Photograph of Georgia O'Keeffe by Alfred Stieglitz, 1918

While much has been written about the life and works of Georgia O’Keeffe and her relationship with photographer Alfred Stieglitz, Karen Karbo‘s newly released How Georgia Became O’Keeffe travels to refreshingly new territory.  This immensely readable version of the famed artist’s story is less an academic study than it is a look at O’Keeffe through the author’s uniquely quirky and astute filter. Wrapping up a trilogy of whip smart books Karbo has written over the last five years featuring talented and compelling women, How Georgia Became O’Keeffe keeps good company with the stories of Katherine Hepburn and Coco Chanel.

Lacing the known legend of the artist along with her own observations of art making, independence, romance, and earning a living, Karen Karbo has made a page-turner out of a historically based art story. Her ability to weave and spin a narrative, using her own idiosyncratic life experience to illustrate the quirks of O’Keeffe makes for a great ride and an original perspective.

Georgia O'Keeffe's Blue and Green Music, 1919/21, Oil on Canvas, Alfred Stieglitz Collection, Gift of Georgia O'Keeffe

I must offer full disclosure here.  Karen Karbo and I go back.  We shared about 100 square feet in the mid 1980s when we both were on the staff of the Portland Art Museum’s Northwest Film & Video Center.  This meant that each morning we shuffled out together through the morning drizzle bound for the espresso cart and our morning wake up jolt.  Though much of that time was spent dodging the overtures of the friendly neighborhood schizophrenic, we managed to share much of the minutiae of our lives and work.   The exceptional aspect of this is the fact that Karbo is a hilarious story-teller and more often than not, I’d shuffle back into the office trying not to pee my pants after one of her tales.  I still plan any seating arrangement keeping in mind her Tony Perkins (of Hitchcock’s Psycho) theory of life; meaning one never, ever leaves their back to the door else someone might stab you when you’re not looking.  She made it funny.  I cannot.  You had to be there.

Georgia O'Keeffe, The Black Place, 1943, The Art Institute of Chicago collection.

Friendship aside, O’Keeffe’s story is a grand American tale.  Her rugged independence and love of wandering and open Western spaces mingles with Stieglitz’s old family money dependence and entrenched roots in the East Coast.  Ultimately she experienced the world in her own way with a phenomenal talent  and a career spanning 70 years and over 2,000 works.  Her path proved to be extremely progressive and artistically ahead of her time, deeply exploring abstraction 30 or so years before Mark Rothko or Jackson Pollock.  As Karbo states:  “What remains indisputable, however, is her genius for navigating the waters of her own vision, for discovering it, nurturing it, and never abandoning it.  At a time when women still didn’t have the right to vote, when their life goal was marriage to pretty much anyone who would have them, O’Keeffe was having none of it.  She had better fish to fry.”

The Shelton With Sunspots, Georgia O'Keeffe, 1926, The Art Institute of Chicago collection

Having faced quite a few art blowhards over the years, I particularly enjoyed Karbo’s take on Alfred Stieglitz:

“I’ve held off introducing Stieglitz to the story of O’Keeffe because I fear that here, as in life, he’ll dominate the “conversation.”  The quotes are mine, because it’s doubtful the man ever had a genuine conversation; Stieglitz was a relentless, spittle-lipped monologist, commanding every room he entered.  Force of nature doesn’t begin to describe his personality.  Even a hurricane ends, a tsunami recedes.  Stieglitz was indefatigable.  Every thought that entered his head needed to be verbalized.  Here was a man who wrote at least fifty thousand letters and hand-copied each one before mailing it, for his records.  Just the thought of him makes me want to take a nap.  In pictures, his big, dark eyes hold the penetrating gaze of a serial killer with a credo.”

Alfred Stieglitz, portrait by Gertrude Kasebier, 1902

Her impressions of Stieglitz remind us that no matter how significant the photographer might be in the development of the art form, he was as flawed as the next guy.  That being said, his fans need not fear, as Karbo sees both sides of Stieglitz’s coin:  “Monographs and biographies as hefty as those dedicated to O’Keeffe have been produced about Stieglitz and his staggering contributions to photography – it was Stieglitz who insisted a photograph should be called a picture, and so it has come to pass – and everything we think of when we think of contemporary art and the way it’s exhibited, discussed, promoted, and appreciated.  He single-handedly  elevated photography from something akin to surveying a residential street for a new sewage pipe to a respected fine art form; inaugurated the concept of the one-man (or one-woman) show; understood the importance of regulating the market for an artist’s work by pricing the work high and limiting inventory; and reconfirmed the suspicion the human race has harbored since Eve held the apple out to Adam: Sex sells.  Stieglitz was to modern art in America what Bill Gates is to personal computing; it wouldn’t exist, in the way it exists, without him.”

One of the more heroic portraits Alfred Stieglitz took of Georgia O'Keeffe in 1918.

Evening Star No. II, 1917, watercolor on paper, Private Collection (c) The Georgia O'Keeffe Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Author and Los Angeles Times columnist Megan Daum may have said it best regarding  Karen Karbo’s interpretation of O’Keeffe:  “She’s burrowed past the genius and the legend and the clichés and arrived at the heart of Georgia-philia.  The lessons she imparts remind us that true independence, like true eccentricity, true beauty and, of course, true love, cannot be faked. They remind us that owning your life requires owning your soul and, beyond that, you don’t really need much else.  I want to give this book to every young woman I know who’s setting out on her own in the world — not to mention the rest of us, who could always use a refresher course on this stuff.”

Karen Karbo lives and writes in Portland, Oregon.

Karen Karbo’s three novels, Trespassers Welcome Here, The Diamond Lane and Motherhood Made a Man Out of Me, were named New York Times Notable Books and there have been a slew of magazine articles and stories for such publications as Elle, Vogue, Esquire, Outside, The New York Times. Her 2004 memoir, The Stuff of Life, about the last year she spent with her father before his death, was also a New York Times Notable Book, a People Magazine Critics’ Choice, a Books for a Better Life Award finalist, and a winner of the Oregon Book Award for Creative Non-fiction.  Her ‘kick ass trilogy” includes: How to Hepburn and The Gospel According To Coco Chanel.  How Georgia Became O’Keeffe is available in bookstores and online.