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Georgia O’Keeffe – the first lady of the American avant-garde, the mother of American painting – ...
2020-06-20 09:00:00

Goddess O’Keeffe
The Life of Georgia O’Keeffe

Georgia O’Keeffe with one of her paintings in Abiquiú, New Mexico, 1960. Photo by Tony Vaccaro / Getty Images
Goddess O’Keeffe
Goddess O’Keeffe

They would call her the mother of American art. She saw beauty in both flowers and animal bones, and successfully developed a new language in painting: both sensual and precise, realistic and abstract.

Read in 13 minutes

The last, 39th, place at the triangular table The Dinner Party, an artwork by Judy Chicago, belongs to Georgia O’Keeffe. Completed in 1979, this monumental installation – nowadays considered an icon of feminist art – celebrates diverse art by women and symbolically restores them to their rightful place in the history of Western culture. Each place setting consists of a china plate, embroidered table runner, gold ceramic chalice, napkin and cutlery. Below the table, on the floor made of porcelain tiles, there are inscribed the names of a further 999 women guests: poets, artists, mystics, warriors, historical and mythological figures, about whom our civilization, out of spite, would rather not remember.

The first place setting represents the Primordial Goddess. The plate depicts a butterfly, whose wings are not yet fully open whereas its thorax, as Chicago clarifies, epitomizes the hot interior of both the Earth and human soul. The whole picture, however, brings to mind the intimate parts of the female body. The plate sits on the table runner embellished with calfskin and little white shells. O’Keeffe, who takes her seat at the table as the last one, occupies pride of place right next to the Primordial Goddess. The motifs adorning her plate are shaped similarly to those on the Goddess’s plate and remind us, at the same time, of one of her most famous paintings: a black iris with a dark inside and purple and pink petals. O’Keeffe, recognized as the mother of American art, who made ostentatiously beautiful close-up portraits of flowers – as if from the bee’s or butterfly’s perspective – embodied unshakeable female power both in her life and art. Courageous, uncompromising, defiant, committed to the ideas of artistic and personal freedom, endowed with tremendous talent, and utterly dedicated to art, she definitely deserves to be seated next to the Goddess. But would she choose this place herself? This remains less clear.

“Red Canna”, 1919, High Museum of Art in Atlanta. Photo from Historic Collection/Alamy Stock Photo
“Red Canna”, 1919, High Museum of Art in Atlanta. Photo from Historic Collection/Alamy Stock Photo

O’Keeffe was so beautiful that, as Maria Poprzęcka wrote, “her colleagues from the art school in New York City would keep insisting she sat for them for a portrait.”

Throughout her entire life, she consistently rejected the label of woman artist: the one whose creativity is intimately related to her gender.

She wasn’t socially committed and didn’t partake in women’s artistic initiatives. When Gloria Steinem, the leader of the US feminist movement, wanted to pay her a visit in her New Mexico house, O’Keeffe refused to receive her. She said: “The men did more for me than the women, to help me.” Nevertheless, Chicago’s Dinner Party wouldn’t be complete without her. Although she didn’t talk much about women’s independence, she consistently practised it. In the 1970s, when second wave feminism was on the rise, she didn’t join the revolution. She wouldn’t go to protest marches, sign petitions, or fight for women’s emancipation. Emancipation, however, took place in her art.

291

Georgia O’Keeffe was born near Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, in 1887. Her parents, Ida Totto O’Keeffe and Francis Calyxtus O’Keeffe, worked on a farm. Georgia was named after her grandfather George Victor Otto. She was the second of seven children and the first daughter. Her mother supported the artistic and intellectual development of her children, and educating girls was part of family tradition. As a 12-year-old girl, at the turn of the century O’Keeffe began learning how to draw. Having demonstrated talent, she was sent to Town Hall School in Wisconsin, where she received instruction from a local water-colourist Sara Mann. She then attended high school at Sacred Heart Academy in Madison and Catholic boarding school in Chatham, Virginia. Despite the financial hardship her family faced, in 1905 she started her studies at the Arts Institute in Chicago, and in 1907 moved to New York City to further her education under William Merritt Chase. In the same year, her oil painting Dead Rabbit with Copper Pot won an award that allowed her to attend outdoor summer school at Lake George. As she later remarked, no school gave her what she really needed. She was already tired with traditional painting and desired newness in art: she wanted to do something that hadn’t been done before and depict the world like nobody had seen it yet. In 1908, she visited August Rodin’s watercolour exhibition held at the 291 gallery, owned by the photographer Alfred Stieglitz. Rodin’s obscene and seemingly unfinished works shocked New York’s audience, not acclimated yet to new European art. Georgia didn’t pay particular attention to Rodin’s works then, but her visit to 291, the most progressive art gallery at the time, heralded a breakthrough.

It is often said that Stieglitz – a photographer, art dealer and zealous propagator of new experimental art – opened America’s eyes to the 20th century. He took pictures of a dynamically evolving New York City and engaged in the struggle for the recognition of photography as an actual art form. He founded the now-legendary magazine Camera Work, which published not only the works of photographers, but also, occasionally, painters and writers. It was in Camera Work, for instance, that Gertrude Stein – the queen of experimental modernist prose – made her debut after being rejected by other magazines. Stieglitz also imported the works of Paris artists. Long before Picasso’s works were displayed at the 1913 groundbreaking modern art exhibition Armory Show, he exhibited them in his 291 gallery. He was hoping that the Metropolitan Museum would purchase them, but they were not interested. 291, named after its location at Fifth Avenue, served as a gathering place, where artists could support each other or engage into disputes; a place where one could see new art and overcome one’s habits and limitations. As O’Keeffe explained after years, at 291 everybody could find their own way and become themselves.

“Grey Line with Lavender and Yellow”, 1923, Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Photo by Peter Horree/Alamy Stock Photo
“Grey Line with Lavender and Yellow”, 1923, Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Photo by Peter Horree/Alamy Stock Photo

Before O’Keeffe started painting the flowers that brought her fame, and in which – following an early 20th-century fad for superficial psychoanalytic interpretations – people would recognize female genitals, she had been trying out different ways, travelling across America and working under the guidance of various art instructors. She would make, for instance, watercolour and charcoal drawings that depicted abstract yet nature-inspired forms. It was the latter that paved the way to her meeting with Stieglitz. O’Keeffe’s friend Anita Pollitzer, a photographer and suffragist, showed him her works. He is believed to have exclaimed: “Finally, a woman on paper!” Stieglitz considered O’Keeffe’s drawings the “purest, finest, sincerest things” he had seen in a long while and decided to exhibit them in his gallery. Since he did it without her knowledge, she later paid him an angry visit. They went to lunch together. She then went to Texas to teach drawing, but their friendship had already begun.

To see takes time

They are said to have corresponded with each other across their entire lives. In their letters, totalling 25,000 pages, they exchanged observations on both art and daily life. “Words and I are not good friends at all,” O’Keeffe wrote coquettishly since, in fact, she had strong language awareness. “What am I to say?” replied Stieglitz. “It is impossible for me to put into words what I saw and felt in your drawings.” Later, however, he attempted to articulate his feelings: “You are a very, very great Woman. – You have given me – I can’t tell you what it is – but it is something tremendous – something so overpowering that I feel as if I had shot up suddenly into the skies and touched the stars.” To which she responded: “…I was nearer to you than I have been ever been to anyone – So near that I almost seemed to touch the thing in you that is real life – call it soul if you want to – it’s a damnable poor word for it.” All the above quotes are dated 1916. In the meantime, O’Keeffe fell in love with the nearby Palo Duro Canyon, which she would later refer to as “a burning, seething cauldron, filled with dramatic light and colour.” Stieglitz exhibited her Palo Duro watercolours in 1917: it was O’Keeffe’s first solo gallery show, the great success of which he didn’t so much anticipate as curate. In the summer of 1918, O’Keeffe returned to New York City. Stieglitz promised to provide her with a studio where she could find a quiet work environment. In less than a month, they moved in together.

For O’Keeffe, Stieglitz ended his unhappy marriage with Emmeline Obermeyer. It wasn’t until 1924, however, that the divorce was finalized. Once he regained his freedom, he immediately married O’Keeffe. During the roaring twenties, they would spend winters and springs in Manhattan; summers and autumns were spent in Stieglitz’s family residence in Lake George. It was a time of intense joy as well as unprecedented erotic and creative fulfilment for both artists. Their love was closely tied to their work and fascination with each other’s artistic achievements.

When later asked about the secret to their long-lasting relationship, O’Keeffe confessed: “I was interested in what he did and he was interested in what I did.”

Stieglitz worshipped her like a goddess. He would take all kinds of photos of her, including nudes. During the first few years of their relationship, he would photograph her almost obsessively, shooting either her entire silhouette or only selected parts of her body: hands, breast, face. The photographs of O’Keeffe are among his most successful and well-known ones: they are sensual, tender, daring, and energetic. He is said to have taken over 300 pictures during their nearly 30-year relationship.

“Portrait of Georgia O’Keeffe”, 1918. Photo by Alfred Stieglitz
“Portrait of Georgia O’Keeffe”, 1918. Photo by Alfred Stieglitz

At the same time, O’Keeffe began to paint flowers. This period in her work started with a series of petunias, exhibited in 1925. Petunias are both realistic and expressionistic, saturated with colour, energy and life. They are hypnotizing. She drew close-ups of flowers, as if she had been looking at them through a magnifying glass. She explained the choice of this technique in a following way:

“I decided that if I could paint that flower in a huge scale, you could not ignore its beauty.”

In 1926, she created Black Iris III – a painting that later inspired her plate setting at Chicago’s Dinner Party. When looking at this work, it seems clear why it evokes particularly strong connotations with female anatomy. O’Keeffe, however, thought otherwise: “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.” Perhaps sexual interpretations of O’Keeffe’s paintings constitute yet another attempt not to see the flower then? Or perhaps the mystery of her art lies in her developing an entirely new language in painting: both sensual and precise, realistic and abstract. “We haven’t time, and to see takes time – like to have a friend takes time,” she would say. Her art is a profound and patient lesson in seeing.

City, flowers and bones

Back then, O’Keeffe also finished paintings that depicted Manhattan: City Night and New York Night. Completed in 1927, Radiator Building is a love letter to Stieglitz: the painting includes the name “ALFRED STIEGLITZ” in red neon next to the skyscraper. Stieglitz’s plan for O’Keeffe had already begun to become reality: her paintings won immense popularity. In 1928, her six calla lily paintings were sold for the astronomical sum of $25,000 – at the time, the largest sum ever paid for the works of a living American artist. In the same year, during her excursion to York Beach in Maine, she wrote to Stieglitz: “Spring is here – The leaves are large and tender – all cool green as there is no sun – I would like to be one of those large –soft – tender green leaves – and wrap around you and hold you while you sleep tonight.”

Doubtlessly, Stieglitz performed a major role in navigating O’Keeffe’s career, becoming an architect of her success. From the moment they met till his death in 1946, he supported her in many different ways, loved her deeply, and respected her both as a woman and artist. Nevertheless, this was coupled with appropriation of her work. It was Stieglitz who emphasized the bodily and ‘spontaneous’ character of O’Keeffe’s art, convinced that gender and sexuality would open her door to success. By doing so, however, he downplayed O’Keeffe’s own artistic self-awareness. Conversant with Freud’s theories of the femininity, Stieglitz adored women, but also perpetuated stereotypes about them prevalent at the time. Like children’s imagination, art by women and the so-called ‘primitive people’ was believed to be rooted in instinct and constitute a counterweight for modernity. Although such characterization proved effective as a marketing strategy, O’Keeffe had no choice but to resist it.

Series I, “White & Blue Flower Shapes”, 1919, Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe. Photo by Albert Knapp/Alamy Stock Photo
Series I, “White & Blue Flower Shapes”, 1919, Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe. Photo by Albert Knapp/Alamy Stock Photo

By the end of the 1920s, both artists experienced another breakthrough. Stieglitz started to feel he was getting old while O’Keeffe, carried away by her insatiable hunger for life, began to go West. When she arrived at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico – a place of hypnotizing beauty, where the Rito del Yeso stream flows through amazingly shaped red rocks, and where Pueblo Indians perform what is called the ‘dance of the corn’ – she knew she had discovered her own America. During her initial stays in New Mexico, she would go for solitary horse rides in the mountains and the desert, admiring the colours of the earth, the light, roadside crosses, ravines called arroyos, silence and emptiness. After a while, she learned how to drive and later often painted while sitting in her car. Over the next 20 years, she would spend a significant part of the year in the western US, where she began to collect and paint animal bones. But in the autumn she would return to New York City and Stieglitz.

A famous 1936 painting Summer Days, which depicts an ox skull and wild flowers, is representative of that period in O’Keeffe’s artistic career. She said about animal bones what she would also say about flowers: that they are beautifully shaped and that she enjoys looking at them. “I have enjoyed them very much in relation to the sky,” she explained. She perceived them as teeming with life. O’Keeffe always emphasized that she painted what she saw, and the bones were what she could see in the desert, which was slowly becoming her home. “I seemed to be hunting for something of myself out there, she wrote to Stieglitz. The more successful she became, the more she needed to escape the city. In 1940, she bought a house in Ghost Ranch. O’Keeffe and Stieglitz still loved each other very much, but they were growing apart, which is reflected in their correspondence. She wrote to him: “I have not wanted to be anything but kind to you – but there is nothing to be kind to you if I cannot be me.”

Sky above clouds

In the 1940s her success was confirmed. Her retrospective first took place at the Art Institute of Chicago, and then in the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan (she was the first woman to have a retrospective organized there). In 1946, she bought her second house: an abandoned hacienda in Abiguiu, 27 kilometres south of Ghost Ranch. In the same year, Stieglitz had a stroke. Georgia immediately flew back to New York City. After his death, she took his ashes and buried them under a tall pine tree near Lake George, where they enjoyed the first happy years of their relationship. Having settled her husband’s issues, she permanently moved to New Mexico. To make sure that this was the best place in the world, she began to travel. She wandered the globe, but no place compared with Ghost Ranch. Her travels inspired the series Sky Above Clouds. Perhaps the most poignant painting, created in the 1950s, represents a “ladder to the moon”, hanging in the turquoise sky, above the jagged black horizon. The pale half of the moon is both close and distant. The painting is sometimes said to symbolize transition to a new life stage as well as O’Keeffe’s intuition about the unity of the material and the incorporeal, always permeating her work.

“Cow’s Skull: Red, White, and Blue”, 1952, Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Photo by Peter Horree/Alamy Stock Photo
“Cow’s Skull: Red, White, and Blue”, 1952, Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Photo by Peter Horree/Alamy Stock Photo

One day, at the beginning of the 1970s, when Judy Chicago had already started working on The Dinner Party, Juan Hamilton – a dirt poor 27-year-old after a painful divorce and with no specific plans for the future – knocked on O’Keeffe’s door. As he recounted, at 85 the painter was still stunningly beautiful, but beginning to lose her vision. Hamilton remembered the impression she made on him, as well as a clay pot with human skull that caught his eye. O’Keeffe needed a helper. She subjected Hamilton to a number of tests (which included straightening a large pile of bent nails) and after he passed them, she took him on. He was her chauffeur, gardener, secretary and friend. They went together on a trip to Morocco, which outraged even her closest friends. As Hamilton later recalled: “Rumours abounded that Georgia and I were secretly married, but Georgia just thought that was funny as could be – she loved it.” At that stage of her life, O’Keeffe was absolutely free; she didn’t care about what people would say or think. Although her vision was getting worse, she continued to work creatively till the end of her days, using mostly pencil, charcoal and watercolours. She also took up pottery, assisted by Hamilton.

When she died in her Santa Fe home, where she spent the last days of her life, her body was immediately cremated, in accordance with her last will. Juan Hamilton scattered her ashes at the flat top of her beloved mountain Cerro Pedernal, which we know well from her paintings. The first lady of the American avant-garde, the mother of American painting, goddess O’Keeffe is now part of the landscape, which she saw like nobody else before, and which we now see through her eyes.
 

Translated from the Polish by Joanna Mąkowska

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