Monday, November 7, 2016

1887-1986: Georgia O'Keeffe, American

Georgia O'Keeffe as a teaching assistant
in 1915
Georgia O’Keeffe’s importance in the history of American art in the 20th century can hardly be overstated. She achieved fame early and was a celebrated artist her whole, long life. She is a stellar role model for strong, independent women.

She was one of America's first abstract artists, and also one of the finest.

She is more famous for her representational work depicting natural forms, such as flowers and bones. Her streamlined style eliminated details in order to bring out essential forms.

Background: Georgia grew up on a prosperous farm near Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. She had two brothers, and four sisters. Her mother, Ida, was a strong and determined woman with high standards who served as a good role model; Ida's two sisters practiced drawing and painting as lady-like pastimes. The farm was successful and the O'Keeffe family was prosperous, but while Georgia was in high school, they decided to move to Virginia, and her father's business ventures there did not do well.

Training: Education for women was a tradition in Ida's family, and Georgia and her sisters were given private art lessons while they were still in grade school. Georgia decided to be an artist in the eighth grade and took all the available art classes in high school in Wisconsin and a girls' prestigious prep school Virginia, graduating in 1905.

She spent the next two years studying at the most famous art schools in Chicago and New York City. She learned  the techniques of traditional realist painting, but they gave her no satisfaction. She got so discouraged that she gave up the idea of making a career as an artist in 1908.

In 1912, when she was 25, her enthusiasm for art was reawakened by a summer course in which she studied the revolutionary ideas of Arthur Wesley Dow. Dow's theory was that instead of copying nature, artists should use the elements of art—composition, shape and color, etc.— to express their feelings or ideas. Georgia found this approach liberating, and in 1914-15 she took a year or two of classes from Dow himself.
Career: The reason Georgia was able to achieve so much was that she had strong maternal support, she had extensive formal training, and she was "discovered" and promoted by a powerful mentor. She was working as an art educator in west Texas, when a friend of hers showed some of her abstract charcoal drawings to the internationally known art impresario, Alfred Stieglitz. He was so impressed that he exhibited these works without Georgia's permission. In 1918, when she was 31, Stieglitz invited her to live in New York and practice art full time, an invitation she could hardly refuse. Stieglitz began to promote Georgia's work and introduced her to all the key players in the art world.

During her first few years in New York, Georgia painted pure abstractions—totally new shapes in totally new, totally feminine, color schemes. A Russian artist named Wassily Kandinsky is traditionally credited with the first abstract work of art, in 1911. Georgia's works were only a few years later, and it appears that she arrived at abstraction independently. Where Kandinsky's abstractions were complex arrangements of shapes, Georgia created designs that were whole and coherent within themselves.

After a few years, Georgia moved from pure abstraction and began to base her designs on extreme close-ups of flowers and other plants.

Both Georgia's abstractions and her designs based on flowers were given an erotic interpretation by critics, in line with the fad for Freudian interpretation current in the 1920s.

Georgia O'Keeffe, 1918
by Alfred Stieglitz

Erotic interpretation of Georgia's work was further enhanced by her role as muse. In addition to running art galleries,  Stieglitz was a famous photographer and promoter of photography as an art form. Between 1917 and 1937, when he retired from photography, Alfred took more than 350 photos of Georgia. In the early years he did nude studies that were beautiful but austere, emphasizing form, over sensuality; some of these were embarrassingly explicit.

While erotic interpretation of O'Keeffe's paintings was good for sales, it tended to trivialize her efforts, and relegate her work to a snickering status. It is generally thought this is why Georgia began doing more realistic work. She started with architectural studies in the city and landscapes of the area around Lake George, New York, where the Stieglitz family had a vacation home. Her popularity continued to grow.

Georgia had conquered the New York art scene, but she wasn't comfortable there. She longed for solitude and wide open spaces, and she found them in New Mexico in 1929. For the next 13 or 14 years, Georgia made annual painting excursions to various parts of New Mexico, and eventually bought property there.

In the 1930s, Georgia's subjects switched to pueblos, mountains, and sun-bleached animal bones; if she painted flowers, she kept a polite distance so that viewers would not fixate on the sexuality running through all of nature. Whatever the subject, O'Keeffe simplified and abstracted the forms to their essence.

In 1949, when she was 62 years old, Georgia moved to New Mexico permanently.

In the 1950s, Georgia began to travel internationally and to evoke the places she saw in her paintings.

In 1972, failing eyesight caused Georgia to quit painting. In the last years of her life, assistants helped her complete some other creative projects. She died at the age of 98.

Private life: Georgia's mentor, Alfred Stieglitz, was also the great love of her life. You can imagine how impressed she must have been by this charismatic artist and art showman, 23 years older than she, and how grateful to be rescued from a life of obscurity in West Texas. He was already married, but that didn't stop them from becoming lovers, and in 1924, after his divorce, they were married. Both of them had strong personalities and put their own creative development before their relationship, but they made it work.

Only 5 years later Alfred began a long-term affair with photographer Dorothy Norman that caused Georgia to have a nervous breakdown that required a 2-month stay in hospital. That's when she began to spend summers in New Mexico, staying with a wealthy art patron there. Despite the fact that Stieglitz continued his relationship with Dorothy, New York was Georgia's home until his death in 1946. It took her a few years to wrap up Alfred's affairs; then she moved to a hacienda in the wilderness north of Santa Fe.

During her decades in the desert, O'Keeffe's example was as important as her paintings. Other photographers took an interest in her and in her lifestyle. She came to represent passionate commitment to finding your own way in art and being true to your inner genius.

Pelvis Series, Red with Yellow, date not given

Our photos on Georgia's Work:

Music, Pink and Blue No. 2, 1918
Oil on canvas
Whitney / Jan's photo, 2015

Series I - No. 1, 1918
Amon-Carter / Jan's photo, 2012

Series I -  No. 3, 1918
Milwaukee / Jan's photo, 2013

Series I, No. 7, 1919
Milwaukee / Jan's photo, 2013

Black Spot No. 3, 1919
Albright-Knox / Jan's photo, 2012

Red Canna, 1919
High / Jan's photo, 2010

Red Canna, 1923
Pennsylvania Academy / Jan's photo, 2012

Reflection Seascape, 1922
SFMOMA / Jan's photo, 2008

Mask with a Golden Apple, 1923
Crystal Bridges / Jan's photo, 2012

Calla Lily Turned Away, 1923
O'Keeffe Museum
Photo by Dan L. Smith, 2016

Alligator Pears, 1923
O'Keeffe Museum
Photo by Dan L. Smith, 2016

Grey Line with Lavender and Yellow, c. 1923
Metropolitan / Jan's photo, 2015

Dark Abstraction, 1924
St. Louis / Jan's photo, 2013

A Celebration, 1924
Photo by Dan L. Smith, 2012

The Eggplant, 1924
Toronto / Jan's photo, 2013

Birch Trees at Dawn on Lake George, 1925
St. Louis / Jan's photo, 2012

White Birch, 1925
Amon-Carter / Jan's photo

Gray Tree, Lake George, 1925
Photo by Dan L. Smith

East River No. 1, 1926
Wichita / Jan's photo, 2010

City Night, 1926
Minneapolis, Jan's photo, 2013

The Shelton with Sunspots, N.Y., 1926
Chicago / Jan's photo, 2010

Abstraction, 1926
Whitney / Jan's photo, 2015

Cos Cob, 1926
Fred Jones Jr. / Jan's photo, 2010

Ballet Skirt or Electric Light, 1927
Chicago / Jan's photo, 2010

White Rose with Larkspur No. 2, 1927
MFA, Boston / Jan's photo, 2012

Calla Lily (Lily-Yellow No. 2), 1927
Oklahoma City / Jan's photo, 2012

Lake George Autumn, 1927
Photo by Dan L. Smith, 2013

East River from the 30th Story of the Shelton Hotel, 1928
New Britain Museum of American Art
Photo by Dan L. Smith, 2006

East River from the Shelton Hotel, 1928
Metropolitan / Jan's photo, 2015

Shell No. 1, 1928
National Gallery / Jan's photo, 2010

Brown and Tan Leaves, 1928
De Young / Jan's photo, 2014

Lawrence Tree, 1929
Wadsworth Atheneum / Jan's photo, 2013

Grey, Blue, Black Pink and Green Circle, 1929
Dallas / Jan's photo, 2012

Black and White, 1930
Whitney / Jan's photo, 2015

Apple Blossoms, 1930
Nelson-Atkins / Jan's photo, 2010

Red Hills Beyond Abiquiu, 1930
Eiteljorg / Jan's photo, 2012

Ranchos Church, 1930
Photo by Dan L. Smith, 2015

Cow's Skull with Calico Roses, 1931
Chicago / Jan's photo, 2010

Cow’s Skull, Red, White and Blue, 1931
Photo by Dan L. Smith, 2006

Dark and Lavender Leaves, 1931
Georgia O'Keeffe
Photo by Dan L. Smith, 2016

Manhattan, 1932
Smithsonian / Jan's photo, 2010

White Trumpet Flower, 1932
San Diego / Jan's photo, 2017

Stables, 1932
Detroit / Jan's photo, 2010

Cross with a Red Heart, 1932
Minneapolis / Jan's photo, 2013

Taos Pueblo, 1934
Photo by Dan L. Smith, 2012

Small Purple Hills, 1934
Crystal Bridges / Jan's photo, 2012

Barn with Snow, 1934
San Diego  / Jan's photo, 2017

Feather and Brown Leaf, 1935
Crystal Bridges / Jan's photo, 2012

Turkey Feathers in Indian Pot, 1935
Milwaukee / Jan's photo, 2013

Ram's Head, White Hollyhock-Hills, 1935
Photo by Dan L. Smith

Summer Days, 1936
Whitney / Jan's photo, 2015

Dear’s Skull with Pedernal, 1936
MFA, Boston
Photo by Dan L. Smith, from slide

Bob's Steer Head, 1936
Photo by Dan L. Smith, 2013

From the Faraway Nearby, 1937
Photo by Dan L. Smith, 2006

Jimson Weed, 1936-1937
Photo by Dan L. Smith, 2012

Hollyhock Pink with Pedernal, 1937
Milwaukee / Jan's photo, 2013

The Cliff Chimneys, 1938
Milwaukee / Jan's photo, 2013

Bella Donna, 1939
O'Keeffe Museum
Photo by Dan L. Smith, 2016

Red and Yellow Cliffs, 1940
Metropolitan / Jan's photo, 2015

Grey Hills, 1941
Indianapolis / Jan's photo, 2012

Blue Sky, 1941
Worcester / Jan's photo, 2013

Pelvis with Distance, 1943
Indianapolis / Jan's photo, 2012

Dead Cottonwood Tree, 1943
Santa Barbara / Jan's photo, 2017

Pelvis I, 1944
Milwaukee / Jan's photo, 2013

Pelvis II, 1944
Photo by Dan L. Smith, 2006

Cottonwood III, 1944
Photo by Dan L. Smith, 2006

Abiquiu Sand Hills and Mesa, 1945
Chicago / Jan's photo, 2010

Cebolla Church, 1945
North Carolina / Jan's photo, 2010

Dead Tree with Pink Hill, 1945
Photo by Dan L. Smith, from slide

Goat's Horn with Red, 1945
Photo by Dan L. Smith, 2006

In the Patio I, 1946
San Diego / Jan's photo, 2017

Brooklyn Bridge, 1949
Brooklyn Museum
Photo by Dan L. Smith, from slide

Poppies, 1950
Milwaukee / Jan's photo, 2013

Pedernal--From the Ranch #1, 1956
Minneapolis / Jan's photo, 2013

Blue B, 1959
Milwaukee / Jan's photo, 2013

Sky with Flat White Cloud, 1962
National Gallery / Jan's photo, 2010

Internet Example:

Lake George Reflections, date unknown
Internet grab; private collection