Book Review – “Foursome” by Carolyn Burke

The opening paragraph of the opening chapter of Carolyn Burke’s group biography makes the point that photo pictorialist Alfred Stieglitz put sexual desire explicitly in the center of his art with his nude portraits “Woman” at his 1921 exhibition at New York’s Anderson Galleries. The woman was the then unknown artist Georgia O’Keeffe. “Stieglitz has not divorced his art from life,” wrote a critic. He “keeps nothing back.” The pictures in their revealing starkness are in the book.

Describing Stieglitz years later, O’Keeffe recalled, “There was a constant grinding like the ocean. It was as if something hot, dark, and destructive was hitched to the highest, brightest star.” That gets to the storyline of this group biography of two couples, Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keeffe and Paul Strand and Rebecca Salisbury. Strand and Salisbury are lesser lights that help illuminate the larger emanations coming from Stieglitz and O’Keefe.

Carolyn Burke has poured through the twenty-five thousand pages of the Stieglitz-O’Keefe correspondence and the voluminous correspondence of the other two to trace the emotional and artistic trajectories of these intertwined lives.

Nevertheless, O’Keefe rises phoenix-like out of the opening chapters about Stieglitz to dominate the story with her strong singular personality and powerful artistic achievement. O’Keefe, like Pablo Picasso and Ernest Hemingway, has a reputation that arose out of the creatively charged Modernist era and a century later continues to ascend new peaks of popularity and renown. So what are the roots of such transcendence? Carolyn Burke gives us a captivating look at the arts scene of a century ago and the times from which these great reputations arose.

Besides being a great narrative of the rise of large personalities, Burke has written a book about art and how it works and how in turn great artists interact with the art of their times and the events swirling around them. Ultimately the journey leads to O’Keefe’s great years at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico. She remains the last great one standing, singular in her achievements.

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