A much-celebrated—and misunderstood—painter peers across decades to ask: what would I have become without the lover who first promoted my work?
“This is not a love story,” she promises, before Tripp (Game of Secrets, 2011, etc.) re-creates O’Keeffe’s unannounced visit to Alfred Stieglitz’s New York gallery, just missing a show of abstract drawings she’s been sending him from Texas—truly, one of the sexiest “meets” of all time. In short order, he rehangs all of the work so he can photograph her with it and within a year, has thrown over his dismal-but-financially-advantageous 25 years of marriage to nest with his young sibyl and capture every inch of her with his camera. The nudes revive his career, but what’s in it for O’Keeffe, who hasn’t sold a painting? Tripp soon locates the wrinkle in this storybook relationship: “You will be a legend,” Stieglitz tells O’Keeffe, if she sticks with her more representational (and sexually provocative) studies of oversize flowers—which will more easily win over critics and attract customers who tend to shy away from purely abstract work. She takes the advice and is crowned best woman painter of the modernist generation. Over time, O’Keeffe gets pulled back to the Southwestern landscape, the one place she can free her mind of her lover’s unquenchable thirst for young female adoration and—most bitter to her—his refusal to father a child (he has his reasons). Artful dialogue and snappy segues whiz a reader through 30 years of professional and domestic Sturm und Drang plus cameo appearances by members of the era’s avant-garde art scene (including one or two who tempt O’Keeffe to turn tables on Stieglitz). In the end, it’s not fidelity she craves but space to make art as she did when she was “nobody”: “This is, after all, what I learned from [Stieglitz]: to keep what I want to myself. To reveal only what I want to be seen.”
A year before the centennial of that first one-woman show, Tripp’s portrait makes a compelling primer to O’Keeffe’s early career—and, yes, more than a love story.