Demythologizing biography paints O'Keefe and Stieglitz as entrepreneurs




Benita Eisler.


494 pages. $29.50.

Do we need to worship heroes? Do we need heroes at all? It is true that the hero-worship of the 19th century (knowingly created as a substitute for religion) not only resulted in Napoleon, Beethoven and Walt Whitman, but also perhaps in the homicidal clowns of the 20th century, like Mussolini. Where politicians fail, artists and poets like Picasso, Hemingway or Virginia Woolf are promoted to hero. Yet contemporary artist Jenny Holzer has rented heroic-size billboards to proclaim a different message: "We don't need another hero!" No Stormin' Norman for her! If we have to be nourished by heroic myths, maybe it would be better to learn to starve a little, like the rest of the world.

There now is a word for the process by which recent historians and biographers yank out the fangs of a heroic reputation, so to speak. If we defang a pet cat, we demythologize a famous human. We like our cultural tigers not just tamed and bare-gummed, but even humiliated and drooling. Now Benita Eisler, in a massive dual biography, has set out to defang or demythologize Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, two of the most fiercely successful of 20th century reputations, two combative saints of modern art.

Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) was one of those human atom bombs who have irradiated and influenced us even if we have never heard of him or his spiritual explosions. He was a gently charismatic preacher of modern art who also was one of the chief creators of 20th century photography. Through his own photographs, through his hypnotically beautiful magazine CAMERA WORK and through the consistent exhilaration of the art galleries he

founded, he helped America gain its own artistic soul.

He taught us how to combine European intellectual rigor with American liveliness and audacity. He was the first to exhibit Matisse and Picasso in America. He discovered such American photographers and artists as Paul Strand, John Marin, Arthur Dove and, of course, the one artist who was his equal and almost his destroyer, the one he married for life -- Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986).

The artists Stieglitz discovered often were his disciples, but O'Keeffe was a disciple who founded her own lonely religion. She became a much-publicized recluse of the New Mexico desert who was both supremely sensuous and proudly ascetic. Today, of course, O'Keeffe is a much better known myth than Stieglitz. Her paintings of gigantically sexual flowers have become a totem of feminism, a fact that horrified her.

However, as Nabokov pointed out, there is only a single letter separating the cosmic from the comic. Benita Eisler more or less believes in the artistic achievement of Stieglitz and O'Keeffe but she is relentlessly energetic in demonstrating the emotional cost -- both to themselves and others -- of their achievement. With archival evidence only recently made available, Ms. Eisler describes for us the sexual merry-go-round of the O'Keeffe-Stieg

litz circle, a crazy ride that makes Kitty Kelley look like Walt Disney.

Stieglitz the romantic drifted through numerous love affairs as nebulous and mutable as the clouds he loved to photograph. As indifferent to others' feelings as the mercilessly beautiful deserts she adored, O'Keeffe used love to evade love and had no strong preference as to gender. According to Ms. Eisler, O'Keeffe had affairs with both photographer Paul Strand and his wife. A tad less ambitious, Stieglitz confined himself to Strand's wife. How strong these people must have been to survive such emotional confusion!

Ms. Eisler is a TV personality and something of a sociologist. With compulsively Machiavellian cunning, she exposes the Machiavellian cunning of Stieglitz and O'Keeffe. Her biography is entitled "O'Keeffe and Stieglitz: an American Romance," and "romance" here means American manipulation and even entrepreneurship.

To Ms. Eisler, Stieglitz and O'Keeffe are co-conspirators who promoted each other's careers and managed people just like any other "successful" American. Their media sense and emotional gamesmanship bordered on the fraudulent and sadistic. In obsessively cynical analyses of her protagonists' motives, Ms. Eisler belongs to a well-remunerated group of crit

ics who hold that art is just as seamy as any other dubious business deal.

She says of Stieglitz that "he had more in common with Henry Ford . . . than with the romantic archetype. . . ." That should make us ordinary Joes feel better! Ms. Eisler herself admits her sense of triumph in uncovering a brief note by O'Keeffe that bluntly states, "Art is a wicked thing. It is what we are."

This book is well-written, well-documented and often usefully intelligent. A sense of place being all-important to both Stieglitz and O'Keeffe, it is good that Ms. Eisler gives us the caressable texture of their past environments -- the clean heat of bare lands loved by O'Keeffe, the lake and hill loved by Stieglitz, the look of the skin of their lovers in once happy light.

But Ms. Eisler is a serial murderer in the way she slants her descriptions of thoughts she can't really be sure of. She always assumes that the most evil intentions must be the ones really entertained by the two artists. The belief that the darkest interpretation of a motive must certainly be the truth is the last refuge of romantic naivete.

Stieglitz and O'Keeffe loved and created far more than they sinned. The radiant darkness of Stieglitz' photographs of O'Keeffe are immortal love. The passionate purity of O'Keeffe's best paintings does justify her enthronement as our desert priestess. The two are too complex even for Ms. Eisler's complexity. Like all good artists, like all human beings, they are too big for any biography. In that sense, we are all heroic myths.

Mr. Margulies is a poet and a curator at the Bayly Museum of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

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