Kirkus Reviews QR Code


An American Romance

by Benita Eisler

Pub Date: May 1st, 1991
ISBN: 0-385-26122-5
Publisher: Doubleday

This frank but flawed dual biography of Alfred Stieglitz, photographer, art dealer, impresario, and Georgia O'Keeffe, painter, from their meeting in 1916 to their deaths (he in 1946, she in 1986) reveals along the way the development of photography as an art form, the experience of a woman artist, and much about the studios, galleries, life style, and politics of the artistic communities in N.Y.C. and Taos in the early decades of the 20th century. Mostly, however, Eisler (Private Lives, 1986) explores the psychopathology of two intense, talented, ambitious, creative, and sexually liberated people. More a mutual exploitation—a ``collusion,'' as Eisler concedes in the last chapter—than a ``romance,'' this was an unlikely pairing. Stieglitz, short, spoiled, argumentative, a married Jewish intellectual 23 years O'Keeffe's senior, possibly a pedophile, sexually confused at the least, consecrated their relationship with a series of pornographic photos described here in considerable detail and interpreted variously as ``cunt worship'' and ``a sexual mystery.'' Often sickly and depressed, eventually O'Keeffe found her own idiom—the giant flowers and fruits, the landscapes of Lake George where she and Stieglitz summered, even the skulls and bones she did in Taos, where she took refuge in her later years,—all interpreted sexually by reviewers however much she objected. Friends such as Sherwood Anderson, Jean Toomer, and Mabel Dodge, as well as wealthy patrons, were attracted by the couple's charm, talent, and the illusion of power, but many were alienated by their volatile nature and often scandalous sexual experimentation. For a book about visual arts, this is curiously out of focus. Eisler summarizes primary sources and major events, but also quotes minor reviews, introduces minor figures with full bios but little function in the major lives, and—in spite of the coda quoted from O'Keeffe, ``Art is a wicked thing. It is what we are''—shows only occasional relationship between the ``wicked'' art and the lives.