The Big Idea: Dawn Tripp

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Once, in the 1970s, Gloria Steinem appeared at the door of Georgia O’Keeffe’s home in New Mexico bearing a bouquet of roses.

O’Keeffe turned her away.

O’Keeffe, whose most famous paintings are generally thought to celebrate female sexuality, had no interest in meeting Steinem, pioneer of the modern women’s movement.

Dawn Tripp does not include this anecdote in Georgia, her new novel based on O’Keeffe’s life. But O’Keeffe’s discomfort with the fact that her luxuriant flowers and skulls connoted “female,” or that she, herself, was labeled a “woman artist,” lies at the heart of Georgia.

Tripp had written three novels, including the bestseller Game of Secrets, when she decided to write about O’Keeffe. She was inspired by a 2009 exhibit at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York that included several of O’Keeffe’s lesser-known abstract works as well as photographs of the artist by her patron, muse, and husband, the photographer Alfred Stieglitz.

O’Keeffe first showed Stieglitz some of her work in 1916, when O’Keeffe was twenty-eight and Stieglitz was fifty-one. Their relationship, which lasted until Stieglitz’s death in 1946, was complex and conflicted, particularly as it affected O’Keeffe’s career. Tripp believes that ultimately, the most troubling aspect of the relationship for O’Keeffe—more than Stieglitz’s affairs—was his insistence that her work was inseparable from her gender. Two years before he mounted the first major exhibit of O’Keeffe’s art in 1923, Stieglitz had his own show of his photographs of O’Keeffe, including several nudes.

The association of O’Keeffe’s work with the female body—and O’Keeffe’s rebellion against the limitations she felt that association imposed upon her as an artist—would persist throughout her long life. When Gloria Steinem attempted to pay homage to O’Keeffe as a feminist icon, she couldn’t have known how much this accolade might irritate O’Keeffe.

I spoke with Tripp recently about O’Keeffe’s art, about the artist’s relationship with Stieglitz, and about the particular challenges and pleasures of writing a biographical novel. 

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The Rumpus: You’ve said you were inspired to write a novel about O’Keeffe after seeing an exhibition of her work in 2009 at the Whitney. What role had O’Keeffe played in your imagination before that?

Dawn Tripp: I was born in 1968, the year that a photograph of her appeared on the cover of LIFE magazine, a portrait of O’Keeffe as an older woman, wrapped in black. She has the Southwestern desert spread out behind her. She’s got that strong, fierce, wizened beauty that certain older women have who are so clear in who they are and who they’re meant to be. Growing up, I loved that image. It was the image of an American icon, an American artist, and a woman who had made a very distinct choice to live her life in a landscape that she loved—to forge her life in a landscape that she loved—and make art on her own terms.

But I had never been exposed to the full range and scope of her art. I knew her representational work, but that day at the Whitney I fell in love with her abstractions. They were just these stunning, visceral shapes. They were so purely alive and they were so original. I wanted to know: who was the woman who made these shapes? Who was the woman who made this art? And the driving question that took hold of me that day became the driving question that the novel sought to answer: why is she not known for this? Why is O’Keeffe known for her cow skulls and her flowers and her landscapes of the Southwest? Why is she not known for the range and scope and innovation of her abstractions?

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Rumpus: And what’s the answer to that question? 

Tripp: She’s not known for that work because her work was immediately cast through a gendered lens. Stieglitz held the exhibition of his photographs of her in 1921, two years before her first major show in New York. So when her art was launched, the language that was immediately wrapped around her abstractions was the eroticized language, the gendered language, the sexualized language that had been wrapped around the photographs of her.

Rumpus: Was she working in abstraction from a very young age?

Tripp: No. In the fall of 1915 she held a show for herself in her studio, where she was teaching at a women’s school in South Carolina. And she looked at each piece and said: “I did this one because I was influenced by ‘John,’ this one because I was trying to impress so and so.” Each piece she looked at she felt was somehow derivative from some teacher she’d had or some other artist she had known. So she put them all away and she got down on the floor with large sheets of inexpensive paper and charcoal and she just started to make the shapes that were in her head. She did a whole series of drawings that fall and then she rolled them up and sent them to her friend Anita Pollitzer in New York. And Pollitzer brought them to Stieglitz on January first, 1916, to his gallery, “291.”

She continued to do abstractions with his support and encouragement and she gradually added color back and went from working strictly in charcoal to working in watercolor, and then created abstract oils over the next number of years.

From the fall of 1915 through 1922 or 1923, she did do some representational art but most of her work during that period and much of the art that was shown at that first New York show in 1923 were her abstractions. She assumed that her work would be interpreted according to her vision and intent. And when she realized, in 1923, that the critical language assigned to her abstractions would be that gendered language, the sexualized, eroticized language—which is still the language that we use to assess her work today—she wrote to Sherwood Anderson and said “No man has been written down the way the men have written me down.”

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Rumpus: This seems to have been the tension that informed her whole life. On the one hand, O’Keeffe didn’t want her art to be seen as gendered and didn’t want to be considered a “woman artist,” and may not even have liked the term “feminism,” but on the other hand, to do what she did at the time she did it, by definition she had to be a feminist. 

Tripp: She eschewed feminism, but she also eschewed surrealism. She eschewed any movement. She didn’t want her work or herself—her personhood—absorbed in any movement. She believed in self-actualization and she believed that women had just as much right to self-actualization as men. But she didn’t like movements. She didn’t ever want to be identified with a movement. She wanted to be identified on her own terms. She didn’t want to be a “great female artist.” She wanted to be a great artist. She was very clear on that.

Rumpus: O’Keeffe’s relationship with Stieglitz is at the center of the novel. The character, “Georgia,” declares that theirs is not a love story. After reading your novel I believed that they did love each other. I think you believed they did, too. So why isn’t their story a love story?

Tripp: I don’t think it’s a simple love story. Their story has so many complex dynamics and dimensions to it. It’s a story about love, and it’s also a story about the search for artistic freedom. It’s also a story about betrayal, desire, fame, sex, and conflict. To say that it’s a love story would be to say that there’s a straightforwardness to it that their relationship never had.

Rumpus: Stieglitz was repeatedly unfaithful to O’Keeffe. Do you think that part of what drove his unfaithfulness was artistic jealousy of her? His desire to wound her as an artist? And do you think she ultimately drifted apart from him because of the philandering, or because he suffocated her as an artist?

Tripp: Stieglitz’s philandering started long before he met Georgia. That was just a mode he occupied. He often justified his liaisons as artistic explorations. I do think that—and I map this from the historical record—whenever O’Keeffe started to break away from him, to make her own choices both creatively and in terms of, for lack of a better word, her “brand,” as soon as she started to assert her own agency and control, an affair would often be the thing that he would use to get back at her.

To me, it was clear that by the early to mid twenties his need of her was more intense than her need of him, and the affairs were his way of keeping her pinned down, of chipping away at her. Their letters, collected in My Faraway One, reveal that after his dalliance with the cook in 1926, O’Keeffe went to Maine and she barely got out of bed for ten days. I didn’t write that into the novel because it felt too dramatic to actually read as true in the novel, but it was factual.

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Rumpus: O’Keeffe had no children, a fact which had a complicated connection both to her artistic independence and to her relationship with Stieglitz. I thought you handled that with great sensitivity and nuance. It wasn’t just: “Well, she wanted to be an artist so obviously she couldn’t have kids.”

She was very maternal with her siblings when they were younger. She was the oldest girl and she always looked after her younger siblings. She was also very independent. There was always a tension between her need for solitude and her responsibility to look after her younger siblings. I think she was exceptionally capable, and I think she could have been both an artist and a mother if she wasn’t also fighting this battle, because she was married to someone whose needs—the needs of his ego, his emotional needs, and his need to be in control—were such a dynamic in their relationship. His needs defined the environment and the culture of their home.

My own husband is exceptionally supportive. And it is his support that really allows me to engage in as many things as I do: in my life as a writer, my life as a mother, my life as a volunteer for the various organizations that I volunteer for. What I realize is that it’s not just the logistical support. It’s not just that when I have a book event he picks the kids up at four. It’s that he supports a culture in our home where my work is primary, where there’s that opportunity for me to have both, to be both.

Rumpus: You’ve said you chose to write a novel about O’Keeffe to get at a truth fiction can get at that nonfiction can’t. Were there facts about O’Keeffe you found in your research that were in conflict with this other “fictional truth.”

Tripp: When I did, I made sure that the truth on the page reflected that complexity.

Rumpus: You felt that the novel needed to be very much grounded in the written record.

Tripp: I felt so strongly about this, specifically because it was O’Keeffe’s story, because I feel she has been misrepresented for so long.

There are biographies of O’Keeffe that are really wonderful. There are also biographies that I feel have taken more liberties than I took in my novel. My novel reflects the historical record as it’s been conveyed in biographies, in O’Keeffe’s memoirs, and in catalogues with essays written by curators. It also reflects O’Keeffe’s and Stieglitz’s letters to each other. That was critical to me, because I feel that when you read those letters, written between 1916 and 1933, the dimensions of their life, their experience, their passion, the fierce feeling between themtheir letters almost feel at odds with many of the earlier biographical accounts.

What I tried to do in the novel was absorb all of these various sources, to identify which ones were really aligned with the letters, with the historical record, and out of that to create a fiction. Nabokov talks about how the art of fiction is “a shimmering go-between.” And that’s the space that I wanted to write into. The space between what did happen and what could have happened.

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Rumpus: You’ve mentioned that it took you more than a year to find O’Keeffe’s voice. But, of course, O’Keeffe was a real person who had a real voice. There are recordings of her voice. Was the fact that she was a real person a hindrance to your finding her voice as a fictional character?

Tripp: O’Keeffe’s “real voice” is available, and yet it isn’t, actually. When you listen to her voice on audio or video, which I did, when you read her memoirs, published in the 1970s and 1980s, and when you juxtapose that voice against the voice of her letters exchanged with Stieglitz, it’s like totally different people!

The voice in which I’m speaking to you, is that my internal voice? Is the voice of the letter that we write to someone who is an acquaintance the voice of a letter written to someone who knows us intimately and has known us for many years? Even describing the same events, that voice will shift. Voice is almost kaleidoscopic, in that sense—in the way truth is kaleidoscopic. But voice has to ring true. It has to feel true. And if it feels true to me as a writer, it‘s going to feel true to the reader.

With Georgia I felt I had almost a moral obligation, an artistic obligation to get it right. This woman has never gotten her due. I felt that whatever I did in this novel, I needed to stand by the decisions I made, and I had to make them in a way that honored the challenges and the level of gender bias she faced in the 1920s. I still feel that way.

Rumpus: I think of O’Keeffe as an artist who’s been popular for a long time, a very accessible modern artist. She’s been exhibited widely. She’s just had a retrospective at the Tate Modern in London. She was on the cover of LIFE magazine. She has not been neglected, by any means. What do you mean by her not having had her due?

Tripp: What I’m saying is that yes she was famous, yes she is known as a popular artist, yes her pictures command great amounts of money, But she’s never been given her due as a pioneer in abstraction. I don’t think what she was doing in abstract art has really been fully appreciated as a forerunner of other movements throughout the twentieth century. In fact, part of the goal of the Tate show is to reassess her place in the canon of modern art.

Even though O’Keeffe is popular and her art is on dorm room posters she was never really seen as a major artist the way she’s starting to be seen now. A lot of that is because of the work of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, which has partnered with many other museums to expand our understanding of the range and scope of her work. There are movements in abstraction that have never been linked to what O’Keeffe was doing, and yet her abstraction had a tremendous influence on generations of artists that followed her.

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Rumpus: I’m going to guess you won’t say whom you’re writing about next—

Tripp: [Laughs]

Rumpus: —but clearly you’ve thought a lot about the writing of historical novels and I wonder if there are historical novels you admire by other writers?

Tripp: I love The English Patient, because it’s a historical novel but also because of the way Ondaatje works with time and narrative in a fractured point of view to build his story. I love Embers, by Sándor Márai.

I absolutely loved Euphoria, by Lily King. I actually read that after I delivered Georgia and my editor and I agreed that I would make some cuts. I cut about a hundred and ten pages from the novel. I felt like Lily King’s book was so lean, so sharp, so riveting. That was a tremendous impetus for me to go back to my draft of Georgia and say ‘Okay, this needs to be as sharp and as driving as O’Keeffe was.’

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“The Big Idea” features interviews with writers, artists, scientists, activists, and others who take a long and broad view of an issue, problem, or concept, and pursue it over many years. Visit the archives here.