“Georgia O’Keeffe was never afraid of standing out. She had a certain fearlessness and a conviction of who she was and what she needed to do to make the art she was called to make… (She was) someone who did not worry about fitting into a mainstream conception of what a woman should look like and how a woman should dress, of what and how a woman should paint.” Barron Bailly
Georgia O’Keeffe, feminist heroine and pioneer modernist, fiercely independent, an indomitable figure. Known for her paintings of New York skyscrapers, huge blown-up flowers and New Mexico landscapes she became one of America’s most important and successful 20th century artists. Producing more than 2000 works in a 70- year career, she garnered much praise and acclaim. An artist of utmost integrity, she created the life she wanted to live on her own terms, a woman out of her time.
“I’ve always been absolutely terrified every single moment of my life,” she said, “and I’ve never let it stop me from doing a single thing I wanted to do.”
O’Keeffe had such an incredible sense of how she wanted to appear in the world – her hair, her clothes. It was often remarked by her contemporaries that she didn’t look like other women. She had a very specific sense of her being in the world, which was conveyed through her clothes. Mostly she dressed in black and white (certainly in public) and her homes were similarly furnished in monochrome tones, yet she lived a life full of colour:
BLACK & WHITE:
Born on November 15, 1887, Georgia Totto O’Keeffe grew up on a farm in the wide-open prairies of Wisconsin. Georgia was the eldest daughter (and the second of seven), ministering to a brood of sisters. The family style was cool and austere, setting great store by self-reliance. Her first memory was “of the brightness of the light – brightness all around”, and she decided she would be an artist at the age 11.
Her dogged commitment to this ambition got her into Art school at 17 years old, firstly the Art Institute of Chicago and then the Art Students League in New York in 1907. Under the direction of various tutors she learned the techniques of traditional realist painting. But she instinctively knew this wasn’t her style. In 1912 she studied the revolutionary ideas of Arthur Wesley Dow and had her eureka moment.
Dow placed emphasis on composition and design over imitation. Georgia started experimenting, seeking to find a personal visual language through which she could express her feelings and ideas. All the while affording an independent life by teaching art in colleges in South Carolina and West Texas. In 1915 she began a series of abstract charcoal drawings that represented a radical break with tradition; pure abstraction.
O’Keeffe mailed some of these highly abstract drawings to a friend in New York City, who took them to art dealer and acclaimed photographer, Alfred Stieglitz. He got her work straight away – “At last, a woman on paper!”
Slowly O’Keeffe was finding her artistic voice; minimalist, modern, androgynous, deliberate. Stieglitz gave her her first exhibition in 1916, Married and in his early fifties (24 years her senior) Stieglitz knew he had found his match, through many letters he encouraged her to become a full-time artist in New York. The couple soon fell in love, living and working together, and finally marrying in 1924. Stieglitz’s artistic circle and well-to-do family no doubt helped Georgia’s career (he also took many photos of her, often in the nude which garnered some acclaim). But their personal and professional relationship was not always easy.
By the mid-1920s, O’Keeffe was gaining recognition for her paintings of New York skyscrapers—an essentially American image of modernity—
and then came the flowers.
“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.”
Series 1, No.8 (1918), Jack in the Pulpit, No. 4, (1920) and Blue Flowers (1918)
Georgia O’Keeffe is probably most associated today for her paintings of magnified flowers – extreme close-ups of flora so highly detailed they became abstract. Georgia was one of the first artists to adapt this photographic method to painting.
“Nothing is less real than realism ― details are confusing,” she famously said. “It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis, that we get the real meaning of things.”
O’Keeffe liked to paint the same thing again and again, until she had penetrated to its essence, unravelling the secret of it’s attraction. These efforts paid off, her work sold all around the world. Critics and buyers alike associated her huge flowers with erotica, the detail seemingly replicating woman’s gentailia. O’Keefe was not impressed by what she considered a smutty slur on her work, she said, “When people read erotic symbols into my paintings, they’re really talking about their own affairs.”
In November 2015, Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1 (1932), was bought by Walmart heiress Alice B. Walton for $44.4million – O’Keeffe’s work became the most expensive painting, by a female artist, ever sold at auction.
During the 1920s, Georgia considered having a child but Stieglitz, increasingly overbearing, refused the idea telling her firmly motherhood would not suit her art. Amazingly she didn’t seem to argue with this much but she was incredibly hurt to learn he had started an affair with Dorothy Norman, the beautiful young wife of an heir to the Sears department store fortune. Now she took action.
BLUES, PURPLES, TURQUOISE:
“As soon as I saw it, that was my country. I’d never seen anything like it before, but it fitted to me exactly.”
In the summer of 1929, seeking solitude from the pressures of the New York art world, and her deteriorating relationship with Stieglitz, O’Keeffe traveled to New Mexico. So began her own love affair – with the desert state. The stark landscape, distinct indigenous art, and unique regional style of architecture inspired a new direction in her work. For the next two decades she spent part of most years living and working in New Mexico, making it her permanent home in 1949. (She was then a widow, Stieglitz died in 1946).
“What I see out the windows,” she wrote, was “the pink earth and yellow cliffs to the north – the full pale moon about to go down in an early morning lavender sky . . . pink and purple hills in front and the scrubby fine dull green cedars . . . . It is a very beautiful world.”
O’Keeffe’s New Mexico paintings coincided with a growing interest in regional scenes by American Modernists seeking “The Great American thing”. Her simplified but refined representations expressed a deep personal response to the high desert terrain. When she moved to New Mexico, she extended her palette, introducing stronger colours in both her everyday dress and paintings. Immersed in the panoramic sea blue skies of the Southwest, and the arid colors of the geographical formations in the desert, she leaned towards blues, pinks, and turquoises. “. . . that Blue”, she said, “will always be there as it is now after all man’s destruction is finished”.
Cow skulls and miscellaneous animal bones, surreally aloft over the clean blue skies and dry striated hills of New Mexico now came the feature in her art.
“When I found the beautiful white bones on the desert I picked them up and took them home… I have used these things to say what is to me the wilderness and wonder of the world as I live in it.”
Iconic images to us now, but groundbreaking at the time. It was O’Keeffe’s total dedication to her work that produced such astounding results. She camped out in the harsh desert terrain, to be surrounded b the landscapes that inspired her. She would rig up tents from tarpulins, wrap herself in a blanket and wait, shivering, in the cold dark for a sunrise to paint. She carried on camping well into her 70s and enjoyed a well-documented rafting trip with photographer Todd Webb at age 74. She became known as a “character” – stoical, strong-willed, hard-working.
“Making your unknown known is the most important thing,” she said, “and keeping the unknown always beyond you.”
PINKS & ORANGES:
“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.”
From the 1950s into the 1970s, O’Keeffe travelled the world, taking trips to the Far East, Southeast Asia, India, the Middle East, and Europe. Her travels showed up in her work, in paintings that evoked a sense of the spectacular places she visited, including the mountain peaks of Peru and Japan’s Mount Fuji.
Perhaps reflecting her newly expanded view of the world she went on to produce 2 major series on huge mural-sized canvases – at the age of 73. The first, aerial views of rivers, It Was Blue and Green, (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York), and then the Sky Above Clouds IV, (Art Institute of Chicago, (1962–65), the most dramatic work of her later years. In 1965 and nearing eighty years of age she took on an enormous challenge – recreating the series on a monumental canvas, 24 feet in length.
BLACK & WHITE again:
“I always felt like I was walking on the knife of an edge. On this knife I might fall either side but I’d do it again. So what? What if you do fall off? I’d rather do something I really wanted to do.”
Her looks as she aged made her seem impervious. But she was suffering from macular degeneration, her eyesight failing. She painted her last unassisted oil painting in 1972 the same year she met potter-sculptor Juan Hamilton, who became her assistant and, later, her close friend and representative (some claim her lover).
Her indomitable will did not diminish with her eyesight. In 1977, at age ninety, she observed, “I can see what I want to paint. The thing that makes you want to create is still there.”
Almost blind, she carried on, enlisting the help of several assistants to enable her to keep on producing art and sculptures, conjured on from her memory and vivid imagination.
Georgia O’Keeffe died in Santa Fe, on March 6, 1986, at the age of 98.
Men put me down as the best woman painter…
…I think I’m one of the best painters.
Watch her Mexican garden grow on livecam – https://www.okeeffemuseum.org/about-georgia-okeeffe/abiquiu-camera/