Georgia O’Keeffe, An American Icon

Georgia O’Keefe was the first female American artist to achieve super-stardom, and one of the most widely known, and popular artists of this century. She is, however, looked down upon by some, as a new-age, creator of  ”Southwestern poster art.” I think this assessment is dead wrong. She was a pioneering visual stylist, who created a highly unique and original form of expression, and synthesis of the abstract and representational. Her work, in person, is exceptionally powerful and visceral. She creates a highly charged universe of color and form that is simple, direct, and commanding. She establishes, in every picture, a universe that is her own, filled with the recognizable, but embued with a kind of transcendental magic. Her style did not evolve, like that of so many, by increments, out of the study of  historical  progression. It evolved from her own direct experience of the physical world and unique visual sensibility.

Georgia O’Keeffe was born on a dairy farm in Wisconsin in 1887, and knew at the age of ten that she wanted to be an artist. She first studied with a local watercolorist, before making her way to the school of the Art Institute of Chicago, followed by the Art Student’s League, in New York. Her training at The League, under William Merritt Chase, was very traditional. Although she won a prize for a still life, she began to feel that she would never excel trying to imitate realistic tableaux. In fact, she was so despondent that she gave up painting for four years and took a job as a commercial artist, in Chicago. Her parents had moved to Virginia, and in 1912 she took a summer school course at UVA which reignited her love of painting. What did it was the artistic approach of Arthur Wesley Dow, who encouraged students to ” use line, color, and shading harmoniously” and to attack all elements of constructing a painting  simultaneously. Something momentous inside her stirred and set loose a flurry of ground breaking abstraction from the mid teens to early 1920′s.

The drawing, top left, was sent by a mutual friend of O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz to Steiglitz’s influential gallery in New York, which was named, 291. He loved the work, and without even asking her, hung several at the gallery. He told his friend, Anita Pollitzer, that these drawings were,” the purest, finest, sincerest things that had entered 291 in a long while.”  O’Keeffe confronted the famed photographer, 23 years her elder, who was to be her husband for many years, but allowed him to keep the drawings up. He gave her, her first solo show in 1917, and by 1918, convinced her to move to New York, give up teaching, and live with him. The abstract work she produced during this period was totally unique. Below are several examples.

Stieglitz started photographing O’Keeffe almost immediately upon meeting her. By 1937, he had done over 350 portraits of her, many of them erotic. She was a willing participant, proclaiming her liberation and independant thought and stance from the start.

He took many pictures of her making expressive arm and hand movements that mimicked natural forms.

O’Keeffe’s abstractions became more and more organic, starting to evoke both floral forms and those of the female anatomy.

The critics of the time focused on the sexual analogue to female anatomy in her flower paintings. She constantly pushed back against this “Freudian” reading of her work. Indeed, in her later life, when a new generation of feminists artists in the 1970′s, like Judy Chicago, harked back to this element of her work as a rallying cry, she rebuffed them.

In the 1920′s O’Keeffe”s large paintings of flowers, as if seen very close up, predominated her work and heralded a turn away from abstraction to the overtly represntational.

These floral paintings were also like nothing anyone had ever seen and brought O’Keeffe great recognition. During this time, she also painted what became  a famous series of cityscapes of New York.

Up until 1929, O’Keeffe had spent her summers at Sieglitz’s family vacation home at Lake George, in upstate New York. Seeking new inspiration, she travelled with her friend, Rebecca Strand to New Mexico. Another friend who lived there, Mabel Dodge Luhan welcomed them to her home in Taos and provided them both with studios. This was to prove a watershed experience in O’Keeffe’s life and art. She was totally seduced by the sometimes rugged, sometimes bleak, New Mexico landscape, and the magical color that infuses the light and space there. She loved the desert, the mountains, the Spanish and Native American culture, architecture, and artifacts.

These are two of her earlier New Mexico pieces. For the next twenty years, O’Keeffe spent at least part of the year  working here. She collected rocks and bones she found in her constant wanderings into the landscape. In 1934, she went to Ghost Ranch, north of Abiquiu. She immediately knew this was where she wanted to live the rest of her life, and in 1940 bought a house on the property. She and Stieglitz had been close collaborators in art and live, but each also followed their own paths independently.

The landscape around Abiquiu was to inform much of her later, iconic work.

Below left, is the exterior of O’Keeffe’s house in Abiquiu, center, the interior, and right, The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe. Below them are some of her classic desesrt images that have come to define a certain place and a special sensibility in American culture.

Though it seems like we’ve seen these Southwestern images a thousand times, in person they are powerful works. While they are not my favorite aspect of her oeuvre, they still strike a deep chord. O’Keeffe started, once again, to interweave more abstract work into her vocabulary.

Below are two landscapes done almost twenty years apart.

Georgia O’Keeffe, in her role – not self appointed, but not shied away from- as shaman priestess of the Southwest.

There is some question of how much O’Keefe’s transformation was a clever PR attempt to market herself and create a personal and professional mytholgy. There is no question, however, of her deep attachment to nature and attempt to communicate this almost mystical relationship she felt, into her art. As she said to Anita Pollitzer in a letter, ” Tonight, I walked into the sunset.” Not only did she do that, but she totally merged her personal life with her aesthetic world.  She embodied an American concept of freedom rooted in these vast, lonely spaces of the Southwest, devoid of people, but full of wonder, stillness and self-sufficiency. There was an urgency and boldness to her art. Her large centralized objects, sensuous forms, vibrant color, line, and shading, made strong images that were easy to grasp. You feel like you can reach in and touch the flowers, hills, skulls, and bones. In this directness of experience and expression, one almost feels a seemless channel between object, artist and viewer. It is this quality, I think, that is one of the keys to her popularity. This and the extraordinary sensuousness of her forms. Although she always denied the sexual element and references in her work, it was clearly there. But it was never coarse or purient, only an exultant affirmation of life, the unity of man and nature and of spiritual and physical creation. It is awe and wonder and joy, like Adam and Eve in a different kind of garden. One without sin, one with only absolution and glory.

In 1946 O’Keeffe was the first female to be given a solo retrospective at MoMA. She was, by then, one of the most famous artists and figures in popular culture. O’Keefe suffered macular degeneration in her later years, and by 1972,  had only peripheral vision. She stopped oil painting but continued to work in pencil and charcoal. Working with an assistant, who was a potter, she did some pottery and a series of watercolors. However, becoming more frail, she finally had to leave her beloved Abiquiu to live in Santa Fe. She died  there in 1986 at the age of 98. As well as every artistic honor imaginable, she was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Ford, in 1977. It is the highest honor given to an American citizen. Causing great controversy, she initially left most of her estate to her assistant. Eventually, after much legal wrangling, the bulk of it, found its way to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe. It is a wonderful adobe structure with a large and glorious collection of her work.

Georgia O’Keefe, was truly an American original. She conceived and lived and painted a unique life and body of work. It was always on her own terms, and always following the call of her heart and of nature.

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29 Comments on "Georgia O’Keeffe, An American Icon"

  1. Kathy says:

    I always think of her as a woman of great courage and conviction. And, I’ve always found it interesting, that unlike most artists, she began with abstracts and moved into realism, rather than the other way around. A truly unique spirit.

  2. David Leeds says:

    She not only had courage and conviction but a lot of physical stamina. She had a serious work ethic, was prolific, and was avid in her backcountry explorations. Her moving from the abstract to representational is unique as far as I know. I would be curious if anyone knows of another artist who followed a similar trajectory. We do have to remember that she was trained in the “realistic” tradition. However her first works in her own voice and natural inclinations were the abstract ones.

  3. As usual so interesting and so well written David, thankyou!
    just one thing, she was Frida Khalo´s friend and as Frida she had this “free spirit” and uniqueness ….

    • David Leeds says:

      Carmen, I didn’t know they were friends, but it certainly makes sense. They were the two most original and unique women and artists I know. Both of their visual styles came out of their own heads more than most I can think of, as well.

    • Kathy says:

      I didn’t know that either. Is there a book or somewhere that tells the story of their friendship? Would be so curious to know more. Thanks!

  4. Sue W. says:

    Some of these pieces I’d not seen before, thank you for sharing them. I’ve seen her work in person, and yes, they are so much more than what you see in reproductions.When I think of the desert, I can’t help but think of O’Keefe. But it’s not only her unique work that I admire. The fact that she was so independent, so much HERSELF, that I really admire. An icon, a leader – not only in art – but in life, for women, for artists.

    • David Leeds says:

      She so totally was Sue, all those things. She was an inspiration not just for women though. I think she was also one for anyone who had a vision of themselves different than what they were born into, and struggled to form themselves to their dream in both life and work.

  5. i agree with your comment of her work being poster art as dead wrong david. what i love is how the lines flow and dance across the the space, with depth and intensity creating a very sensitive feeling of movement. she is very popular,though and sometimes this is over done, but her creativity is great.and thank you for this wonderful post. i also did not know she and frida were friends.. i love the photos too,i see some of the flow and lines in the photos show through her paintings…

    • Kathy says:

      It’s wonderful to imagine Georgia and Frida together. What a pair. They were each equally bigger than life. What I can never get over when I see O’Keeffe’s work in person is the immediacy of it.

  6. sulky kitten says:

    Thoroughly enjoyed reading this post David, your writing always encourages me to go and explore the subject further – keeps me out of mischief! (For a while!)

  7. Robin Berrie says:

    Hi David-
    Were you just in Santa Fe?
    I feel very lucky to live in the beauty of such a magical area as New Mexico.
    Best 2 you guys!

  8. Brenda Drew says:

    I think it’s unfair to categorize and reduce O’Keefe as a mere poster artist. Yes, her work makes for great posters but she is a fine artist as well as having been a commercial artist. Any fine artist’s work can be made into posters etc. I’ll never forget seeing the Monet exhibit at the BMFA several years ago and then coming out of the exhibition and seeing his work on mugs, posters, T-shirts etc. There is a very fine line between fine art and commercial art, being that fine art can easily be commercialized, made up into prints etc. and mass marketed. Don’t know whether the artists of the past would have liked that but that’s what happens these days. O’Keefe’s work is colorful and vibrant and I wish more women artist’s work got hung in our national museums as her work has been!

  9. Ulf Skei says:

    Nice morning read on a very interesting person. I only met her back in school through books, this is a bit more on the person, perhaps. Good.

  10. metscan says:

    I had to look at these paintings on three different days to form an opinion of them, ” my amateur opinion “.
    For reasons unknown to me, I have never had much interest in flowers, other than the wild ones. But now – I really was able to look at them closely. How remarkable they are, yet so very modern.
    You have selected the paintings with care.
    I was delighted to see the interior of O ´Keefe´s house. Perfectly modern. No clutter ; ).
    Thank you for this post David.x

    • David Leeds says:

      Mette, you are right on the money with your perception of how modern her treatment of even flowers is. They are so closely observed, so “realistic” yet so abstract as well. I think it is their size and “telescopic” closeness, combined with their organic, rhythmic, idealization that gives them such a unique, and modern quality.

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Sculptor, painter, poet. Currently living in Los Angeles and Martha's Vineyard