Foursome by Carolyn Burke


Carolyn Burke

Carolyn Burke mines the correspondence of Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O'Keeffe, Paul Strand, and Rebecca Salsbury to reveal how each inspired, provoked, and unsettled the others while pursuing seminal modes of artistic innovation. 

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A captivating, spirited account of the intense relationship among four artists whose strong personalities, passionate feelings, and aesthetic ideals drew them together, pulled them apart, and profoundly influenced the very shape of twentieth-century art.

New York, 1921: Alfred Stieglitz, the most influential figure in early twentieth-century photography, celebrates the success of his latest exhibition--the centerpiece, a series of nude portraits of the young Georgia O'Keeffe, soon to be his wife. It is a turning point for O'Keeffe, poised to make her entrance into the art scene--and for Rebecca Salsbury, the fiancée of Stieglitz's protégé at the time, Paul Strand. When Strand introduces Salsbury to Stieglitz and O'Keeffe, it is the first moment of a bond between the two couples that will last more than a decade and reverberate throughout their lives. In the years that followed, O'Keeffe and Stieglitz became the preeminent couple in American modern art, spurring each other's creativity. Observing their relationship led Salsbury to encourage new artistic possibilities for Strand and to rethink her own potential as an artist. In fact, it was Salsbury, the least known of the four, who was the main thread that wove the two couples' lives together. Carolyn Burke mines the correspondence of the foursome to reveal how each inspired, provoked, and unsettled the others while pursuing seminal modes of artistic innovation. The result is a surprising, illuminating portrait of four extraordinary figures.

Advance Galley Reviews

I received an sgalley of Carolyn Burke’s combined and entertained biography, FOURSOME. Since the mid 1970s I have read many books about Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz. I won’t rehash the story here. I greatly enjoyed this book. It read like a well produced documentary. Often I could hear the narrative as if a voice over. The writing style drew me through the alternating stories and blended the different threads seamlessly. I learned a great deal not only about the lives of the main subjects but also of those they met, whose lives the touched. Highly recommended. Foursome will definitely be part of my library.

I do admit to being unfamiliar with half of the titular foursome. While being aware of Georgia O'Keefe and Rebecca Salsbury, I know nothing about them. I also know nothing about Paul Strand and Alfred Stieglitz. Carolyn Burke's writing is pretty good. I found myself interested in these four and how they interacted. It's definitely an interesting look into them that I found myself enjoying far more than I thought I would. I'll definitely be looking into more of Burke's work in the future.

I admit unfamiliarity with three of the foursome, though I recognize Strand and of course, O’Keeffe (I got to see an exhibition of some if her works in Oklahoma some 30 years ago, too young to truly appreciate them) and I didn’t make many notes in this reading... just absorbed. There are intimate stories here. I do not know how much is known already to students of these four, but I suspect - obviously, as the book had to be written - that having them all together is new, and perhaps unknown. More than a telling of their stories, Ms. Burke also frames the times that shaped them, shaped their arts. New arts to the world, new visions, self discovery and explorations. One of the things I appreciate about Ms. Burke’s exposition and sometime dramatization is that she qualifies any speculation; if she found no evidence to support suspected relationships, interactions, she doesn’t embellish. Or at least those parts of her narrative where she caveats “tempting to think ... but impossible to know" would indicate. We tend to think in two dimensions, and might think of a "foursome" as a rectangle/quadrangle, but they were rather a tetrahedron, with Steiglitz at the apex for most of their relationships. O'Keeffe eclipsed him in fame and ascended to that apex, but his ... seniority ... tended to prevail. This is not to say that any of the other three were not their own people, individual and distinct. Clearly, they were, but he was the progenitor of that foursome. They fed off of each other. Built. And also held each other at bay. To preserve their individuality. This is about the people, and much less their arts, which serve to support here but not stand center. So what do I take away? Well, I looked up Salsbury's reverse oils on glass, and Stieglitz's and Strand's photographs. And I revisited O'Keeffe. And I have things to think about.


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