ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Georgia O’Keeffe, Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand and Rebecca Salsbury formed a quartet of artistic passion that profoundly sculpted the shape of 20th century modernism.
The book, “Foursome” (2018, Alfred A. Knopf), by Carolyn Burke, explores these interrelationships and the aesthetic ideals that drew them together and tore them apart. Burke mined the intricacies of their correspondence to reveal how each inspired, provoked and unsettled the other.
A rambunctious cowgirl in search of her identity, Salsbury was the least-known of the group, yet she formed the warp to their weaving. She was the daughter of Nate Salsbury, Buffalo Bill Cody’s partner in his Wild West shows, and the opera singer Rachel Samuels.
“She allows us to see them in a new, intimate way instead of (as) monoliths,” Burke said in a telephone interview from Santa Cruz, California.
By the time the young Wisconsin farm girl O’Keeffe first visited Stieglitz’s legendary 291 gallery in 1908, he was already a much-heralded photographer and a growing cultural force. Stieglitz opened 291 in 1905, eight years before the Armory Show usually cited as the milestone of American modern art. The impresario aimed to import art by the likes of Cézanne, Picasso and Matisse, as well as nurture stateside painters like Marsden Hartley, John Marin and Arthur Dove. He also took in serious photographers, including Edward Steichen and, eventually, Strand.
“Paul was very much a mentee to Alfred the mentor,” Burke said. As his first protege and surrogate son, Strand was constantly trying to win Stieglitz’s approval.
“The power balance was never equal,” Burke said. “In time, a rivalry developed.”
The two sparred over whose work represented a more “vigorous” masculinity. A close reading of their letters unearths a deeper rift.
It was Strand who first caught O’Keeffe’s eye. Although she was thunderstruck by his prints, his fear that Stieglitz would be hurt if he made a move, as well as O’Keeffe’s irritation with his worship of the great photographer, blocked the triangle.
Once O’Keeffe returned east from her Texas teaching post, she and Stieglitz launched the scandalous nude portraits of her that bound the foursome together for at least a decade.
While many assume O’Keeffe and Stieglitz climbed into bed during these passionate settings, it was only when Stieglitz’s wife caught them during a (clothed) photo session that they moved into the same house. Still, a blanket hung between them for a month. Once the nudes surfaced, public perception of O’Keeffe’s work was defined by these images of her body, a simplification that made her bristle.
After meeting Salsbury, Strand eventually made nudes of her in homage to the portraits Stieglitz took of O’Keeffe.
“What a devil; Arthur decided at Lake George (his family compound) that he would do nudes of Rebecca when Paul was gone making a living,” Burke said. “This didn’t help Paul and Arthur’s relationship, either.”
But it was Salsbury, who worshipped O’Keeffe to the point of copying her unconventional black dress, who accompanied the artist on her maiden trip to New Mexico in 1929. She also taught O’Keeffe to drive, a skill critical to the artist’s independence.
Eventually Stieglitz would betray O’Keeffe with his affair with the young socialite Dorothy Norman (she was seven years younger than his daughter). Norman largely replaced O’Keeffe in running the gallery. This led to a breakdown for which O’Keeffe was hospitalized.
Stieglitz comes across as a dirty old man who happened to be a genius.
“Lots of ladies were charmed,” Burke acknowledged. “Even then, it was quite risqué. However, he did overstep the bounds with Dorothy. They justified their relationship as if it was above reproach.”
O’Keeffe eventually spent most of the year at New Mexico’s Ghost Ranch, but returned home Stieglitz annually until his 1946 death. She moved to New Mexico permanently in 1949, where she remade her life in its rugged and serene terrain.
Strand would move on to become a photographer and documentary filmmaker in Mexico and Italy.
Salsbury planted herself in Taos, divorced Strand and married a man named William James who had operated the Kit Carson Trading Post. She became known for her reverse glass paintings as well as for drinking the men under the table.