The Art of Voids

By Jennifer Ochstein

September 1, 2017

The Art of Voids

Letters Like the Day: On Reading Georgia O'Keeffe

Jennifer Sinor

Voids—holes, blank spaces, silences—are often interpreted as meaningless. But they shouldn’t be taken that way. Voids may contain even more meaning than filled spaces. It’s what isn’t seen or what isn’t said that causes the most doubt and consternation. Consider an unseen god or a beloved one who fails to say “I love you.” The meaning of such absence is that a void requires rendering, interpretation, guessing. Voids and their uncertainty can be terrifying. Heartrending. Conversely, they can also bring the most profound recognition. 

That recognition may be what Jennifer Sinor is after as she examines thirty years’ worth of correspondence—1,900 letters—between modern artist Georgia O’Keeffe and her modernist photographer-husband Alfred Stieglitz in her book Letters Like the Day: On Reading Georgia O’Keeffe. She writes, “The holes in O’Keeffe’s work, her voids, were the subject. Not the bone but what can be seen through it. And what she saw was both beautiful and sad, terrifying and sublime, a space so complex, and charged, and personal, that words would never capture it.”

Sinor, a Utah State University professor, approaches O’Keeffe’s letters as an artist herself and in the way a modernist painter as O’Keeffe approached her subjects. Rather than tackling O’Keeffe’s letter archive like a scholar, analyzing the letters based on research and extrapolation, Sinor examines the reaches of her medium, words, in the same manner that O’Keeffe stretches the limits of her medium, modern art. Like a visual artist, Sinor explores nonlinear voids, juxtapositions, and speculative ways of seeing in order to get at something deeper than the surface of an object. 

Rather than scholarly research, this feeling her way to emotional resonance as a writer, from one artist to another, is a much better tactic. Certainly, research has a place. But Sinor’s way is more compelling. Especially because she seems to agree with O’Keeffe’s premise that a primary reason for art is to create emotional resonance. This bears out, for me, most strongly in the essay “More Feeling Than Brain.”

Here, Sinor writes a braided essay about her son Aiden and his near visceral need to see a coyote, while the family is traveling in New Mexico, around excerpts from several letters in which O’Keeffe can barely put words to the feelings she holds. O’Keeffe writes to Stieglitz: “[W]hat is my experience of the flower if it is not color. I know I can not paint a flower. I can not paint the sun on the desert on a bright summer morning but maybe in terms of paint color I can convey to you my experience of the flower.” 

Rather than a scholarly reading of O’Keeffe’s words, Sinor points to her son’s inarticulate anguish when the family kills a coyote while driving late one night. It is the only coyote six-year-old Aiden will see on the trip, even after long hikes in the desert. “Aiden is inconsolable,” Sinor writes. “‘We have been waiting and waiting to see one,’ Aiden sobs, ‘waiting and waiting.’ And this, I think, is the coyote he is given . . .. I hate a universe that offers us a dead coyote.” 

And here is the lynchpin that holds their responses together—O’Keeffe’s and Aiden’s inability to find words that will communicate what they need to reveal out loud. O’Keeffe writes that she works “in a queer sort of unconscious way—more feeling than brain.” The heart feels what the brain cannot compute. To articulate the feeling with words doesn’t do justice to the experience because words seem so small compared to what’s roiling deep inside. But by braiding their reactions, Sinor accomplishes what O’Keeffe is suspicious may never happen—creating a felt resonance with words on the page. Just as O’Keeffe relies on voids in her own work, Sinor doesn’t try to name Aiden’s grief or even her own grief at seeing her son grieve. The braided emotions of son and painter do it for her.

Sinor apprentices herself to O’Keeffe’s artistry. By doing so, Sinor examines the reaches of art itself, what art does, or what art should do. She pushes the stories onto the page as O’Keeffe “pushed paint on the canvas,” both artists resonating emotion, both artists crosspollinating each other. My chest ached for Aiden after reading Sinor’s essay. I also ached for my own unarticulated losses.

Of course, not everyone appreciates this aspect of modern art. “Many viewers,” of O’Keefe, “had trouble grasping a beauty that was independent of meaning,” Sinor writes. “They wanted the flowers explained, the lines narrated, the shapes to look more familiar. They wanted a story. But O’Keeffe never compromised on her vision. Art, she insisted time and again, was filling space in a beautiful way.”

Similarly, because Sinor teaches and studies literature, I expected her to analyze O’Keeffe’s letters in the context of her artwork rather than literary essays interpreting emotional resonance. But, of course, Sinor is both a scholar and a creative writer. So, I should have expected that she would approach a fellow artist as an artist. Sinor disabused my notions about a scholarly reading of O’Keeffe’s work from the start, and for that I was grateful. Sinor suggests how to read her own essays: “I am not telling the story of their (O’Keeffe’s and Stieglitz’s) lives together” . . . “Nor is this a biography” . . . “This is also not a memoir” . . . “This book attempts to convey, through writing, the kinds of truths O’Keeffe sought in her visual art.” Though the book avoids the strict genres she mentions, Letters Like the Day does incorporate some element of each. That’s the beauty of art—it can thwart all the categories we use to pin it down.

Indicative of this beauty is an essay like “Spiral,” which in my view is the book’s climactic piece. This essay might frustrate one’s sense of traditional narrative. But its broken telling accomplishes yet again Sinor’s emotional association between art and writing. In it, she suggests that blackness is the ultimate void, the one most dangerous to step into. She braids the essay around her visit to sculptor Robert Smithson’s earthwork, “Spiral Jetty,” at the Great Salt Lake. She then contrasts it with O’Keeffe's many visits to the Bisti Badlands of New Mexico, the landscape that O’Keeffe was obsessed with between 1936 and 1944.

By 1944, O’Keeffe was going blind. Stieglitz was dying. Both are black voids. During this time, O’Keeffe created The Black Place Series, landscape paintings based on the New Mexico Badlands, a landscape so jarring that it appears otherworldly. At the same time, Sinor herself experiences a kind of black spiral. Important moments in her life have slipped by unnoticed and unmarked. The impermanence of a human life is palpable against lonely landscapes one finds in the badlands, which have been changing and dissipating and reforming for eons. These changes, too, go largely unmarked.

“I stand inside the present moment,” Sinor writes, “in the stillness of the now, midspin, midday, midlife, caught between beginning and ending, birth and dying. To remain now is to remain outside of change. You are always only now.” All existence spirals toward blackness, void. Sinor suggests through this braided essay that we get to the heart of the matter when we allow O’Keeffe’s work to penetrate us.


Letters Like the Day: On Reading Georgia O'Keeffe
University of New Mexico Press 
$19.95 paperback | Buy Now!


About the Reviewer:

Jennifer Ochstein is a midwestern writer and professor who has published essays with Hippocampus Magazine, Evening Street Review, The Lindenwood Review, Episcopal Cafe, Connotation Press, and The Cresset. She has an essay forthcoming in America Magazine, The Jesuit Review. She graduated from Ashland University with her MFA in 2012. 

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