How Georgia O’Keeffe Pioneered Modernism
It begins with the image of a rattling early morning train. Georgia O’Keeffe’s Train at Night in the Desert is a small-format watercolour from 1916, depicting a voluminous cloud of vapor billowing up into the night sky. Below it is a spot of light, hinting at the locomotive puffing steam behind it.
Train at Night in the Desert marks the beginning of an extraordinary career. Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986), an American modernist artist dedicated to the "Great American Thing”, has achieved legendary status over her nearly century-long life as an artist.
A pioneer in the recognition of female creativity, she conquered the male domain of art to become one of the most recognised artists of her time. She was the first female artist to be honoured with a retrospective at New York's Museum of Modern Art. Her floral still life Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1 (1932), fetched US$44.5 million at Sotheby's in New York in 2014 – the most expensive painting by a female artist to be sold at auction.
The fascination around Georgia O’Keeffe and her art remains to this day.
GEORGIA O’KEEFFE BIOGRAPHY
O’Keeffe grew up as a farmer's daughter in a big family dominated by strong women. She energetically pursued her goal of becoming a painter from an early age, studying in Chicago and New York, and making her way as a sketch artist and art teacher in rural America.
Credit: Alfred Stieglitz, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
Her life and career took a decisive turn when Alfred Stieglitz, well-known photographer and owner of the avant-garde Gallery 291, became enthusiastic about her paintings and organised her first solo exhibition of charcoal drawings and watercolours in 1917. Stieglitz would later become her patron, manager, and eventual husband. While this relationship with the impresario undoubtedly helped O’Keeffe build her career, she always maintained her independence, even in her later marriage to the domineering Stieglitz, 23 years her senior.
Stieglitz took hundreds of portraits of Georgia O'Keeffe over the course of their relationship. However, this was merely the beginning of a continuous process in which the artist – much like modern media figures – actively shaped her public image with the help of photography.
WHAT WAS GEORGIA O’KEEFFE INSPIRED BY?
The young painter often drew inspiration from photography herself, such as that of Paul Strand and Edward Weston. Their direct photographs of everyday things or the interplay of light and shadow provided important points of reference for O'Keeffe's art.
Lake George Reflection / Credit: Georgia O'Keeffe, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Other common inspirations for Georgia O’Keeffe’s abstractions were landscapes and music. The "idea that music could be translated into something for the eye" fascinated the young painter deeply. For the artist, the connection between music and painting was the conveyance of powerful emotions, existing completely independently of depiction and reproduction in a representational sense. This is evident in her early abstractions such as Music - Pink and Blue (1918): its undulating, diminishing forms suggests the connection between aura and visibility, rhythm and harmonies.
Open country and the American expanse were another long-time love of O’Keeffe. Being outdoors always meant a lot to the painter, and was essential to her art. The inspiration she absorbed from the landscapes of West Texas, where she worked as an art teacher, lasted long after she moved to New York.
FLOWERS & SENSUALITY
Georgia O’Keeffe’s flower paintings are perhaps her most well-known – and somewhat controversial. During the artists’ abstract phase, sexual interpretations of her colourful flower paintings started to emerge. They were fuelled by her husband, who associated O'Keeffe's abstractions with Sigmund Freud's theories as early as 1919. This sensual reading of O’Keeffe’s flowers was reinforced by a 1921 article written by Marsden Hartley, a fellow artist and friend of Stieglitz.
Georgia O'Keeffe herself always resisted this approach, finding it too motivated by her female-ness; she wanted to become famous as an artist, not as an erotic artist defined by her gender.
Series 1, No. 8 / Credit: Georgia O'Keeffe, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Wanting to distance herself from these interpretations, the painter decided to return to recognisable forms beginning in 1924. But even this about-face in her art did little to help: the notion that flowers belonged solely in the world of the feminine persisted for a long time. Even when feminists declared the then 83-year-old painter an icon of their movement, they followed the idea that her compositions were expressions of a specifically feminine iconography.
To this day, Georgia O'Keeffe's flower paintings are seen by some to be synonymous with eroticism and sexuality. The artist herself countered this with a genderless interpretation: for Georgia O'Keeffe, painting was simply a visual art. She also famously said: “When people read erotic symbols into my pictures, they're really talking about their own business.”
PAINTING THE AMERICAN EXPANSE
Northern New Mexico provided a never-ending source of scenic and architectural motifs for Georgia O’Keeffe’s landscapes. In 1934, the painter discovered Ghost Ranch – a ranch surrounded by 21,000 acres of land in Abiquiu that would later become her summer home.
Credit: National Park Service, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Although O'Keeffe didn’t move to the Southwest until twenty years later, she had already started devoting her art to its subjects: sun-bleached bones, churches, "patios" and, time and again, craggy mountains or colourful rocks. It was through O'Keeffe that the American Southwest was first analysed and presented to the art public with a female gaze. Increasingly, O'Keeffe's landscapes, whose titles simply name the things depicted, were situated on the threshold between figuration and abstraction.
After a drought in 1930, she collected bleached bull skulls, deer skulls with protruding antlers, and donkey bones. As in Mule’s Skull with Pink Poinsettias (1936), Georgia O'Keeffe’s landscape paintings portrayed skull bones against vast space as memento mori – symbols of drought and dust storms as references to the American dream and the disappearance of indigenous people. The looming skulls hover hauntingly over vast landscapes, sometimes decorated with a flower. A detail that makes them appear even more lifeless, more whimsical in their deadness, but also more beautiful.
For years, O’Keeffe commuted between New Mexico and New York, only moving permanently to Abiquiu after the death of her husband. The intense experience of New Mexico's seemingly limitless, untouched expanse inspired O'Keeffe’s pared-down landscape paintings. Her large-scale series of the 1950s and 1960s – of patios, clouds, roads, and river courses – reveal her search for painterly equivalents of infinite, light-filled space and anticipated the Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism movements.
"The inexplicable in nature evokes in me the feeling that the size of the world far exceeds my imagination – perhaps I can understand something by giving it form.” Today, in an age of nature’s destruction and turmoil, Georgia O’Keeffe’s landscapes take on a visionary significance.
THE LEGACY OF GEORGIA O’KEEFFE
The legendary artists’ fascination with the barren, vast, and pristine nature of Ghost Ranch compelled her to paint until her eyesight began to fail. This led to her paintings becoming increasingly more abstract and minimalist, as in the Untitled series (1970s), where seemingly arbitrary brushstrokes of colour indicate a return to her abstractionist roots. In the early 1980s, with only her peripheral vision left, she became interested in a new medium: clay. In this last stage of work, O’Keeffe was guided more by her hands than her eyes, devoting herself to her sculptures until her death in 1986.
O’Keeffe once said that she wanted to become 125 years old. While she ‘only’ managed to make it to 98, O’Keeffe was still remarkably actively involved in preparation of the New York Metropolitan Museum’s exhibition to mark her 100th birthday.
Like only few other female artists, she created her legacy early and simply never stopped – she remains the best-known and most successful female American painter to this day. But it was not only as an artist that she attracted great attention and lasting impact.
Georgia O’Keeffe fascinated by the power of her personal charisma, for she was, according to the words of Stieglitz, “of unusual beauty, spontaneity, clarity of mind and feeling, and wonderful intensity with which she savoured every moment of her life.” For many today, she embodies the independent, creative woman who went her way unflinchingly, never willing to strike a compromise that would prevent her from painting.
Cover Credit: Alfred Stieglitz, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
Writer | Jan-David Franke
Jan-David is a journalist from the motherland of fun: Germany. He loves merging with good music and being in the moment. Oh, and he is still trying to find out where the wild things really are. If you have seen them, please let him know.