Georgia O’Keeffe 887 – 1986
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Georgia O’Keeffe was born in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, the first daughter to second-generation farmers. The family traced back to Ireland – grandfather Pierce O’Keeffe of County Cork, grandmother Catherine Shortal of Kilkenny. Her mother’s family was descended from a variety of colorful historical characters—a signer of the Mayflower Compact, an exiled Hungarian revolutionary, and a famous New York hotelier. The two families—the O’Keeffes and the Tottos (Georgia’s middlename-sake)—were joined by abutting farmland. Their fields were joined when Francis and Ida were married, and Georgia’s young life was spent amid simple agrarian industry. She had already taken up watercolors and decided she wanted to become an artist when she was sent away to Madison to live with her two unmarried aunts. In 1902 the family farm was sold, and O’Keeffe was relocated again, this time to Williamsburg, Virginia. Her teachers at school noted her precocious talent for art, and in 1905 she studied anatomy at the Art Institute of Chicago. By 1907, she had enrolled at the Art Students League of New York, where she quickly developed a traditional realist approach to oil painting. Equally important, she had her first encounter with Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 gallery. 291’s avant garde program, which included Cezanne, Matisse, Rodin, and a slate of home-grown modernists, made the Art Students League look deeply conservative. O’Keeffe’s dive into modernism would have to wait, however.
Back home in Williamsburg, family finances were failing, and in 1912 O’Keeffe returned. Her ambitions for a career in fine art were put on hold, indefinitely, while she looked for work teaching. The summer of 1912 was spent taking summer classes with Alon Bement at the University of Virginia. Bement introduced O’Keeffe to the ideas of Arthur Wesley Dow, and soon she was also absorbing Kandinsky’s influential tome, Concerning the Spiritual in Art. She abandoned the vestiges of her realist mode and moved into a radical modernist mode that quickly impressed her cosmopolitan friends in New York. Living in the south, however, was cramping the restless firebrand. Her friend and confidant, Anne Pollitzer, tried to calm her: “It won’t hurt you to know tame people for a little while” [Full Bloom, p. 99].
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O’Keeffe might have remained a talented outsider to the world of modern art growing in New York if Pollitzer hadn’t betrayed her trust. O’Keeffe sent a group of drawings in radically abstract style in the care of her friend. Without O’Keeffe’s consent, Pollitzer took them straight to Stieglitz. Stieglitz was immediately taken by them: “They’re genuinely fine things” he remarked. “They’re the purest, finest, sincerest things that have entered 291 in a long while … I wouldn’t mind showing them…” Stieglitz returned the drawings to Pollitzer, and wrote an effusively praising letter to O’Keeffe directly. O’Keeffe was quietly grateful to Pollitzer, and beaming at the praise from Stieglitz. Unfortunately for her career as an artist, she was forced by failing finances to spend the next two years teaching in Texas.
O’Keeffe was flattered by the attention, and delighted to be taken in on the terms that validated her vision as an artist, but she was disturbed to discover that Stieglitz, in 1916, had put her drawings on view at 291. The exhibition nonetheless caused a stir—reviews were mixed, but everyone seemed to take notice. She confronted the dealer, but agreed when he proposed a solo show the following year.
Her first one-woman exhibition broke new ground for O’Keeffe as an artist, and for O’Keeffe as a woman. The commotion over O’Keeffe’s gender would be a recurrent theme throughout her career. The paternalistic manner that marked Stieglitz’s relationship with O’Keeffe in 1916, would leave its impression upon the two for the rest of their lives together.
A typical response to her monographic exhibition in 1917:
There are canvases of O’Keeffe’s that make one to feel life in the dim regions where human, animal and plant are one, undistinguishable, and where the state of existence is blind pressure and umb unfolding. There are spots in this work wherein the artist seems to bring before one the outline of a whole universe, a full course of life: mysterious cycles of birth and reproduction and death.
Stieglitz promoted a view of this woman’s work that was both patronizing and mythologizing:
This exhibition, mainly owing to Miss O’Keeffe’s drawings, attracted many visitors and aroused unusual interest and discussion. It was different from anything that had been shown at “291.” . . . Miss O’Keeffe’s drawings besides their other value were of intense interest from a psycho-analytical point of view. “291” had never before seen woman express herself so frankly on paper.
Evelyn Sayer wrote in to Stieglitz’s Camera Work magazine, the official organ of 291, with a different perspective. She, too, understood gender and femininity as critical flexion points for O’Keeffe’s work but saw an assertiveness and honesty that Stieglitz buried under his appellation of primordial womanhood.

She wrote:

My Dear Mr. Stieglitz: I feel very hesitant about trying to write an appreciation of the woman pictures.
I was startled by their frankness; startled into admiration of the self-knowledge in them. How new a field of expression such sex consciousness will open.

I felt carried on a wave which took me very near to understanding how to free and so create forces – it has receded now and leaves me without the words.

I shall never forget the moment of freedom I felt – or the inspiration of how to use it.
If Stieglitz placed O’Keeffe on a sort of pedestal, so too did O’Keeffe hold a special place for the dealer, then married and in his mid-fifties: first as a mentor, and soon, as a lover. Stieglitz encouraged her to move to New York and to re-dedicate herself to her art, and in letters he confessed his affection for her as well. In 1918, she accepted that invitation, and shortly thereafter they began living together. Stieglitz’s marriage wouldn’t be legally dissolved until 1924, but within months, he and O’Keeffe were wed in a small ceremony at John Marin’s house.

By all accounts the two were fiercely independent and drawn to one another with both deep emotion and shrewd calculation. O’Keeffe maintained that the marriage was mainly to assuage the anxieties of Stieglitz’s daughter Kitty, who was suffering from mental health issues during the couple’s long courtship. Certainly the relationship was built upon real passion, but just as certainly they each took what they needed from the relationship and continued along their own profoundly individual paths. Stieglitz remained the gallerist and photographer, O’Keeffe continued to push the boundaries of modernist painting.

Stieglitz produced an immense body of photographs of O’Keeffe. There is real sentiment behind them, as well as an attention to a single subject that Stieglitz committed to no other. But many of them are also daringly abstract, evincing a coldness and distance that mark these photographs as art first, affectionate portraits second. O’Keeffe sensed this, reflecting later in life: “I felt somehow that the photographs had nothing to do with me personally” [Barbara Buhler Lynes, O’Keeffe, Stieglitz and the Critics, 1916-1929].
O’Keeffe inarguably gained from the relationship as well—not least in Stieglitz’s unflagging encouragement for her work. But the passion of the early years did not sustain the couple. They never divorced, but by the end of the decade, she had made a decisive move away from the shadow of his influence. It took leaving New York to do so – but O’Keeffe was no stranger to wanderlust, and she found a means of escape in the form of an old ranch in New Mexico.
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In 1929, Georgia O’Keeffe ventured to the Southwest for the first time since her brief teaching sting in Texas, staying with a group of artists and friends centered around Mabel Luhan Dodge. Shortly after her arrival, O’Keeffe learned to drive, bought a car, and was off to witness Pueblo and Hopi Indian dances. Her subject matter adapted abruptly: “She begins in a realist technique and finishes almost always in abstraction,” Carolyn Kastner, associate curator at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum explained [in an interview with Ann Landi, ArtNet News, June 3, 2013]. This practice meant Precisionist city-scapes when she worked in New York, but in the New Mexico desert, she turned to a variety of new subjects, including mesa landscapes and still lifes of cattle bones. These quieter views also encompassed the almost anthropological documentation of the ritual dolls of the Hopi and Pueblo Indians, which she considered in her artwork over a dozen times. The dolls, known as katsina tithu, are small carvings that represent the supernatural beings, or katsina, of the Hopi culture. The dolls themselves are known as tithu, but the term has alternately been transliterated as kachina.

O’Keeffe’s various treatments of the dolls in her work appear to relate to only a few individual carvings. As early as 1931, she addressed “Paul’s Kachina” in two works (see Lynes, Georgia O’Keeffe, vol. I, p. 475, nos. 781 & 782), using a tithu owned by her friend Paul Jones as a model. Jones, to whom O’Keeffe refers fleetingly in her letters to Stieglitz, is likely the Maryland-born painter D. Paul Jones (? – 1962) who settled in Taos. The half-dozen works made in 1935 were drawn from a different doll, this one with “horns” and a blue head [Ibid., pp. 532-33, nos. 858-61]. Just as if she were working from flowers or bones, O’Keeffe approached her subject in a direct realist manner, allowing it to approach an abstract, even surrealist quality by omitting conventional referents to place, light, and scale. Notably, kachina or tithu were traditionally given to new brides and younger girls on dance days. The kachina doll as a subject represents an extension of O’Keeffe’s interrogation of femininity and its intersection with spirituality, a common theme for the artist.
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By the middle of the next decade, O’Keeffe was already one of the most highly sought after and commercially successful artists of her generation. A cornerstone of O’Keeffe’s early fame and success was her body of work depicting flowers. Numerous biographies and works of art criticism have engaged in endless considerations of the meaning and derivation of O’Keeffe’s forms – particularly the flower paintings of the 1920s and 1930s, which have been described as Freudian explorations of O’Keeffe’s sexuality and womanhood. While those writings contributed to O’Keeffe’s fame and the exaggerated interest in her biography, they tended to limit the profound impact that O’Keeffe had on the development of American art, diminishing the full force of her emergence as one of the most important painters of the twentieth century.

Two components are critical to the success of O’Keeffe’s painting: her unique vision of interpreting objects, and the technique that she employed in depicting that vision. There is an unmistakable modernity in O’Keeffe’s viewpoint. She chose, or perhaps was able, to see inside of objects. This view inside of objects was carried out alongside Paul Strand and other modernist photographers, who used their viewfinders to come up close to objects and to see them in a different manner – reduced and distilled to the most essential sculptural elements. Her singular vision is on display whether peering into a flower, looking down on the clouds or a river from above in an airplane. The essential ingredient is the way in which O’Keeffe chose to look at her objects, rather than the significance of the objects themselves.

The artist commented:

A flower is relatively small. Everyone has many associations with a flower – the idea of flowers. You put out your hand to touch the flower – lean forward to smell it – maybe touch it with your lips almost without thinking – or give it to someone to please them. Still – in a way – nobody sees a flower – really – it is so small – we haven’t time – and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time…’ So I said to myself – I’ll paint what I see – what the flower is to me but I’ll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it – I will make even busy New Yorkers take time to see what I see of flowers: ‘Well – I made you take time to look at what I saw and when you took time to really notice my flower, you hung all your own associations with flowers on my flower and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower – and I don’t. [quoted in An American Place, New York, Georgia O’Keeffe” (1944), n.p.].

The leading critics of Georgia O’Keeffe’s day discussed her often, but few understood her work in the manner that Paul Rosenfeld did. Rosenfeld wrote for The Nation, The Dial, and Vanity Fair, among others. In an essay for Essays on Fourteen American Moderns (1924), Rosenfeld summed up the nuances of O’Keeffe’s work and style and he touched on the technical virtuosity seen in the present image:

A combination of immense Picasso-like power and crisp daintiness exists not alone in the color of O’Keeffe. It exists likewise in the textures of her paintings and in the shapes born in her mind with her color-schemes, and expressed through them. Precisely as the widest plunges and the tenderest gradations point against each other in her harmonies and fuse marvelously, so in her surfaces do heavily varnished passages combine with blotting-paper textures, and severe, harsh forms with strangest, sensitive flower-like shapes. Sharp lines, hard as though they had been ruled, divide swimming hue from hue. Rounds are described as by the scratching point of a compass….The color of O’Keeffe has an edge that is like a line’s. Here, for almost the first time one seems to see pigment used with the exquisite definitieness, the sharp presence, of linear markings. Much of her work has the precision of the most finely machine-cut products. No painting is purer. Contours and surfaces sing like instruments exquisitely sounded. There are certain of these streaks of pigment which appear licked on, so lyrical and vibrant are they.
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After 1929, O’Keeffe’s new course had been set: She had established her own voice, found her own subject; she had established a life in the Southwest, full of the curious objects and interesting visitors that would occupy her art and her life for the following decades. All of these were far from the tiny walls of 291. The canvases were bigger than could ever have fit in any of Stieglitz’s “intimate” galleries, and perhaps O’Keeffe’s personality was too large to have fit into Stieglitz’s. When Stieglitz died, in 1946, O’Keeffe closed his gallery and settled his affairs. His death completed the process that had begun in 1929: the final disentanglement of their lives. O’Keeffe brought his ashes to Lake George, where she scattered them “where he could hear the water” [Richard Whelan, Alfred Stieglitz: A Biography (1995), p. 400].

This was not nearly the end, however, for Georgia O’Keeffe. She experienced a new renaissance, and lived to enjoy enduring and renewed attention. MoMA held a retrospective later that same year—the first for a woman artist. At the same time, she moved into a second home, twenty miles south of Ghost Ranch. At midcentury, her work was more subtle and symbol-drenched than ever, now embracing minimal views of the terrain and her own doorway in stark geometric forms. She travelled extensively in the late 1950s, and continued to live and paint in New Mexico for the next two and a half decades.
O’Keeffe’s legacy is expansive. Late in life she was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom—later still, the National Medal of Arts. The foundation that was established bearing her name has since become the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, collecting a major body of her work as well as chronicling the many important lives that her work touched in the Southwest. Her homes have been documented extensively and designated as National Historic Landmarks. Photographs that Stieglitz took of O’Keeffe have become the most valuable photographs of all time, and O’Keeffe’s Jimson Weed recently sold at auction for three times the highest record ever achieved by a woman artist. She has been the subject of stage-plays, feature films and novels, her work appearing on postage stamps and in the every important public collection. Her life and work, full of complicated and often contradictory elements, never compromised. She lived and worked on her own terms.