Georgia O’Keeffe was a woman of few words, but if she had been inclined towards verbal eloquence, she would have been quite the talker and writer. She had a wealth of thoughts and ideas to express, and was not at all reticent or falsely modest. In her view, there was no reason to paint anything that could be conveyed through any other medium. She believed that art should be seen, not read, and referred to it as "arting."
In her later years, O’Keeffe wrote that her first memory was of light – the brightness of it surrounding her. This reflects the sensibility of an artist, but it’s also a biological fact. Every individual experiences a piercing, shaft-shaped blaze of light upon entering the world. O’Keeffe never forgot this drama, which may explain why she saw "God" as a woman and was viewed as eccentric by others. She kept her more blatant manifestations of God’s uterine potencies tucked away in her private collection until her death, knowing that the world wasn’t quite ready for them. And she was probably right – the world rarely is ready for people like her.
Born in 1887, O’Keeffe was the second child and first daughter of second-generation Americans. Her father was of Irish descent and her mother was Hungarian. She had five younger siblings – one brother and four sisters – and her family lived on a farm in Wisconsin. While she wasn’t her mother’s favorite child, O’Keeffe appreciated the freedom that came with not being overly favored. She was able to find her own autonomy without undue pressures and expectations. Growing up in Wisconsin, where there was little to obstruct the view of the horizon and the imagination, was also a blessing.
Her parents’ generation was full of pioneers – men and women who left their homelands behind to start anew in America. They were hardworking people who toiled to create a better life for themselves and their families. O’Keeffe’s upbringing was filled with stories of romantic individualism – heroic tales of adventurers, explorers and pioneers. Wisconsin was the first state to introduce women’s suffrage, and it was a place where social egalitarianism was valued. Despite being born before the discovery of the subconscious mind and collective unconscious, O’Keeffe was already aware of these ideas, understanding them on a level that didn’t require words.
During her art classes, one of the initial exercises that Georgia O’Keeffe undertook was to sketch the figure of a man bending. She attempted to do a fine job but couldn’t seem to balance the drawing well. It appeared as though the man would topple over with a light breeze. She was not satisfied with it and kept fiddling with the sketch until she decided to turn it sideways. This solved the balancing issue, and it now seemed like a man lying on his back with his legs floating in the air. At that time, Georgia knew without a doubt that she wanted to become an artist.
When Georgia and her family moved to Virginia after her early teens, she was sent to a convent school for girls, where she stood out like a sore thumb. The other girls were all about feminine frills and ribbons, whereas Georgia was more focused on expressing her true nature. She was not threatened by their need to be pretty, for she knew she was female deep down – it was as natural as the sunrise. She kept it simple in plain jackets and skirts, and her thick Irish hair braided. Eventually, when she moved on to Chicago for art school, her appearance took on a more androgynous outlook. This did not dissuade the young men in any way – they looked up to and valued her.
On the academic front, Georgia was surpassing expectations – she won many prizes for her technical skills. The more she focused on art, the more she felt restricted, and her dream of becoming an artist was getting further away. Georgia’s mind was consumed with the thought – was she active or passive? Participating in art class typically required her to be passive in her response, but working on her pieces enabled her to be active. She knew by instinct that being in a romantic relationship would mean surrendering the creative spirit within her.
In Roxana Robinson’s biography, she describes a critical moment where Georgia realized that academic conventions and men were stifling her artistic growth. At Lake George, she had discovered a home away from home to paint landscapes by herself. However, one day, some male friends showed up and invited her to take a boat ride across the lake to purchase groceries. Knowing that both men had feelings for her, she accepted both invitations – they rowed together, but they were not happy. They returned to find that their boat had been stolen, which left them with no choice but to carry their groceries and walk around the lake to get back. During this walk, Georgia noticed something about the landscape that she had not seen before – it was gloomy, dark, and daunting. She realized that how she felt significantly determined what she saw. This insight helped her focus more on emotional content than technique. As Georgia famously said, "Nothing is less real than realism."
Georgia collected herself and read a book whose title she couldn’t recall, deemed as one of the first How-To manuals of the 20th century. It said that to have a fulfilling life, one must first discover what they want and learn the price to pay for it. She bought a notebook and dedicated daily efforts to self-discovery, writing "Yes" on the left page and "No" on the right. She continued painting, only teaching because she had to make a living. Her big break came in 1917 at the 291 Gallery, where her first one-woman show was displayed. Alfred Stieglitz, married and a father, fell deeply in love with her. Stieglitz earned the ire of art critics for bringing photography to the forefront of art. He promoted O’Keeffe throughout the ’20s and ’30s as a Woman Artist, emphasizing the feminine qualities of her work. Her landscapes’ earth and rocks looked like human flesh, and her flowers and plants resembled female genitalia. During the height of her affair with Stieglitz, he took scandalous photographs of her body. When Mrs. Stieglitz caught them in the act, she threw him out, and Georgia married him. She paid the price for their union until Alfred’s death. The ’20s in New York City were marked by the rise of Freudian theories of sexual symbolism, causing the intellectually challenged to look for subconscious sexual messages in art.
O’Keeffe found herself under constant attack and unable to defend herself. She was in a lose-lose situation where denying an accusation meant admitting guilt according to the Freudian doctrine. In her gentle way, O’Keeffe tried to explain that people were reading into her flowers what she had not intended. Some argued that the botanical facts were not her fault and that people should stop blaming her. It got so ridiculous that O’Keeffe refused to comment on it altogether.
In her later life, O’Keeffe discovered New Mexico and found her spiritual home in its vastness. She rejected modernity, urban life, and male oppression, as shown in her painting of skyscrapers towering over an innocent night sky. Her fascination with desert objects and the call of space and light drove her art, which grew in emotional content with age.
O’Keeffe was a legend by the time she turned 80 and 90, and she hoped to make it to 100. The prurient speculation into her supposed erotic field-force ceased, or so she believed, until a young man named John Hamilton came knocking on her door. Despite being sixty years her junior, Juan became O’Keeffe’s friend and helper, much to the dismay of scandal-mongers. Juan would sometimes respond to their speculations, but O’Keeffe never commented.
As an artist, O’Keeffe continued to paint well into her 80s and began sculpting due to failing eyesight. Her work became deeper and more ethereal, a far cry from the sexually explicit botanical adventures of her earlier years. Despite her detractors, O’Keeffe left an undeniable mark on the art world.
Greenberg had no idea how to approach O’Keeffe’s delicate dreams, but little did he know that she had another 40 years of private devotion ahead of her. Her influence on American culture is undeniable, but O’Keeffe remained humble about her impact. In a rare moment of expressive speech, she described her own world as something she plays in, always surprised that it holds significance for anyone else.
Thames & Hudson has published O’Keeffe’s O’Keeffes: The Artist’s Collection by Barbara Buhler Lynes & Russell Bowman, available for £29.95. For a special discounted price of £25.95, plus £1.99 for first-class postage and packaging, please call 0800 316 6102 to order a copy through freephone CultureShop.