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. Kathleen Fennessy says:

    David…very nice treatment of Ms. O’Keefe and her work!This is one of my favorite of her quotes…”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”…the film…Georgia O’Keeffe…with Joan Allen and Jeremy Irons is worthwhile and a lovely exploration of her paintings,her relationship with Alfred Stieglitz,and her eventual “escape” from Stieglitz in New Mexico.

    • David Leeds says:

      I liked that film as well, Kathleen. Going to see her home/studio and museum is a wonderful experience also. You can see immediately how the landscape infused her spirit. She didn’t so much paint it, as channel it.

  2. Diane Marie says:

    O’Keefe has always been my favorite artist. I too, knew I wanted to be an artist–all my life–even in my earliest memories. I didn’t find out about O’Keefe until I really began to study art, and when people started telling me my style was much like hers, I began to study her. I have a lot of styles, actually, but when I paint in oil, it is somewhat similar, which might account for why I fell instantly, madly in love with her work, and her. I’ve read everything I could get my hands on about her. I wish I could have known her. She did what she wanted and didn’t give a DAMN what people thought!!!! When, in books about her, I read about the things she said, I said “YESSSSSSSS!” I knew what she was talking about. It was like having a conversation with her.
    Finding out that her will was contested makes me angry. She adored her assitant, and he adored her. He was the only means she had to stay in her desert studio for all those years. He was highly respectful of her and her work, and he way she wanted to do things, and he cared for her, her belongings and her property very lovingly, and acted as a sort of security force. She was very private, and he made sure she was able to live and paint undisturbed.
    As for the posters, she didn’t care about money–maybe she just wanted people who couldn’t afford originals to be able to have her art in print form. I feel that way too, though I don’t do prints–I do very small paintings as well as very large ones.
    Looking at her work makes me want to get my oils out!

    • David Leeds says:

      Diane, I think one of the main functions of Art is to capture and express our joy, wonder, and awe at being in this world. You have obviously experienced and practiced that yourself. I’m so glad I was able to write about one of your most important inspirations. Her work always makes me feel, acutely alive.

  3. Daniel Festen says:

    Ms. O’Keefe was a most singular artist…a true pioneer. I believe that her spirit still wanders the Pueblos and sands of my beloved New Mexico. This is an outstanding and most informative work. Thank-you!

  4. Van Pittsenbargar says:

    Thank you for this insightful, educational and exceptionally well written piece. My nephew is a Chicago Art Institute graduate and will be pleased to know he shares space with such a notable alumna. You have inspired me to visit the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum at long last; as an inhabitant of New Mexico there is no excuse to procrastinate longer. The illustrations you included were outstanding and the entire article was inspiring!

    • David Leeds says:

      Go right away! The collection at the museum is stunning. If you get a chance to visit Ghost Ranch and Abiquiu do that as well. You can see her paintings in the landscape.

  5. Orlando Sacasa says:


    For one reason or another, I had not been able to read this article until now, even though I had been looking forward to it since you first announced it. As always, I found your work very enjoyable. In the middle of this bleak East Coast winter, I was completely transported to the New Mexico summer… Thank you!


    • David Leeds says:

      Hi Orlando. I hope it’s not a larger technical problem on the sight. I have always found O’Keeffe a powerful artist. Also, having spent a fair amount of time in New Mexico, I, too, was transfixed and transported by the landscape, the light, and the ineffable magic that permeates the landscape there.

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