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Review: Georgia: A Novel of Georgia O’Keeffe, by Dawn Tripp
Random House, 2016. 318 pp. $28

It’s one of those stories you couldn’t make up. In 1917, a young woman teaching art at a small Texas college receives word from a famous artist in New York that he’s hung her charcoal and watercolor abstracts as part of the last show his gallery will ever house. Without telling him, she scrapes together her savings, hops a train, and gets to the gallery two days after the show has ended. The two artists’ instant attraction, fierce and tender, is like planets pulled together by gravity. But it should be recalled that planets take up a lot of space, and that they’re not meant to occupy the same place at the same time.

This is the story of Georgia O’Keeffe before, during, and after she becomes a leading artist in her own right, and of Alfred Stieglitz, the man who makes (and hinders) her career. Stieglitz doesn’t merely belong to the American avant-garde in 1917; he is the avant-garde. Not only has he redefined photography as an art form, he has a keen eye for talent and a sense of where modern art can (and should) go next, having introduced American audiences to such luminaries-to-be as Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. On the basis of her few drawings, Stieglitz knows, just knows, that O’Keeffe will be Somebody, and he persuades her to let him make this happen.

Georgia O'Keeffe, photographed by Alfred Stieglitz, 1918 (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Georgia O’Keeffe, photographed by Alfred Stieglitz, 1918 (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Not that Georgia needs much persuasion; Alfred is an intensely charismatic man, and he gets what her work is trying to say, which to her is like a sexual lollipop. However, he’s also more than two decades older than she, married, with a daughter, not to mention that Georgia isn’t the first younger woman he’s charmed. Defying convention is all very well, but their affair poses greater risks for Georgia than Alfred, and she quickly realizes that one of these is dependence. Can she be her own person and still live with an all-consuming man old enough to be her father–and not just any father, but one who knows best? More importantly, to Georgia, can she be the artist she intends rather than the one he’s created?

These are fascinating questions, with obvious feminist implications, but since Georgia has no use for isms, she sees the struggle as one between two outsize personalities duking it out. That Stieglitz never gets what she’s asking, or why, tells you how self-absorbed he is. And yet, she wonders how he can photograph the sky, “seized something so ephemeral . . . and fixed it to paper in such a way that all I want to do is fall into the mystical sheen of the world he has rendered.” That magnetism is what keeps Georgia with Stieglitz, and Tripp makes this perfectly explicable, even as she depicts O’Keeffe’s anger at his manipulations.

Some readers will finish this novel and object that there’s no plot, only the two planets crashing together, and the resulting energy that O’Keeffe turns into amazing art. That’s true. But the titanic battle feels deep and real, greater than the sum of its parts. Much of this derives from Tripp’s prose, which grabs you and never lets go:

Later, I will look at that photograph, and there is something so domestic, so simple . . . I will look at that photograph–a small print, the size of a playing card–and I will try to remember if it was ever as simple and lovely as he made it appear. This was his gift. This is what we were entranced by. How he could capture the momentary flicker of a soul in the image of raindrops on an apple, or three people gathered around a small table at a meal–such a simple and intimate pleasure–the trees in the background, blurred.

Tripp has captured something herself, the way an artist sees. I’ve always felt that art is about seeing; incidentally, having viewed O’Keeffe’s paintings of flowers has changed the way I look at nature. But even if you’ve never seen her work, Georgia conveys that precious quality, the gift of vision granted only to a few.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.