I thought I knew Georgia O’Keeffe. C’mon– big, interesting and sexually suggestive flowers, right?
My idea of who this ground-breaking artist was came from a story told in my writing class about her fleeing her art studio shed, where she painted freely and in the nude, until realizing that a bunch of nosey children had discovered her secret garden shed and were “peeping” at her. She abandoned her secret garden shed never to return.
But there’s more to O’Keeffe than that. In fact, her story parallels that of another powerful, female painter — Frida Kahlo, one of the boldest female artists in ant century.
Georgia O’Keeffe also continues to astonish. Several recently uncovered letters to her longtime lover Alfred Stieglitz were recently published as part of a new exhibit at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Further insights into their relationship come from the letters, published in the catalog for the Whitney’s current show, “Georgia O’Keeffe: Abstraction.” These exchanges provide a rare glimpse into the private lives of these art world superstars.
Art and Other Affairs
Stieglitz was in his 50s and married at the time he met O’Keeffe, who was 29. A friend had sent Stieglitz some of O’Keeffe’s artwork which he displayed without permission. O’Keeffe went to New York to confront him.
And that’s when the sparks began.
O’Keeffe’s letters to Stieglitz began tentatively (“Words and I are not good friends” she wrote in January 1916), but over time they became increasingly charged with sensuality and desire. “I am on my back — waiting to be spread wide apart — waiting for you,” she wrote in 1922. (Keep in mind that Stieglitz didn’t divorce his wife until 1924.)
Marriage on the Rocks
Stieglitz’s relationship with O’Keeffe was professional as well as personal. He often photographed O’Keeffe, sometimes in front of her art to emphasize their sensual forms, sometimes in the nude, and several of those images were displayed at an exhibit at the Anderson Galleries in 1921, creating instant buzz for the young artist.
Before abstract art became trendy, O’Keeffe embraced it with broad strokes and bold colors, saying, “I found I could say things with colors that I couldn’t say in any other way — things that I had no words for.”
Stieglitz and O’Keeffe married in 1924, but he cheated on her with other women and she often retreated to Santa Fe, N.M., where she could focus on her art and distance herself from Stieglitz. While there, their relationship continued until Stieglitz’s death in 1946 — the same year she became the first female artist to have a solo show at the Museum of Metropolitan Art.
Perhaps she loved the tumultuous ups and downs of her yo-yo relationship with Stieglitz. Or maybe she appreciated the impact he had on her artistic career. It doesn’t sound that different from the Hollywood marriages of today. In more ways than one, Georgia O’Keeffe was a woman ahead of her time.
[Georgia O’Keefe] 1933
gelatin silver print
Collection of George Eastman House, International Museum of Photography and Film
In almost every way she reminds me of Frida Kahlo. They could swap biographies, if not artwork, and definitely husbands. Diego Rivera could have easily been Alfred Stieglitz if Kahlo had not allowed herself the luxury of becoming heart-sick. Maybe she was tired of that, particular battle. Yet her struggles were not in vain, and her name and work lives on.
The sharp departure between the women’s outcomes reveals itself in their story endings. While Kahlo died after being hospitalized and heart-broken by her husband, Rivera, sleeping with her arch-enemy as she lay dying, O’Keeffe soared as her husband declined. Frida had been a revolutionary, herself, fighting for the equality of Indians in Mexico. Frida’s father was German, and her mother, from Mexico.
Georgia O’Keeffe outlived her lover, and on the day of his death, she became a superstar in her own right and took her place on the stage of history!
Kahlo’s work and passion are undeniable and rich with fertile genius. If the two women had met, maybe Kahlo could have enjoyed the fruits of her labor while Diego declined, as O’Keeffe had. But that’s not how it happened for her or for Virgina Woolf.
I think it extraordinary that once in a while truly interesting people cross our paths leaving us richer for the experience one way or another.
Here are some of Georgia’s paintings with her quotes.
“To create one’s own world, in any of the arts, takes courage.”
“Making your unknown known is the important thing.”
“Where I was born and where and how I have lived is unimportant. It is what I have done with where I have been that should be of interest”
“I said to myself, I have things in my head that are not like what anyone has taught me — shapes and ideas so near to me — so natural to my way of being and thinking that it hasn’t occurred to me to put them down. I decided to start anew, to strip away what I had been taught”
“I know I cannot paint a flower. I cannot 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 or the experience that makes the flower of significance to me at that particular time.”
“When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for the moment. I want to give that world to someone else. Most people in the city rush around so, they have no time to look at a flower. I want them to see it whether they want to or not.”
“I decided that if I could paint that flower in a huge scale, you could not ignore its beauty.”
“Georgia O’Keeffe: Abstraction” at the Whitney
This show should set heart’s on fire all over again. O’Keeffe’s work is tremendously enjoyable and she’s genuinely interesting as a person and an artist. Some have been to her homes in Abiquiu and Ghost Ranch in New Mexico.
The goal of this exhibit is to present a different side of O’Keeffe. Rather than the sexual associations others have attributed to her work, the focus here is on abstractions and radical work from her early career which became the basis for her representational work.
Towards the end of her life she returned to these abstracted forms.
This show is one of the largest O’Keeffe exhibitions ever assembled, started four years ago with five curators working on it.
Unexpected treasures came out of this show — the unsealing of letters between O’Keeffe and Steiglitz that had been sealed for 60 years. This correspondence gives us more insight into her life and her work.
O’Keeffe attended art school briefly in order to become an art teacher. She believed that art was not about representing something from the natural world but about the artist expressing her personality.
This approach came from her teacher and mentor, Arthur Wesley Dow, a pioneer in art education.
She had a desire to “speak” through her work and the charcoal works on view in the first gallery are her pure feelings translated to paper.
Art was a way for her to connect with the unknown through abstracted forms and later in her use of color. As we now know, Steiglitz was impressed by her work and his positive feedback gave her the courage to continue.
In 1916 her work was shown by Steiglitz for the first time at his gallery 291.
It is interesting to note that the forms in these charcoal works come directly out of the arts and crafts movement at the turn of the century.
The forms in her charcoals establish a vocabulary that she returns to again and again throughout her career.
In 1916 she introduced the color blue into her work and created a blue watercolor.
This exploration of one color most likely came about after reading The New Science of Color by Beatrice Irwin which suggests mastering one color at a time.
In 1917 O’Keeffe moved to Canyon, TX to teach and added representational color. O’Keeffe was not interested in subject matter in and of itself, but as a springboard for something else.
Steiglitz showed these works and on her visit to NY, O’Keeffe met other artists in his stable including Paul Strand. After this meeting, her work became much more abstract.
Through her work she created a sensation of someone or something, not the thing itself. She worked serially throughout her career and color was her means of connecting with the unconscious.
“The meaning of a word to me is not as exact as the meaning of a color. Color and shapes make a more definite statement than words.”
~1916, Georgia O’Keeffe.
In 1918 she changed from watercolor to oil paint and she matures quickly as an artist. She uses space and color so magically the canvas seems to pulsate with life, energy, passion!
She is able to create atmospheric space as well as crisp linear space all within the same work. O’Keeffe also uses musical references in her titles around this time because she feels that music, like her paintings, can convey powerful emotions.
She moved to NY at this time and it was at this time that Steiglitz began to photograph O’Keeffe. Interestingly, there are over 300 photos of her because Steiglitz believed you could not get a sense of someone unless they were photographed over a lifetime.
These photos influenced O’Keeffe’s work in the way that Steiglitz cropped shots to make abstractions as well as the smooth velvety surface he created, she utilized these techniques in her paintings.
In 1921 a stir was created when Steiglitz had a show in which 45 of 125 works were of O’Keeffe in various stages of undress. She was 24 years his junior and he was still married at the time.
It was at this time that the critics began to talk about her work as sexual and the photos only added fuel to the fire. O’Keeffe found this extremely insulting because the work was so much deeper and broad reaching than just being about sex. Perhaps people were confusing sexuality with sensuality.
In 1923 she began to move towards representational imagery because her abstractions were narrowly received as about fertility, womanhood, the female orgasm, etc.
O’Keeffe’s handling of paint was remarkable.
She layered and softly blended colors to avoid muddied colors.
She wanted the surface of her paintings to be like a skin with a feathery quality and a constant tension between the out of focus atmosphere and her crisp, sharp lines.
She controlled subtle modulations of color in a brilliant way and developed a way for geometry to represent the NY skyline.
O’Keeffe never made preliminary studies for her works, she would just lay down the pencil without straying from her original idea!
When Steiglitz and Georgia O’Keeffe married in 1924 they spent a great deal of time upstate near Lake George.
Water imagery was something she created a great deal during this time. She took images, simplified them, simplified them again and again until they were unrecognizable. She was a phenomenal technician and her treatment of white is just like that of colors.
One pastel work entitled, Pink and Green, from 1922 caught my eye. It is a smaller piece but the color and abstraction leads and loses the viewer in the work.
O’Keeffe was most attracted to things in nature that are boundless, timeless, and eternal. Perhaps it is in this union with nature she conveys that makes O’Keeffe so beloved as people can relate to her work.
They have experienced nature being so beautiful that words can’t describe it, only a representation of an experience can truly express it.
It was the works of O’Keeffe and John Marin that kept the gallery going with their sales. The idea of sexuality linked to her work plagued her but it also generated sales and got people talking about her.
In 1926 Cheney Brothers Silk Company commissioned 5 oil paintings for their fall ad campaign, two of which are on view in the show.
In 1929 O’Keeffe took her first trip to New Mexico as she wanted to get away from Steiglitz who had entered into a new relationship with Dorothy Norman.
After the 1923 show she wanted her work to be open to more broad interpretation and she did not pose nude for photos again; she wanted to reframe her public persona.
Two works stand out moving between galleries.
The first is Black Abstraction from 1927 in which a black circle and an unidentified organic shape mingle with a small white dot at the center. This was created after her experience of undergoing anesthesia.
Abstraction Red and Black, Night from 1929 is a very small work with two vertical deep red rectangles with a black form on the left and a brown diagonal on the right.
In 1929, much to Steiglitz’s chagrin, O’Keeffe accepts a commission for Radio City Music Hall for the women’s bathroom. Unfortunately the plaster was wet and the paint did not stick, the result causing O’Keeffe to have a nervous breakdown.
She did not paint for a year and a half, her confidence so shattered that she almost had to learn how to paint again, especially the abstracts.
This re-learning resulted in a series of predominately black and gray works of “The Black Place” about 150 miles from her New Mexico home.
She wrote to Steiglitz that she “sees him in this place.”
His mustache as the swirling hills, etc. In this sense, they can be interpreted as portraits of him. Though she begged Steiglitz to come visit her in New Mexico, he never did as he was petrified of travel.
Steiglitz died in 1946 and in 1949 she moved to New Mexico permanently.
It is in these later works that there is a coolness and serenity that permeates through.
While in New Mexico she used bones as framing devices for her abstractions. She paints her door in Abiquiu as a black square surrounded by red and golden rectangular areas, just as Frida Kahlo painted her famous home a beautiful and startling blue.
O’Keeffe developed macular degeneration which caused her to lose all but her peripheral vision causing her latest works to be more simplified, abstracted forms once again. She had come full circle!
” I’ll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking the time to look at it – I will make even busy New Yorkers take time to see what I see of flowers.”
” Whether the flower or the color is the focus I do not know. I do know the flower is painted large to convey my experience with the flower — and what is my experience if it is not the color?”
“I think I am one of the few who gives our country any voice of its own.”
“One can not be an American by going about saying that one is an American. It is necessary to feel America, like America, love America and then work.”
“One can’t paint New York as it is, but rather as it is felt.”
“Now and then when I get an idea for a picture, I think, how ordinary. Why paint that old rock? Why not go for a walk instead? But then I realise that to someone else it may not seem so ordinary.”
“Sun-bleached bones were most wonderful against the blue – that blue that will always be there as it is now after all man’s destruction is finished.”
“I found I could say things with colors that I couldn’t say in any other way — things that I had no words for.”
“I don’t much enjoy looking at paintings in general. I know too much about them. I take them apart.”
“I don’t see why we ever think of what others think of what we do — no matter who they are. Isn’t it enough just to express yourself?”
“Wise men say it isn’t art! But what of it, if it is children and love in paint?”
“I have had to go to men as sources in my painting because the past has left us so small an inheritance of woman’s painting that had widened life…. Before I put a brush to canvas I question, “Is this mine? Is it all intrinsically of myself? Is it influenced by some idea or some photograph of an idea which I have acquired from some man?”
“Objective painting is not good painting unless it is good in the abstract sense. A hill or tree cannot make a good painting just because it is a hill or tree. It is lines and colors put together so that they may say something.”
“Slits in nothingness are not very easy to paint.”
“I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life — and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do.”
“The days you work are the best days.”
“You get whatever accomplishment you are willing to declare.”
A Winning Life
O’Keeffe met photographer Todd Webb in the 1940s, and after his move to New Mexico in 1961, he often made photographs of her, as did numerous other important American photographers, who consistently presented O’Keeffe as a “loner, a severe figure and self-made person.”
While O’Keeffe was known to have a “prickly personality”, Webb’s photographs portray her with a kind of “quietness and calm” suggesting a relaxed friendship, and revealing new contours of O’Keeffe’s character.
In 1962, O’Keeffe was elected to the fifty-member American Academy of Arts and Letters. She was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1966. In the fall of 1970, the Whitney Museum of American Art mounted the Georgia O’Keeffe Retrospective Exhibition, the first retrospective exhibition of her work in New York since 1946, the year Stieglitz died, reviving her public career.
In 1972, O’Keeffe’s eyesight was compromised by macular degeneration leading to the loss of central vision and leaving her with only peripheral vision. She stopped oil painting without assistance in 1972, but continued working in pencil and charcoal until 1984.
Juan Hamilton, a young potter, appeared at her ranch house in 1973 looking for work. She hired him for a few odd jobs and soon employed him full time. He became her closest confidante, companion, and business manager until her death.
Hamilton taught O’Keeffe to work with clay, and working with assistance, she produced clay pots and a series of works in watercolor. In 1976 she wrote a book about her art and allowed a film to be made about her in 1977.
On January 10, 1977, President Gerald R. Ford presented O’Keeffe with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor awarded to American citizens. In 1985, she was awarded the National Medal of Arts.
O’Keeffe became increasingly frail in her late 90s. She moved to Santa Fe in 1984, where she died on March 6, 1986, at the age of 98.
In accordance with her wishes, she was cremated and her ashes were scattered to the wind at the top of the Pedernal Mountain, over her beloved “faraway”.
Photo credits: Georgia O’Keeffe