A Fresh Look at Georgia O'Keefe
By: J. Marlando
As an art reviewer for a San Diego publication quite some years ago, I was often sent to review some painters who were up and coming or who one of our editors had some relationship with—yes, the art world can be ever as packed with nepotism as politics and beauty contests. Anyway, I can tell you that a great many hopeful and would-be painters do a lot of flowers—the very subjects that launched Georgia O’Keeffe’s professional career; that would bring world attention to her unique art.
Flowers are beautiful and magnetic to the eye but only a minute number of painters have ever been able to capture their grace and delicate textures—few have even tried with most simply attempting to master shape and color. The (famous) exceptions are probably Monet, Degas and unexpectedly, Vincent Van Gogh. Yet none of these masters came even close to capturing the intimate dynamics of flowers that Georgia did. For example here is the artist’s “Black Iris III” that draws us into the very heart of the flower; into the depths of its being; the painter’s expression of stark objectivity clad in the most blatant subjectivity—a style that was destined to attract world attention to her work and give her acclaim as a masterful painter.
To understand Georgia O’Keefe’s uniqueness as a person and an artist, it is essential to understand her era: she was the second child to be born to Frank and Ida O’Keefe, country folk in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin on November 15, 1887.
This was a time when self-reliance was the ultimate symbol of Americana and only frugality followed in importance for the typical American personality: People refused to buy on credit; they raised their own food, made most of their own clothing, milked their own cows and churned their own butter; made their own bread and often their own furniture. And, most were church going Protestants or Catholics which added to the austerity of family and social life of Georgia’s world.
Little Georgia grew up in a tight-lipped, judgment-making era of strict rules and constant sour-faced moralizing. As a result, she would never see her family give hugs and kisses even to family members much less close friends—instead they were greeted with an unemotional handshake and invited in even on holidays and other special occasions. Georgia craved much more attentiveness and affection from especially her mother but it never came and so she withdrew into herself and began living a lot in the world of her own imagination.
We can assume that she began giving her own feelings and affections to nature itself—to the sloping hills, the high grass and quaint paths; the wildflowers and trees and all the mysterious and majestic sounds and movement that one encounters along country roads. On the other hand, Georgia, the little girl, also had a love for the family’s barn—for some reason it gave her happiness to romp and play in the gigantic structure held up by great, impressive beams—pillars of strength and endurance. Perhaps there were many “secret” places for her to hide in the barn and do her daydreaming.
Politically these were the days that so many people in our own times ignorantly attempt to attribute to modernism; a time of freedom and when the individual was triumphant in running his own life unencumbered from social rule. Indeed, Mama Ida was a great story teller and reader so she filled her children’s imaginations with wonderful stories of independence and romantic tales of liberty. Georgia listened intently and she would grow up to be extremely individualistic and free-spirited for her times…or any other.
Interestingly enough, most of Georgia’s strong role models were female; her mother, her grandmother and aunts, all strong, independent women who obviously influenced her.
Indeed, Georgia O’Keeffe would grow up to live outside the center of society; she would be daring in both her art and in her private life. Georgia, incidentally, had nearly always drawn a little but in the winter of 1898 and1899 when the young artist was eleven, she began taking drawing lessons at home with two of her sisters. These lessons were given privately by the teacher at Town Hall School who was boarding with the family. All three girls showed promise of artistic talent.
Georgia, however, took the lessons very seriously and like just about all other endeavor in her young life, including chores, she gave those lessons her best and most intense devotions. That was Georgia, she really never learned to compromise and that would be revealed on her future canvasses.
The Blossoming of an Artist
Georgia O’Keeffe was not only artistic but quite smart; intellectual in fact when she wanted to be. While attending Sacred Heart School she won the prize in ancient history and a gold pin for drawing. This was in 1901. The fifteen year old was living in Milwaukee by then, a major city of around twenty thousand locals and growing.
It was during this time that Georgia was introduced to a more stringent Victorianism which conflicted greatly with her earlier socialization which was grounded in independence. Nevertheless, the sweet Victorian was taught how to be dependent, submissive and selfishly passive. None of these attributes of the (very) feminine were attractive to the artistic teenager however. Indeed, as said earlier, the women in her life had been just the opposite; her own mother a strong, determined personality and now she was being taught to be timid and unassuming. She secretly refused the teaching as subservience but obedience was, in a term, not in her soul. This doesn’t mean that she was necessarily defiant to authority but she didn’t simply follow it either. She was instead growing up to be fully and confidently her own person.
It was around this same time that the family moved to Williamsburg; a place of southern sophistications and all the personas that has traditionally accompanied it. Her father ended up being looked down on by the town folk because he would work alongside his black laborers—a taboo in Southern culture which he was unaware of.
Georgia loved the beauty of the place especially in spring when the hills and valleys turn pink and blue with hyacinths, stars of Bethlehem and crocuses. This was not the first time she had thought of flowers as being subjects of her art but she was maturing by this time into young adulthood and looking at the world differently than she previously had. That is, her computations toward creative art were surfacing into her conscious mind and now she was not only seeing pretty flowers but the dynamics of from and color. In fact, in later years she would say, “When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it…it’s your world for a moment.”
(As a quick aside, any painter who does not inspect the object that he or she will paint with great attention to detail will fail in art even if the painter happens to create abstracts. This certainly brings up questions about the authenticity of artists like William Williams, Morris Blue and Jackson Pollock but these are topics for a future article. For purposes here, the true artist must explore the detail of things what if he or she paints the details or not. Georgia O’Keefe was the ultimate observer as all the old masters had to be. Indeed, she was in empathy with her flowers as she was with the hills and skulls that she painted. Perhaps this is her great and wonderful secret?)
At age seventeen Georgia was studying at the Art Institute of Chicago. It was in this stone-gray building that Georgia felt intimidated for the first time in her life. For one thing she confronted a wide selection of artists and many were rich in obvious talent and so she was not the immediate artistic superstar that she may have even anticipated being. For one thing, the school was drenched in European traditionalism and was a little too formal for the young artist’s taste although, by then, she had no real conception for taking artistic direction of her own.
Returning home for the summer of 1906, Georgia came down we a severe case of Typhoid—an extremely serious disease at the time, causing a great numbers of deaths. By the fall Georgia was having a slow recovery, however. It took her weeks to regain her strength and regrow the hair she lost. She did not return to the Institute and stayed with her parents and younger siblings that winter.
In the spring of 1907 and although Georgia was fully recovered she decided not to return to school. Instead she wrote the Institute and asked for a teaching recommendation. The institute complied but there was a subtle snobbery in their letter: “Miss O’Keeffe is a young lady of attractive personality, and I feel she will be very successful as a teacher of drawing.”
While she had fully intended not to return to art school, she changed her mind and in
September of 1907 enrolled at the Art Students League
Art League Photo tken a few years after Gorgia attended.
in New York, City.
American art and culture were changing at this juncture of Georgia’s young life. Theodore Roosevelt’s expansionism was destined to change the course of American politics and ideals forever. In art, American Impressionism was coming strongly into vogue. Edward Cocuel was certainly included in the growing number of U.S. impressionists even though he had been schooled in Europe.
A Cocuel Painting Below
In any case, Georgia’s old school in Chicago was so outraged that they had protested modern impressionists including masters such as Matisse. Georgia’s instructor in New York, in contrast, supported the movement and celebrated it. While impressionism would not become Georgia’s style, but one can see some impressionistic influence in her more intimate art; especially in her use of light.
By this time Georgia O’Keeffe had grown to be an attractive young lady. In fact, male admirers at the school called her “Patsy” because of her curly hair and Irish last name. Indeed at the institute she was center of attention again and this was pleasing to her. It was especially pleasing to her that a certain young man—a fellow student—was obviously finding her attractive. With little persuasion he even talked her into posing for him.
This was an interesting time in Georgia O’Keeffe’s life. By this time she was obviously feeling the secret desires that most young women endure; that experiencing of femininity that is felt by females but can never be explained. The young artist, Eugene Speicher, won a prize for the portrait but the entire ordeal of such passivity gave Georgia a sudden awakening—she had to choose between wanting to have the life of a young, attractive woman; a woman who found certain men attractive and who loved to dance and be center of attention or a human being devoted to art. This was a major dilemma for the young artist who not only resisted posing for anyone in her own mind while, at the same time, continuing to pose not only for Speicher and for other students as well.
Obviously a strange irony was occurring in the young woman’s psyche: Perhaps it was that terrible abstract period that so many students go through—that period of gaining or losing a self?
Then, one day a student walked in saying that they should all go down to “291” and see the Rodin show of pencil and watercolor drawings. In fact, the teachers at the league had told the students to be sure not to miss the show. And so, Speicher, Georgia and a small group of other art students, bundled up to face the snowy cold of New York’s January and walked to the gallery at fifth and thirtieth Street. The little gallery had moved from “291” to “293 Fifth Avenue.
No one suspected that the seemingly self-assured “Patsy,” as so many students had nicknamed her, was standing at a crossroads of her life torn between a devotion to art and a yearning for what might only be called a life of normalcy—oddly enough the modeling was very symbolic to Georgia because, for the first time in her life she was taking on the role of object; the traditional female role which of course was also a natural part of her personality.
Then on January 2, 1908 the twenty-year-old Georgia O’Keeffe met the photographer and gallery owner, Alfred Stieglitz who had, incidentally, just celebrated his forty-fourth birthday. This meeting was destined to change Georgia’s world.
A Seeking For Excellence
Alfred Stieglitz, pictured above, was born in New Jersey in 1864 but and had been educated in both the U.S. and in Europe where he was introduced to the wonders of the photography as a scientific challenge. When he returned to the U.S., however, he became involved in the school of thought that believed photography to be a form of artistic expression and the young would-be engineer began devoting his life to the art of picture taking. Indeed, he started his first gallery called “291” so he would have a place to exhibit his work and the works of other artists.
Alfred was both artistic and intellectual; a man who held his own opinion in the highest esteem and had little patience with people who disagreed with him. One might say that it took a certain type of person to get along with him much less befriend him. Alfred Stieglitz knew this about himself but he didn’t care…he was, indeed, his own man.
While there wasn’t a spark of love-at-first-sight between Georgia and Alfred when they first met on that snowy, cold January day, there was a spark of some kind—perhaps the kind of attraction that binds two creative souls together who were secretly feeling far more lost than found? Whatever it was, the meeting was destined for a most unexpected relationship to evolve in the future. Neither knew it at that time. In fact, Georgia was not at all impressed by the exhibition of Rodin’s sketches. The truth however is that the exhibition was not very flattering to Rodin’s wonderful talent—they were more quickie drawings like the Rodin seen here. Alfred probably had exhibited them for name value alone—he was, after all, that very rare artist who was also astute in business.
Lots were destined to happen for Georgia after her first visit to 291 but also, it was around this same time that one of her still lifes won a scholarship to Amitola, an artists’ retreat on Lake George in upper state New York.
The retreat was built by a wealthy couple—Spencer and Katrina Trask—patriots of the arts and of artists.
(As another aside, this is unique in the USA since the only arts that are actually supported by patrons are those of prestige and social importance—up and coming artists are, by and large, ignored and socially abandoned in America where art is judged by it monetary value alone as opposed to its intrinsic and creative value. Sad but true!)
Georgia was still going through a mood of depression and uncertainty at this time but she was soon to make one of the most important discoveries of her life. For only one thing, Georgia O’Keeffe had been educated in art and therefore was artistically condemned to paint in her teachers’ styles—while she had a natural tendency toward painting and while she was quite good at it, she realized that she had no style of her own. She decided to work on style while at the lake and so she did. It is simply not easy to break from academic traditions after most virtually spending a lifetime learning them. Yet, Georgia felt that there was some missing in her art…herself!
One evening she was walking back along the edge of the lake and noticed a scene that attracted her—there were cattails, birch trees and a reflection on the water that looked ever as depressed and lonely as she was feeling. It was then that she fully realized that how she saw the world was dependent on how she was feeling. When she was happy, the scene before her was happy, when she was gloomy, that same scene turned gloomy. Before this she was, in a sense, seeing what all her teachers wanted her to see, painting how they wanted her to paint—she had never realized this before believing that all along she was a free spirit. Now she realized that her education had merely made her into a follower and that she had to break from all those rules that had bound and limited her.
The next day, she returned to the scene she’d observed the night before to try and capture her feelings and then downcast mood she’d had. This was perhaps the first time in Georgia’s life that she let loose of controlling her art with her mind and began to simply “let flow” from the depths of her own being. This was in perfect timing for her as the axiom is that one needs to know the rules before breaking them. Georgia knew the rules and traditions of art as well as any artist might so she was well prepared to as we say today, step off the yellow line. This was not going to be easy for Georgia, however, as she was well conditioned by the academies of art she had attended—indeed, even the Chicago Art Institute held certain powers over her artistic thinking as did all her teachers throughout the years. In this way education can be extremely limiting as it is always grounded in the past.
Georgia ended up giving the painting she did lakeside to a friend, a young man who she found romantically attractive but her recent discovery kept haunting her. That is, her education into the conventional; that kind of art that revealed talent but nothing of the artist. One of the first things she had done during the earlier stages of her transitional period was to start undercoating her canvases with white as opposed to the dark and glooming tones she had been taught to use. This alone was a statement of Georgia O’Keeffe independence returning; indeed her own personality was emerging from the student into the master although she had no idea of this. In fact, quite the opposite: At the moment she was as interested in her romantic life as much as she was her art. George Dannenberg was a good looking young man filled with enthusiasm, talent and more, was the kinds of man’s man that she most admired.
George was five years older than Georgia and an art student on scholarship. Indeed, she referred to him as the man from the far west” and the west itself had always attracted to her. In any case, George was an outdoorsman and loved the woods. This gave him a world of mutual interests with Georgia whose love for the wilderness was ever as strong. And, there was certainly qualities about the young man that reminded her of her own beloved father so there was an attraction that both of them felt for each other. The friendship would last for years.
Over the years Georgia would return home, take teaching jobs and eventually would join Columbia’s Teachers College in 1914. While all this seems quite normal and sound, by this time the artist was clearly eccentric—she wore her hair short and actually dressed quite mannish which caused gossip among those who knew her. She didn’t care what other people thought, she was her own person and the strength of her personality was constantly revealed by her self-assurance and strong presence.
(As yet another aside, I have studied this period of the artist’s life as much as I can and I have concluded that Georgia had an extremely strong attachment to her Animus—the practical side of her personality that kept the artistic domnating her life. Remembering the austerity that weaved throughout her childhood we can understand the artist’s discipline in the art of simply living life; that old-time frugality and self-reliance had both been engrained in her and so was a part of her adult reality. As a result, her inner-masculine-shadow self would be a strong influence in her personal life; the life where one confronts the self for what “it” really is).
In 1914, Georgia still had had no personal relationship with Alfred Stieglitz. Nevertheless she and a friend went to his gallery to see a showing of Picasso works. Actually Alfred had more of an eye for her friend than Georgia but Georgia hadn’t minded, the last thing that was on her mind was a relationship with Stieglitz. Yet, there was at least one appetency that Georgia greatly appreciated and admired about him. Alfred had a sincere and honest interest and admiration in the works of women artists. He held no sexists views that were so prominent throughout society at the time.
Slowly Georgia began being friendly with Stieglitz and she found his outrageous moods and artistic temperament somewhat appealing. Like her, he was, beyond all else a creative presence and, surprisingly a critic that Georgia wanted approval from. At that juncture the gallery owner had never even seen a sample of the artist’s work.
It was around this time that Georgia actually stopped painting in oil and began only doing works in charcoal. When she had completed a batch she mailed them to her friend Anita for appraisal.
Anita, in turn, sent them to 291. This act of appreciation and friendship was the turning point for the rest of Georgia O’Keeffe’s life. All the pieces of the chain events of synchronicity were suddenly going to start following in place.
The Making of an Artist
Georgia could wait no longer, she wrote Stieglitz asking him, most basically, what he thought of her charcoals This was actually the first time Georgia was to be judged outside of academia and people she knew and trusted. And, these were abstracts—drawings that she let flow from, if you will, her soul as opposed to being created from her education; they were emotional works and so meaningful to her as they were expressions of self not just artful endeavors.
An entirely different Georgia emerged in the words of her note to Alfred Stieglitz—she was humble, unsure of herself, even weak. Most obviously she was scared to death that she might be rejected in the world out there that already had its masters and critics such as Stieglitz himself.
A problem that occurs from being highly successful in a school environment is that it is a closed society—it does not have to earn financial success or even compete in the career sense. This is especially true for art schools of all kinds be they dance or music or any other creative form of expression. I know because I am a graduate of the famed Pasadena Playhouse where nearly all the students pranced about as little superstars and nearly all fell by the wayside after graduation.
In fact, years later Georgia O’Keeffe even admitted that she had been “frightened all the time, scared to death” but, she added, “I never let it stop me, never!”
Anyway, Georgia was feeling the fear and pressure now of waiting for a response from her “professional contact.” When it arrived she could hardly believe her eyes. Alfred Stieglitz praised her work and wanted to meet with her. He had no idea those drawings symbolized a romantic relationship that she was having at the time. It didn’t matter. Romance was on her horizon with the outrageous Stieglitz in any case.
Without telling Georgia in May of that year he hung her charcoals, along with two other unknown artists in his gallery. Art critics cried out in anguish—how could he hang such trite when he had shown artists such as Picasso, Cezanne, Matisse and Dove? Nevertheless, the unpopular show gained modest notice in the May issue of American Art News.
Actually Stieglitz’s commitment to Georgia’s art was sincere but, at the same time, an affair between them was destined to unfold but nether of them knew this.
In the spring of 1917 Stieglitz gave Georgia her first solo exhibition. It consisted of her blue watercolors and colorful Palo Duro landscapes suchas this one:
A lot had happened in that year—the building that had housed Stieglitz’s 291 Fifth Avenue address was being demolished and Georgia was having a passionate affair with a cowboy type Texan man who, like her, loved the outdoors. Indeed, they would spend days and nights hiking about the Texas plains, experiencing the wind and sun and each other.
Georgia considered staying with her Texan but instead returned to New York. Stieglitz, in the meantime, had opened a new gallery and was busy photographing and creating shows again. As for Georgia, she was feeling the “call of the wild.” That is, she felt the urge to re-connect with her Texan who was a man she even considered marrying—he was so forcefully aggressive and quite masculine so this was extremely appealing to her.
She would not see Alfred Stieglitz again for at least a year and a half. They had corresponded, however but also, it is important to note that during all this time Alfred Stieglitz had been a married man with children. Nevertheless, the letters between him and Georgia were steaming with passion for each other and so eventually he would divorce his wife for a steady romp with Georgia.
That romp evolved into a serious and devoted relationship that included their professional connection. And, they were, in general, happy over the next few years—they had their upsets, family tragedies, money problems and financial triumphs but in overview they had a great togetherness and yes, even lots of fun along their way. During this time Alfred’s photographic genius continued to be recognized and so he adding to his accomplishments by having Georgia pose for him which she did.
Her nudes certainly added drawing power to his exhibitions. Then in December of 1924, they married.
Actually, there was nothing elaborate or even very emotional about the wedding. Georgia refused to use Alfred’s last name saying she did want to lean on his fame. The truth, however, was that she did not want to surrender herself to anyone, including Alfred—She was after all Georgia O’Keeffe and that was exactly who she would remain.
It was also in 1924 that Georgia’s flower paintings became significantly larger. What immediately became obvious about her gigantic flower painting was that they were apparently sexual and sensual; symbols of the vagina’s grace and beauty. This interpretation of her works soon enough created a world of critics and reviewers, art enthusiasts and buyers talking about the O’Keeffe flower images as being painted expressions of feminine passions and experiences and quite suddenly she was launched into fame.
Even today art critics worldwide agree with this sexual assessment of O’Keeffe flower art and one will typically find expressions of it in the very best of art books, in one case, terms such as “thinly disguised symbol of female sexuality” are used regarding her flowers. As for Georgia O’Keeffe herself, she denied the accusations saying that if her flowers turned out to look “that way” it was not her intent.
Now then, I realize that, with few exceptions, I am going against the grain of common art-world opinion but I do not believe that her beautiful flower paintings, including the Black Iris masterpiece of abstract-realism, was conceived as being a tribute to any sensitive orifice, sexual or not. I am fully convinced that O’Keeffe’s intent was to capture the essence of the flower in all its most delicate beauty and that the “beauty” she captured happened to end up visually feminine was accidental; something perhaps that the artist hadn’t even notice until someone mentioned the symbolic structuring to her. After all, once any image takes on a certain form or meaning in the eye of the beholder that form or meaning remains, in the Freudian sense…forever.
Do I see the sexual image in those O’Keeffe flower paintings? Of course! The symbolism is there for everyone to appreciate but this does not give evidence of the artist’s intent. Indeed, flowers had been a favorite subject for Georgia’s drawings and paintings since childhood—and in childhood one easily becomes in empathy with the beautiful in nature. Indeed, as a boy I can remember loving the tree I climbed and sharing things from my heart to its heart. Perhaps it is because of this experience I can visualize the young girl touching the flowers of the field with love and affection; of feeling a connectedness to their very spirit. I, in fact, believe it was this spirit that O’Keeffe was painting when she created her flowers as opposed to some strange motive to demonstrate her own feminine sexuality for the world to see. When one truly thinks about it, the entire notion becomes absurd.
It is at this juncture that I feel compelled to justify my opinion, however: It’s true the 1920s were the years that Victorianism was rejected and a new sexual freedom emerged especially in the bigger cities where so many young people from the country were moving. As a matter of fact, I have said many, many times in other articles that it was not the gangsters and bootlegger that put the “roar” in the roaring twenties, it was the American woman.
Georgia would have been privy to these changes but she had actually been living on the fringes of society for years. Her defiance against feminine passivity was indeed daring in her era: This was when Victorianism had extreme influence over the American mind, when everyone had their roles and traditional values were expected to be upheld. Georgia stood for none of this in her own life—she did what she wanted and was her own person for better or worst. During the 20s, however, erotica became part of the reality—hems lines were lifted, real contraception was made available and at long last women were able to enjoy their own sexuality…and in countless numbers did!
None of this would have influenced Georgia O’Keeffe very much—she was no doubt far ahead of the growing non-conformitsts of those times and the freedom that other women were at last feeling had been hers for years: Indeed, such liberation was probably experienced long before in art school where open mindedness was never exclusively a male privilege. And so, her paintings were the aesthetic capturing of the delicate motion of the flower’s natural beauty in light, color and form. Instead of indulging and/or commercializing the sexuality of her times, she instead gave the world a kind of visual poetry that no other painter had ever captured before and has never matched since.
Art, Fame and other Changes
Incredible abstracts by O'Keeffe
By 1926 Georgia self-assurance had matured but when it came to her paintings she was really not even willing to listen to Alfred anymore. Indeed, when she started painting her giant painting of flowers he had all but insisted that she stay with her popular charcoals, she didn’t. Indeed, he was, in the least, apprehensive when she decided to do an urban landscape, something she had never attempted before. The painting ended up being “New York with Moon” which clearly grounded her status as a masterful painter in abstract art but…it was still that unique abstract/realism that belonged solely to her.
Actually by this time Georgia O’Keeffe had, as said, “come into her own.” She had always had a strong sense of self but now her self-assurance was more than her individualism as a person, it was her absolute confidence in her art. And so, She had matured into a woman who walked as she talked: She believed in self-reliance and living life as the individual interprets the world, not as the world is demonstrated to the individual—in this way she was socially subversive and certainly a non-conformist. Her non-conformity, however, was not an act of subversion or in any way in social defiance, it was merely who she was. And, being who she was, she was no doubt less persona than most.
It was during this time that Georgia spent some time in Maine and created her unique shell series.
this was at a time when she was first to earn significant money for her art and not even Georgia O’Keeffe was indifferent to financial success. During her exhibition in 1926, six of her paintings sold for a total of $17,000 a tidy sum for the mid-20s! In fact, during the time she included her shell paintings in the 1917 show—a time when the art market was in decline—she brought the highest price she’d ever sold paintings for which was a higher price than any other American painter had ever sold paintings for. By 1927 she was, if you will, at the top of the heap; a success story.
All was not wine and roses—she and Alfred were not getting along and Alfred’s eye for other women was glancing about. In fact, he had a lover and Georgia was well aware of this. This was also a time that doctors had Georgia in and out of the hospital for a couple of frightening operations. The surgeons had suspected cancer both times but, fortunately, they had only found benign tumors. Little did Georgia suspect she had such a long life ahead of her.
With the above aside, by 1929 Georgia’s exhibits were the center of her husband’s gallery’s success—while he showed a few other painters, it was the O’Keeffe’s that made the money. Alfred was worried however as Georgia was not pouring out many paintings and the ones she was doing were small. She was no doubt tired but also she was not very happy. She had spent many years trying to pamper Alfred’s professional needs because he had woven his professional and social life together in order to remain in the center of “his” world of photography and exhibitions. People simply expected certain actions and reactions from the “celebrity” and he was obliged to fulfill those social expectations. And, her husband had always been quite social anyway—he liked having people around, he liked long artistic debates and spouting his opinions. While Georgia loved him deeply, she would have to escape the lifestyle in order to paint creatively and she resented this.
Then, in 1929 she decided to leave Alfred and go west. Georgia felt that this was necessary for her own survival, she needed to be free as creativity itself is only dynamic when it is born from freedom. The proposed move was threatening to Alfred—he did not want to lose Georgia, he was getting older and this thought too frightened him; getting old alone is a scary thought.
For a little while Georgia toyed with the idea of traveling Europe but, when she finally left, her destination was Santa Fe, New Mexico. She had traveled there by train with a friend.
After visiting in Santa Fe with old friends, they lived in Los Gallos for four months and finally ended up in Taos. Taos was an Indian town, colorful, historic and artistically enticing; the experiences were amazing and intriguing to Georgia—the muddy dirt roads, the horse drawn wagons, a few burros; scenery that expanded the great cottonwoods continuing out over endless miles of open plains stretching to the Taos mountains leaning against the backdrop of sky all suited George’s artistic taste just fine. On just their second day Georgia decided to take driving lessons and soon afterwards bought a Ford sedan for under $7.00.00. Quite suddenly the ability to drive and having a car gave Georgia even greater feelings of independence and freedom. There was yet another appeal, As *Roxana Robinson tells us, “The Taos community was full of artists, writers, and eccentrics.”
Georgia was happy in Taos and her health kept improving; this was, in a way, her world a place to celebrate life without boundaries. She loved it! Only six days after her arrival she began to paint. Beck, Georgia’s friend kept Alfred informed of Georgia’s health and enthusiasm. In turn, Alfred tried to match his wife’s daring—he even learned to drive!
Soon enough Georgia and her husband were reunited and big city life continued somewhat as it had always been for them; exhibitions, the shows and social life, summers at Lake George. And Alfred began photographing Georgia again. One of his favorites was a shot of her standing by another Ford she had purchased—actually at Lake George. (She sold the Ford she’d owned in Taos).
Unlike Taos, however, New York required drivers licenses. Georgia, as said, passed with flying colors.
As always the marital relationship of Georgia’s and Alfred’s—unusual as it was—had its ups, downs and turnarounds but just as “unusual” perhaps was that these two core-eccentrics did love one another; they were uniquely but oddly matched.
It was during this time that the Museum of Modern Art opened and George lent a painting of for their show. Alfred was opposed to this and was verbal in his disapproval of her actions. Alfred did not like institutions and especially those supported by the superrich. The new Museum of Modern Art had wealthy members such as John. D. Rockefeller, Jr. and Alfred resented this. In fact, Robison reports, that it was well known that Alfred would refuse to sell paintings to people whose money “offended him.”
In time Georgia traveled again leaving Alfred in New York but in 1930 or ’31 she began painting her famous bones. She had said that she didn’t know how to paint the dessert and so she brought back representations of the place with her collection of bones. She painted Cows Skull—Red, White and Blue as her first skull painting at Lake George.
My personal favorites of all her bone paintings, however are her pelvis with the distance
and Cows Skull with Roses.
Bones are typically symbols of death but I do not believe that Georgia saw them in this way—indeed, when one sees the shape (design), light and vivid colors that make up the entire painting the observer is drawn through the present and cast into the future which is always a renewal or rebirth at least in metaphor. It is actually cow’s skull with roses that seems “Nietzschean” in terms of early existential projections of being and nothingness. And so, its grand appeal is not in its attractiveness—although it is aesthetically supreme—but in the brilliance of its imagery that Georgia was so good at. Indeed this particular painting borders on surrealism and has a sense of the Dadaist devotee to it. Both Dadaism and Surrealism were art movements, however, and the Georgia O’Keeffe absolutely did not want to belong to (or be associated with) a movement of any kind. She desired to be uniquely herself and for her painting to stand on their own merit. She was determined to paint from the heart not the mind which kept her from falling into the trappings of doing political statements which she had been asked to do on a few occasions especially after she had gained a little fame.
One does not have to intellectualize O’Keeffe paintings, however, to simply enjoy and so experience them which, no doubt was Georgia’s major concern in any case.
In any case, by 1929 Georgia was, if you will, up and running again. This time with a friend also named Georgia—Georgia Engelhard—a young woman who was twenty-five years old and ever as adventurous as Georgia O’Keeffe so they made great companions—both had a great liking for onions and bootleg liquor so they had a lot in common. They were headed to Canada and up the Saint Lawrence to the Gaspe Peninsula and to have a great time. Georgia O’Keeffe had driven.
The Peninsula was quaint and beautiful—Georgia had not liked the houses but loved the barns—well, we will recall that the barn in her own childhood played a significant role in forming her detached personality. They would return in September of that year—the trip had not been very successful artistically and was, in many instances, looking stylized—something that was ordinarily not found in an O’Keeffe.
Something had happened to Georgia during that trip or maybe her problems just happened to catch up with her there—it wasn’t long, however until she was admitted to Doctors Hospital in New York being treated for psychoanalysis.
Psychoanalysis is professional term for inner stress and/or some inner-struggling that one has with coping. By 1934 Georgia was healing, eating better, feeling better…thinking clearer. She began to paint again, something she had not done or…been able to do for a couple of years. Finally she left for the West again—she returned to New Mexico only this time going to Abiquiu where she would paint Ghost Ranch located on the eastern edge of the Jemez Mountains; an isolated place, a place that Georgia O’Keeffe felt at home in. Nevertheless, she returned to New York in the fall of 1934. She would enjoy a new exhibition of her work at An American Place in January of the following year.
She returned to Ghost Ranch after this to pick up her private and creative life there. By then she and Alfred had a relationship that was working perfectly for them—they were both living the lives they wanted to live, they wrote constantly to one another, always with deep affection and anxiousness to see each other again.
In 1937, Ansel Adams made famous by his black and white photography of nature stayed with Georgia that summer and she along with Ansel and two other men traveled to Colorado and Arizona for a camping trip. Georgia loved to camp…she loved freedom!
Toward the Far Horizon
Georgia was ready to settle in New Mexico—she had found the place where she felt most at home in the world. In the spring of 1938, however, Alfred had another heart attack and so she had raced back to the East Coast to be with him. She stayed with him at Lake George until he was feeling better then returned to New Mexico in August. In September she traveled with Ansel to Yosemite—both Georgia and Alfred liked Ansel and both admired his work. The three of them would remain lifelong friends.
Georgia also earned money by taking commissions. For example, an ad company hired her to go to Hawaii and do a couple of paintings for the Dole family. She did. But not all life unfolded so smoothly either. Some reviewers began attacking her saying that she had no technique with others saying technique was her only saving grace. Nevertheless in 1943 she was given a show at the Art Institute of Chicago—the first show there given for a woman! In the following year her husband, Alfred, would be given a showing of his private collection of modern American and European art called—Alfred Stieglitz: 291and After. This was extremely pleasing to Alfred, certainly a triumph in the art world. Then, on July 13, 1946 he died of a massive stroke.
After Alfred’s death Georgia became more reclusive at least emotionally than ever before. She continued painting, however, having exhibitions of her work and even traveling. In 1956 she took a trip to Peru. She called “the Andes” the most beautiful country she’d seen.
By this time Georgia of course was also growing old. However, she created one of her most intriguing pieces at age seventy-one. Most certainly Ladder to the Moon which is also one of my favorites. The painting is clearly a statement of life’s mystery and hope but Georgia always had a way to describe the future through a special or select prospective. Here’s a blatant example of what I am talking about:
There was, it seems, always something on the far horizon that Georgia O’Keeffe was always drawn to—even in older age she kept appeasing her yearning to see new things. One trip she took was to the orient. And, she would continue to paint until her eyes weakened. Then on March 6, 1986 she died. She was ninety-eight years old. Her last wish was to have her ashes spread across the landscape of her beloved Ghost Ranch; her place in the sun.
Georgia O’Keeffe was temperamental but loving, fast to temper, highly sensual; passionate in her life and in her art. She favored painting things of the earth—flowers, shells, hills, trees and even bones—but her abstractions PICTURES were ever as poignant and enticing as the objects she turned into images of intimacy. Not intimacies of the body as she is well known for doing by the sensationalists but intimacies of the heart—and so, her paintings were not so much how she saw a thing but how she felt about it.
I have always greatly admired—even loved—Georgia’s work as it is so intuitional—for example, one does not simply see the flower she paints, one is drawn into its specific personality as demonstrated here PICTURE but it isn’t only flowers, look again at her Ghost Ranch picturerepea one experiences its essence, its individuality!
I believe that one can recognize the imaginative little girl in the work of the woman; that little girl who yearned for the physical affection she never received from her parents or others of her emotionally controlled relatives offering handshakes instead of hugs, smiles instead of kisses. With this in mind a one can see the young girl walking along those old, country roads or crossing the fields sharing her feelings with the flowers and other living things as she went along her way. In the doing she would have experienced a connectedness to those wild things of the earth and that connectedness would stay with her…forever.
While we will never know what she daydreamed about while spending so much time in the big barn her family owned; that place of secret hiding places so meaningful to her childhood where we can wonder if she imagined traveling to great and wonderful places or even climbing a ladder to the moon
To know anyone (really) one must learn about their childhood as it is the child within that guides the true spirit of the adult. It is the child’s pain and pleasures that create the personality and it is the child’s pain and pleasures that we see in Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings just as it is the child’s pain and pleasures that we see in Georgia O’Keeffe’s life.
Historic references: Georgia O’Keeffe *Roxana Robinson *Harper Perennial—a must read for any O’Keeffe fan.
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