Transcript of conversation with Sarah Greenough
Sarah Greenough: What's extraordinary about the letters is that neither one of them had an agenda when they were writing the letters. They just sat down and wrote. They're spontaneous, they're free-flowing, almost stream of consciousness and they're both just pouring out their ideas, their responses to the people and places where they were. And they're incredibly immediate and free-flowing.
Jo Reed: That was Sarah Greenough, she was talking about the letters of artists Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O'Keeffe. Sarah is the editor of My Faraway One: Selected Letters of Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz: Volume One, 1915-1933
Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works. I'm your host Josephine Reed.
There are few couples in 20th-century American art more prominent than the painter Georgia O'Keeffe and the photographer Alfred Stieglitz. They first began to write to each other in 1915, He was in his early 50s; she was in her late twenties by the time of Stieglitz's death in 1946, the two had exchanged some 5,000 letters. Through these letters, we follow the contours of their relationship: their meeting and falling passionately in love, their success and failures in carving out a life together, the near-demise of their marriage and its final reinvigoration. If these letters only described their relationship, and their grappling with personal and professional fulfillment, My Faraway One would be doing a great service. But the letters selected and annotated by Sarah Greenough also show the evolution of Stieglitz's and O'Keeffe's thinking about art, their friendships with many of the influential figures in early American modernism and their relationships with an wide range of figures in American and European culture (including Duncan Phillips, Diego Rivera, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Marcel Duchamp). My Faraway One takes an intimate look at three decades of American culture.
Sarah Greenough was the ideal choice to take on the project of editing the letters. She's senior curator and head of the Department of Photographs at the National Gallery of Art, She was a friend to Georgia O'Keeffe and the author of Alfred Stieglitz: The Key Set. Her footnotes and interspersed biographical material gives the letters a framework that enhances their meaning.
The result is a book that reads like the overheard, decades-long intimate conversations between two articulate, creative people who are passionate about their love and their art.
I spoke with Srarah greenough when the My Faraway One was first published. I wanted to know how she became involved in the project.
Sarah Greenough: In 1981, Georgia O'Keeffe asked me if I would make a selection of the letters that she and Stieglitz had exchanged.
Jo Reed: Alfred Stieglitz, the photographer.
Sarah Greenough: Alfred Stieglitz, the photographer. At that time, I was working with O'Keeffe on an exhibition that was to be shown at the National Gallery, it opened at the National Gallery in 1983. And I had compiled a selection of Stieglitz's writings for that publication, both is published writings and letters. And so I had gotten to know O'Keeffe through that work. And she had, for a number of years, been wanting to see that correspondence published. After Stieglitz's death, she had gone through it. She'd had a number of her letters to him typed. She'd even asked a couple of people, before me, if they would work on it for a variety of reasons that didn't work out. So, in 1981, she asked me if I would make a book of their letters.
Jo Reed: When we're talking about a book of their letters, this is a very prolific correspondence. What are we talking about here?
Sarah Greenough: Between 1915, when they first began to correspond, and 1946, when Stieglitz died, they exchanged 25,000 pieces of paper, just a phenomenal amount of letters. These are letters that- many of the letters are from 1915 to 1918 when Stieglitz is in New York and O'Keeffe was primarily in Canyon, Texas. There are scattered letters then from the 1920s and then, in 1929, when O'Keeffe started going to New Mexico, the correspondence really picked up again. But the letters describe, in almost unimaginably rich detail, their daily lives during the many months that they were apart, O'Keeffe's life first in Texas and then in New Mexico, Stieglitz's life in New York City and his family's house at Lake George, New York. And the insights that the letters provide into early 20th century American art and culture is just extraordinary, amazing, but also the details that they provide about Stieglitz and O'Keeffe's life are equally as important and really revelatory in a way. But I think even more than that, what's so extraordinary about the letters is that we have here documents that trace the evolution of their relationship over this extraordinary period of time. What other important modern couple can you think of where you can read these very personal, very intimate letters? To be able to see that evolution of a relationship between two passionately committed independent focused individuals is really extraordinary.
Jo Reed: Let's go back to when they first met, which was in 1915. Explain Alfred Stieglitz's place in 1915.
Sarah Greenough: In 1915, Stieglitz was the most important person in the American art world. He was an internationally acclaimed photographer. He had long been a proponent of the artistic merit of photography. He had founded a gallery in New York which came to be called 291 in 1905. And there he had exhibited the finest examples of the art of photography but also the most advanced European and American modernist painting and sculpture. So he had been the first person in this country to show Picasso, Matisse, CÃ©zanne, Brancusi, he showed African art. He was absolutely at the peak of his reputation in 1915/1916. They actually, they first corresponded in 1915. They met in 1916.
Jo Reed: And how old was he?
Sarah Greenough: Stieglitz was 52. And O'Keeffe, at that point, was a 27, 28-year-old nobody, really. She was a schoolteacher working, in 1916, on the plains of Texas, Canyon, Texas. She had studied art for a number of years but her work was all but unknown except to a few family and friends.
Jo Reed: How did they get to meet?
Sarah Greenough: O'Keeffe had a very good friend from art school, a woman named Anita Pollitzer, who knew that O'Keeffe wanted Stieglitz to see her work more than anyone else in the world. She wanted to know Stieglitz's opinion of her work. And O'Keeffe would send Anita Politzer examples of her drawings and Anita Pollitzer, one day in early January, 1916, just took a roll of these drawings in and showed them to Stieglitz and Stieglitz was deeply moved by what he saw. And then they began writing shortly thereafter. Anita Pollitzer wrote O'Keeffe and told her what Stieglitz had said about her drawings and O'Keeffe was just emboldened to write him and ask him if he would tell her directly what he thought about them. And they started to correspond and then, later on in the spring of 1916, O'Keeffe moved to New York to go to Columbia University Teacher's College and she went into 291. She'd gone to Stieglitz's gallery, 291, when she'd been an art student in New York before but she went back again in 1916. And this is when she really began to, you know, to connect with Stieglitz, when they started to have some of their first significant conversations.
Jo Reed: And then she moved away again and the correspondence really took off.
Sarah Greenough: The correspondence picked up. In the summer of 1916, she moved first to Charlottesville, where her family was living, taught summer school at the University of Virginia, and then, in the fall of 1916, she moved to Canyon, Texas, which is about 20 miles south of Amarillo. And it was in the fall of 1916 that the number of their letters just escalated tremendously.
Jo Reed: In looking through the book, it was extraordinary to see them moving along so rapidly. I mean, that's what struck me was how quickly they began corresponding on almost a daily basis and then how intimate and I don't mean intimate in a sexual way at this point, though that certainly came, but just how intimate and open they were about their feelings.
Sarah Greenough: Yeah. O'Keeffe, I think, early in the fall of 1916, maybe September or October, she wrote Stieglitz and she said something to the effect of, "I think letters with such humanness have never come to me before."
Jo Reed: Despite their different ages and positions and their career trajectory, nonetheless, you say, in the introduction, that both Stieglitz and O'Keeffe, were both at a crossroads.
Sarah Greenough: They were. Stieglitz's gallery, by 1915, '16, was no longer quite the hub it had been a few years earlier. Because of all of his efforts in introducing modern European art to this country, a number of other galleries had been established in New York and they started to drain the tension away from Stieglitz. The war was also, of course, happening, although the United States was not yet involved with it. But that, too, was turning people's attention away from sort of the artistic avant-garde that Stieglitz had been such a focal point of before that. And Stieglitz's own personal relationship was changing a lot at that moment. He had been married for more than 20 years to a woman named Emmeline Obermeyer and they, by that point, shared very little in common except for love for their only child, a daughter, Kitty. And Stieglitz was clearly sort of deeply unhappy on the personal level and that, too, starts to come out in his correspondence with O'Keeffe. He starts to describe his own loneliness. O'Keeffe, at that moment, was also- she was in Canyon, Texas. She adored the west Texas state landscape. She loved teaching but she was also a little bit of a fish out of water there. She was very outspoken, very independent, very feisty, didn't conform to sort of the small-town notions of propriety so she, too, in a way, was lonely in that environment and you see them sort of both finding each other in their correspondence.
Jo Reed: Well, then she returned east and they found each other in other ways.
Sarah Greenough: They did. In 1918, O'Keeffe had been quite ill. She then came back to New York in the summer of 1918, June 1918. And she and Stieglitz began living together soon thereafter. That wasn't initially why she came to New York. She came there because she wanted to see Stieglitz but, by July 1918, they were living together as an unmarried couple, which was also not something that was commonly done at that moment but Stieglitz left his wife. And the love, the passion that you see coming out in those letters from the summer of 1918 is really just phenomenal.
Jo Reed: And they ended up marrying in 1924.
Sarah Greenough: They married in 1924 and their correspondence throughout the '20s becomes a little bit more sporadic. They're living together so there's, obviously, less reason to write. But O'Keeffe made a number of trips in the '20s, first to Maine and then to Wisconsin. She began to grow frustrated with the landscape that was around her on the east coast. She was finding it somewhat difficult to find subjects to paint so she went first to Maine and the ocean, in Maine, really did inspire her. But then, in 1928, she went to Wisconsin to visit her family there and sort of reconnected with her Midwestern roots and that, too, was quite inspirational for her. But also throughout the '20s, in the letters that do exist, you can see cracks beginning in their relationship. Stieglitz was a much more sedentary person than O'Keeffe. O'Keeffe wanted to travel far more than Stieglitz did. O'Keeffe very much wanted a home of their own and Stieglitz wanted to spend all of their summers at this family home that they had in Lake George, New York, where many of his brothers and sisters and their families and nieces and nephews would all come and descend on the house. And O'Keeffe really felt as though they impinged upon her time to paint. But even more than that, you start to see this sort of restlessness there in their relationship, as their sort of differing needs start to become more apparent.
Jo Reed: How instrumental is Stieglitz, do you think, to Georgia O'Keeffe's career?
Sarah Greenough: Oh, very instrumental. I mean, Stieglitz gave O'Keeffe her first exhibitions. He exhibited her work in 1916 in a group exhibition at his gallery. The exhibit gave her, her first one person show in 1917. And then, in the early 1920s, he gave her a number of exhibitions at galleries in New York and that established O'Keeffe. But also what happened , of course, when O'Keeffe moved to New York in 1918, Stieglitz began to photograph her, making probably some of the most important nudes in American art history period, certainly in the 20th century. And Stieglitz exhibited those nude photographs of O'Keeffe in 1921 before he had, in a sense, exhibited O'Keeffe. He wouldn't show her work again until a couple of years later. And, to a great extent, when critics then looked at O'Keeffe's new paintings, they were seeing Stieglitz's photographs, interpreting her work through Stieglitz's nude photographs of O'Keeffe and O'Keeffe felt really burned by that. Many, if you read the criticism from the time, you know, they talk about the swelling contours of O'Keeffe's hills and it sounds as if they're, you know, describing one of Stieglitz's nude photographs more than O'Keeffe's paintings.
Jo Reed: Well, often critics would sexualize her paintings, particularly the flower paintings and that's something that she really rejected.
Sarah Greenough: She did reject it although she continued to paint very provocative imagery. So she was very savvy about her work and she wrote a comment, not to Stieglitz but to somebody else, that she realized a lot of people bought, acquired and responded to art, as she said, "as much through their ears as through their eyes." And that you needed to be talked about, you needed to have that reputation. And certainly her paintings of flowers made her talked about.
Jo Reed: I think, at this point, the fact that they were at different points in their career becomes very complicated for their relationship because O'Keeffe was talking about the way men wanted to write the great American novel, she wanted to do the great American painting and the southwest really provided the canvas for that.
Sarah Greenough: It did. She had felt sort of increasingly stifled by the east coast landscape and she had been to New Mexico briefly in 1917, really just taking a train, passing through on her way to Colorado, and she wrote Stieglitz when she was there in 1917, and you can just see her excitement. She's like a little kid, almost bouncing off the walls. And so, by the late 1920s, when she began to feel that she needed new places to explore, to reinvigorate her art, New Mexico became a very logical place for her to go. And her first letters to Stieglitz from the summer of 1929, when she just gets out there, are just so extraordinarily exuberant. I mean, she is clearly just over the moon, not only with the landscape but also with the people that she's meeting there.
Jo Reed: How did Stieglitz feel about her relocating to New Mexico?
Sarah Greenough: Well, she didn't relocate. I mean, she would spend two to three months of most years between 1929 and his death in '46, she'd spend two to three months in New Mexico but, every fall and winter and spring, she was back in New York with him. So they were never really separated...
Jo Reed: Not for years but for months. That's a long time.
Sarah Greenough: For months. It is a long time.
Jo Reed: And especially if you're Stieglitz and you worry about your health.
Sarah Greenough: Exactly. And, in the summer of 1929, he almost falls apart because of her being out there. He literally just obsesses about her being away from him. He becomes fearful that she's being unfaithful to both him and to her art, concerned that she's, as my mother would have said, gallivanting around the southwest and not painting the pictures that she was supposed to be painting out there. And he really falls to pieces that summer and clearly becomes almost in a way unbalanced by her departure and writes O'Keeffe letters, three, four, five times a day that summer, letters that are 25, 30, 40 pages in length, just rambling on and on about his fears, his concerns.
Jo Reed: Of course, she's the one who should have had the concerns. <laughter>
Sarah Greenough: Well, yes. Once O'Keeffe starts going to New Mexico, Stieglitz started to spend much more time, focus much more attention on a much younger woman, Dorothy Norman, who was 40 years younger than Stieglitz. She was someone who'd started to come to his gallery in the late 1920s and, beginning in 1930, '31, '32, Stieglitz and Dorothy Norman started having a very intense affair that neither tried to hide from either of their spouses. Both Stieglitz and Dorothy Norman believed that their relationship with each other was so special, so holy, almost, in a way, that it enriched all those around them and it became extremely difficult, both for Dorothy Norman's husband and also for O'Keeffe.
Jo Reed: You know what struck me as I was looking through the letters, and that is, we're looking at two people who contributed so mightily to modernism, American modernism in terms of art but we're also looking at two people grappling with the modern American family.
Sarah Greenough: Two people grappling with the modern American marriage, really.
Jo Reed: Yeah.
Sarah Greenough: And that is something for which they had very- they had no roadmaps. There were few models to follow and I think actually some of the most beautiful, poignant letters in the book are ones that O'Keeffe wrote back to Stieglitz in the summer of 1929 when he was falling apart and when she was trying to explain why it was so critically important for her to be out there. And she says something to the effect of, you know, "What's between us is all right but I need to be out here for my art and if I am not sort of moving forward with my art, I can't be a strong, good partner to you." And that reconciling of how one can find love, enjoyment and fulfillment, both in a marriage and in one's professional career, is really at the core of much of their problems from '29 through the 1930s.
Jo Reed: How did Stieglitz respond to the paintings that Georgia O'Keeffe was producing when she was in New Mexico?
Sarah Greenough: Oh, he thought they were fabulous. Once she got back to New York at the end of the summer of 1929, she wrote one of her friends, whom she'd met in New Mexico, and said that she'd spread all of her paintings out for Stieglitz the night before and the two of them had just sat and looked at them with great smiles on their faces and her response or what she wrote to the friend was something to the effect of "I guess I won again." <laughs>
Jo Reed: And what about Stieglitz's own work? What was he doing at that time?
Sarah Greenough: Stieglitz was making a number of photographs of clouds but, in the early 1930s, he also embarked on making an extraordinary series of photographs of New York skyscrapers, really among his most accomplished works at the time. Another interesting thing, though, to sort of see and what happens in Stieglitz's work is he had photographed O'Keeffe a lot in the late teens and early '20s, just these amazingly passionate sensuous nudes. He had not photographed her much in the late '20s or early '30s. In the early 1930s, he starts photographing Dorothy Norman. And depicts her in a different way than he did O'Keeffe. She's much more of the docile, meek, adoring creature but he does also make nudes of Dorothy Norman at a time when he's not photographing O'Keeffe nude. And he depicts O'Keeffe at this time as a very mature and accomplished and independent person but very sexless, very cold, in a way.
Jo Reed: Stern.
Sarah Greenough: Stern. Yeah.
Jo Reed: Yeah. Now, you were friends with Georgia O'Keeffe.
Sarah Greenough: I knew her, yes, yeah.
Jo Reed: Did you approach the book both as a scholar and as a friend?
Sarah Greenough: No. You know, O'Keeffe asked me to work on this in 1981. She really had very- gave very few explicit instructions on what she wanted the book to be like except that she said to make it beautiful and make it honest. And this is quite typical of O'Keeffe, that sort of very terse, very to the point. And I took those really as the touchstones as I was working on this book. There are a number of letters that are very intimate and where you are listening in on a very private conversation between a married couple and I wrestled with the fact of whether it was appropriate or not to be including that kind of letter in a publication like this, particularly ones that are talking about their sex life. And, in the end, I decided that it was for a number of reasons, both because O'Keeffe herself was very open about the importance of her sexual relationship with Stieglitz. She was not prudish in any way at all. But also their sexual relationship had clearly been one of the things that kept them together during difficult times. It was immensely enjoying and fulfilling to both of them but also, in the end, I felt that I couldn't give an accurate picture of the evolution of their relationship without including those kinds of letters. So I did keep them in. And, as I made the selection of letters, I tried to create a balance between letters that tell us a great deal about American art and culture at that time that is otherwise not known, that reveal the impact, say, of major events in American history on two very articulate individuals such as World War I or World War II, the Depression, but also in the end, I made it a selection of letters that really talks about the evolution of their relationship. So, in the end, it probably became far more biographical than I had realized that it would be in the beginning but that really seemed to me to be of primary importance.
Jo Reed: How did you go about organizing the material? Because it's a massive book and it's volume one. It ends in 1933. Volume two is coming out from '33 to '46, which is when Stieglitz died.
Sarah Greenough: Right.
Jo Reed: Why did you decide that was going to be the demarcation point?
Sarah Greenough: Because that first volume traces sort of the evolution of them falling in love, the relationship almost falling apart in the early 1930s and then just at the very end of 1933, you see them beginning to pick up the threads of their relationship and start to figure out how it is from that point they could go forward.
Jo Reed: What did you learn about early American modernism by looking through these letters that you didn't know?
Sarah Greenough: I mean, you learn there are just sort of new facts, new details that appear, I think, on almost every page of the letters, incidents that people didn't know about, Stieglitz's and O'Keeffe's chronologies are clarified immensely. But I think more generally one of the things that you see is you see how much more porous everything was than we often, as historians, treat it. People, particularly with early American modernism, tend to divide it into certain segments and to assume that the people, for example, who were inspired and close to the French artist, Marcel Duchamp, were not close or friendly with Stieglitz, for example. These are often seen as two quite diametrically opposed camps. Stieglitz is viewed as celebrating a more emotional, intuitive art and art that's nature-based. Duchamp is a more theoretical, intelligent art focused more on modern technology. And people just have assumed that they're in very different camps, they had nothing to do with each other. And yet you read the letters and you see they're sort of all talking with one another, they're going to the same parties, they're in and out of each other's spaces and worlds to a phenomenal extent. So I think that was really extraordinary. But also, too, as historians, particularly art historians tend to look back, I think, and study the works of art and art always perhaps is attuned as they need to be about the daily events of people's lives. And one of the other things you see early on in the book is the impact, for example, that World War I had on all Americans, you know, 1917, '18, but particularly that it was having on Stieglitz and O'Keeffe.
Jo Reed: And when can we expect volume two?
Sarah Greenough: <laughs> Volume two, we think, will probably be 2014, 2015.
Jo Reed: Well, we look forward to it, Sarah Greenough. Thank you so much.
Sarah Greenough: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.
That was Sarah Greenough, she was talking about the book, My Faraway One: Selected Letters of Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz: Volume One. Sarah selected, edited and annotated the book.
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