“…the relationships
of these friends,
lovers, protégés and sometime rivals yield a fascinating four-way chapter in 20th-century
American art history…
beautifully illustrated
with photographs and
color images of the
artists and their works.”

– San Jose Mercury

Carolyn Burke

“‘Foursome traces a quartet of entangled lives in the art world

By Georgia Rowe, San Jose Mercury / East Bay Times

April 18, 2019

Each of the artists in “Foursome” (Knopf, $30, 419 pages) is worthy of a biography, but the intersections between painter Georgia O’Keeffe, photographers Alfred Stieglitz and Paul Strand and Rebecca “Beck” Salsbury are what matter in Carolyn Burke’s captivating new history.

From friendly to fraught with tension, the relationships of these friends, lovers, protégés and sometime rivals yield a fascinating four-way chapter in 20th-century American art history.

O’Keeffe and Stieglitz are the famous couple in this group portrait. But Burke gives equal time to Strand and Salsbury, whose lives were inextricably entwined with the better-known pair.

Surprisingly, Burke – a Santa Cruz-based author who has written biographies of Mina Loy, Lee Miller and Edith Piaf – originally intended to make the new book a singular biography about Salsbury. But as she researched their individual stories, she says became impossible to separate one from the others.

“It really is a story of entwined lives,” says the author.

Burke explains that it was her frequent collaborator, artist Lance Sprague, who suggested Salsbury as a subject. “I right away saw that her life and her responses to the better-known three brought me a fresh approach,” Burke said. “It was she who influenced O’Keeffe to go west – without her involvement, O’Keeffe might never have gone to New Mexico.”

 “Foursome,” however, begins with Stieglitz. One of the era’s most influential photographers, he created iconic images of New York that made him a force in modern art, and his gallery 291 introduced a long list of young, up-and-coming artists.

Paul Strand, for whom Stieglitz became a friend and mentor, was one of those artists. His “Photographs of New York and Other Places,” mounted at 291 in 1916, established Strand as a modernist on the city’s burgeoning scene.

Following Strand’s debut, O’Keeffe – still a relative unknown – sent a sampling of her charcoal sketches to the gallery. Stieglitz displayed them but infuriated her by neglecting to tell her they were being shown. Thus began a complex relationship between Stieglitz and O’Keeffe, who married in 1924.

If Salsbury, whose work spanned paintings, poetry and folk art, is the least-known of the foursome, she was a force within it. The restless daughter of an opera singer mother and impresario father Nate Salsbury – the partner of William F. Cody in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show – she met Strand at an art party. They married in 1922.

Although Stieglitz was less than encouraging, Strand’s work – particularly his portraits of her – began to “shape Rebecca’s sense of what was possible for herself,” said Burke. “At first, she was really unsure of herself. She often played supporting roles – caregiver, secretary, gallery manager – and it took her quite some time to find her way as an artist. Eventually, O’Keeffe deigned from her superior position to give Rebecca a show.”

Both marriages endured rocky times. Stieglitz was social, O’Keeffe was not, and her reclusive ways eventually led her to leave New York’s noisy, male-dominated art world for New Mexico. (Her journey to the west, accompanied by Beck, is portrayed in a new opera, “Today It Rains,” by composer Laura Kaminsky; the work made its world premiere last month in a San Francisco production by Opera Parallélé, and Burke served on a panel of experts who discussed the events it portrays.)

Once in Taos, some have suggested that O’Keeffe and Salsbury were lovers. Burke describes them as “surrogate sisters.”

“Georgia had sisters, but she was very choosy about her female friends,” she said. “Rebecca had a twin she didn’t like at all, so Georgia became her surrogate sister. I’m amused by their time in Taos, when Rebecca was teaching Georgia to drive – Mabel Dodge said that ‘Rebecca’s silver hair turned even more white.’”

Neither woman had children, notes Burke, which she sees as part of the struggle to assert themselves in an era that was less than welcoming to women artists.

Meanwhile, the relationship of Strand and Stieglitz deteriorated as Strand became increasingly devoted to art expressing social issues.

“After the 1929 crash, the context changed,” said Burke. “Millions were suffering in this country, and that was something keenly felt by artists and intellectuals. Paul was already somewhat estranged from Stieglitz, already moving away and associating with people who were more left-leaning. It reached a point of urgency when he went to Mexico in the aftermath of the Mexican revolution. At that point, there was a real divergence.”

“Foursome,” which is beautifully illustrated with photographs and color images of the artists and their works, demonstrates how the foursome’s struggles were both personal and political – and how difficult it can be to reconcile the two.

“I would say that the story shows us how these issues have to be renegotiated all the time,” said Burke. “Particularly for these two women, they didn’t figure out how to do that until much later in life. I think their story tells us that the struggle is ongoing. If it’s taught me anything, it’s that we have to keep reimagining how to make the choices that matter to us.”