Georgia O'Keeffe – Stieglitz’s lover, his muse, a strong personality, and a substantial artist in her own right – was the subject of a considerable number of his portraits. These studies constitute a telling account of the multiple facets of their relationship. A central theme is the erotic dimension of this relationship, evidenced in images through which we share the photographer’s seduction by O'Keeffe's self-assured physicality.
The present image suggests an enigmatic narrative, though we are not made privy to its secrets. Back-lit against a window – in a soft ‘pictorialist’ light –, O’Keeffe holds up a carved spoon that is a clue to a determinedly ‘modernist’ aspect of Stieglitz’s activity, not as an artist, but as a broader champion of the avant-garde. This ritual spoon is an elaborate artifact of the Baulé tribe from the Ivory Coast and had featured in the landmark exhibition staged by Stieglitz in 1914 in his ‘291’ gallery devoted to the native sculpture and ritual objects of Africa. In the year following the historic 1913 Armory Show that had so dramatically introduced the ideas of the European avant-garde to an American audience, Stieglitz presented to this same audience the first exhibition of African sculpture to focus on its aesthetic rather than ethnographic interest. The influence of such artifacts was considerable on a generation of artists both sides of the Atlantic determined to break with Western pictorial and sculptural traditions and conventions.
This sensual study of O’Keeffe tells of the physical and emotional dimensions of their relationship, and hints also at the aesthetic adventures that they shared at the very heart of the American art scene as they played their pivotal roles in defining radical new directions for the art of the emerging century.