An extensively researched biography of arguably the most identifiable American painter of the 20th century.
Tracing the artistic and emotional evolution of Georgia O’Keeffe (1887–1986) into an increasingly self-centered and unpleasant personality, art journalist Drohojowska-Philp takes account of the painful circumstances that shaped that evolution. Contrary to the artist’s own description of her early years as independent and happy, the author chronicles an extremely difficult adolescence and young adulthood, followed by an early artistic maturity that was almost entirely dominated by her lover (and later husband), photographer and impresario Alfred Stieglitz. O’Keeffe divided her life into before, during, and after Stieglitz, and her biographer uses the same organization. Drohojowska-Philp pays so much attention to the Stieglitz circle that she almost loses O’Keeffe in the process, but giving context to the artist’s life and career is the most impressive achievement here. That gives way in the third section to serial descriptions of paintings and a prosaic repetition of the venerable artist’s travels in lieu of more critical consideration of the period during which O’Keeffe created a not entirely accurate image of herself as a recluse and became America’s foremost art-world prima donna (not to mention the originator of Santa Fe chic). The author provides extensive endnotes, but also plenty of unattributed anecdotes, such as the story of the now-famous O’Keeffe returning to the site of one of her early teaching positions, appearing in her old room during a class led by her former supervisor, striding to a cabinet and removing her remaining drawings, then leaving without a word. Drohojowska-Philp’s cavalier attitude toward references might not bother a popular audience, but it’s problematic for specialists who would otherwise find her text helpful. Nonetheless, the author’s use of previously untapped sources confirms a wealth of information previously a matter of debate or obscured by O’Keeffe herself in establishing her official mythology.
Not definitive, but masses of information make it worthwhile.