, on the back of his generous allowance, bummed around Europe for a few years and became a world-class photographer. Between 1887 and 1907, in Europe and, after 1890, in New York, Stieglitz created a body of work that remains as one of the most groundbreaking and enduring in the field of American Art.


Winter- Fifth Avenue (Alfred Stieglitz, 1893)

It was along about this time that Stieglitz began promoting photography as a “Capital A” art, along side painting and sculpture, an idea that the Art Establishment found pretty laughable at the time. Banding together with other influential photographers of the day, he founded a movement, The Photo-Secession, and a gallery similarly named, The Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession. The gallery would soon be known by it’s address, 291 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, as simply “291.” That gallery, and the journal published there known as “Camera Work,” were noteworthy in two major respects; they established photography as a fine art in the minds of most (but certainly not all) art cognoscenti of the time and, perhaps more importantly, they served as a beachhead through which European Modernism invaded America.  Stieglitz soon began to exhibit and write about painting and sculpture in addition to photography. By the time 291 closed in 1917, it had exhibited European artists who were quite unknown in the US at the time but are now included among the most beloved artists ever. The exhibit list includes heavyweights like Matisse, Picasso, Cezanne, Rodin, and Duchamp.

A number of American photographers and artists gained much of their early notoriety through 291 and through Stieglitz’s two subsequent galleries The Intimate Gallery and An American Place. Photographers Edward Steichen (with whom Stieglitz founded 291) and Paul Strand can both trace their roots back to 291. In Stieglitz’s later years, An American Place featured the work of the likes of Ansel Adams, Eliot Porter, and Edward Weston.

While Stieglitz’s contributions to the development of American Photography were quite impressive, it was his transition to painting that may have left the most lasting imprint on American Art. No, Stieglitz himself did not paint, but he adopted a group of relatively obscure American painters in his 291 days and spent the rest of his life promoting their work, largely at the expense of his own photography. Among the members of the Stieglitz Circle are Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove, John Marin, and maybe most notably Georgia O’Keeffe.

The Western Flame (Marsden Hartley, 1920)

The Western Flame (Marsden Hartley, 1920)

Morning Sun (Arthur Dove, 1935)

Morning Sun (Arthur Dove, 1935)

O’Keeffe’s relationship to Stieglitz is the stuff of legend, the fodder for several books and major portions of the many biographies of both artists. O’Keeffe was laboring as an art instructor at a tiny Texas college when she came to the attention of Stieglitz through a mutual friend on, oddly enough, January 1st, 1916. The circumstances of this discovery are immortalized in the prologue of the book O’Keeffe & Stieglitz: An American Romance by Benita Eisler and repeated just about everywhere anyone has written about the pair. The mutual friend, Anita Pollitzer, a photographer known more for her role in the Stieglitz – O’Keeffe connection than for anything else, took some drawings O’Keeffe has mailed her to show Stieglitz. As mythology has it, Stieglitz immediately felt an attraction to the unseen artist, uttering the words “Finally, a woman on paper.” Summarizing the progression of events that followed, he exhibited the drawings, met O’Keeffe, fell in love with her (despite being married since 1894) and pursued her relentlessly. Within a year or two, they were living scandalously together and would remain a couple (despite frequent infidelity on both their parts) until Stieglitz’s death in 1946. It’s all there at the core of the history of American Art in the first half of the 20th Century, a fascinating story far richer and more complex than I could ever cover here.

Brooklyn Bridge (John Marin, 1912)

Brooklyn Bridge (John Marin, 1912)

I probably know more about Alfred Stieglitz than about any other figure in American Art. I’ve studied his images and read a number of biographies, watched his American Masters episode on PBS, looked at his work in several museums. It was he who led me from a rather parochial interest in photography to a much broader interest in art and an appreciation of painting. Had I not chanced upon a biography in a used book store and recognized his name, I probably wouldn’t be writing these words today. For better or worse, Stieglitz was and remains one of my inspirations.

Lake George (Georgia O'Keeffe, 1922)

Lake George (Georgia O’Keeffe, 1922)

I’ve developed this annoying habit of using New Year’s Day to look back on the many roads I’ve traveled and think about how it was I got to wherever it is that I find myself. I think the people close to me find it tedious but I find it refreshing and sometimes inspiring. I find it appropriate to celebrate the beginning of 2013 by reflecting on the role Stieglitz had on me on this, the 149th anniversary of his birth. Thank you, Alfred, for all that you have given me. You were deeply flawed, contradictory, and often insufferable. In other words, you were human.

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Georgia O’Keeffe died 26 years ago today. I’ve long been fascinated with O’Keeffe and her place in the history of 20th Century American art, first as a member of the circle of Alfred Stieglitz (whom she married in 1924) and later as a cultural icon in her own right. Starting out as a member of a group of men in an era when women weren’t taken very seriously as artists, she went on to eclipse them all. It’s a fascinating story and one that’s particularly well-documented.

Summer Days (Georgia O’Keeffe, 1936)

O’Keeffe lived for well over 90 years and painted long enough to have several distinct periods evident in her work. She’s probably best known for the floating cow skulls and other images of New Mexico, where she eventually relocated to spend the last 40 years of her life. She did revolutionary work with large close-ups of flowers early in her career and gave it up because too many observers saw sexual connotations in the paintings that she vehemently denied. I am particularly enchanted with her cityscapes. She was a prolific painter with varied interests and left an indelible impression on American culture for most of the 20th Century.

Two Calla Lillies on Pink (Georgia O’Keeffe, 1928)

She was an integral part of a group of American Modernist painters like John Marin, Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, and Charles Demuth and she endured long after they became art historical footnotes. She crashed the art world’s essentially all-male party in the 1920s and 30s, paving the way for succeeding generations of women artists,  then soundly rejected the adoration of feminists in the 1970s. She was reclusive, secretive, and a little weird.

The Radiator Building at Night (Georgia O’Keeffe, 1927)

It’s interesting to speculate about how O’Keeffe’s career trajectory would have been different had Stieglitz, a huge mover and shaker on the American art scene in the early part of the 20th Century, not married her and devoted so much time and energy to advancing her career (She was the last artist shown at Stieglitz’s monumentally influential New York gallery 291). At least one biographer, Stieglitz niece Sue Davidson Lowe, insists that O’Keeffe’s talent would have propelled her to the fore regardless. I’m not so sure. She was a talented painter but her standoffish and disagreeable personality may not have served her well without Stieglitz’s relentless promotion. If the last 40 years of art history have taught us anything, it’s that PR trumps talent every time.