Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Georgia O'Keeffe

O'Keeffe by Ansel Adams, 1937
Everyone thinks they know the story of Georgia O’Keeffe. It is only when you learn the actual details that you find she was not the iconic, forbidding, independent artist shown in later photographs of her. Bemused by her success, O’Keeffe felt that she had been lucky and at different points in her life it would have been hard to imagine the stature she achieved.

O’Keeffe was the oldest in a family of seven, born in Wisconsin. Her parents sold off their farm and moved the family to Williamsburg, Virginia, hoping to improve their chances, but they were never able to penetrate the Southern culture and family fortunes began to fall. O’Keeffe was certain she wanted to be an artist very early. She received some excellent education but it was sporadic, and partly because of her poverty, O’Keeffe was always an outsider.

Offered a teaching job in Amarillo, Texas, O’Keeffe took it. “The Wild West, you see. I was beside myself. The openness. The dry landscape. The beauty of that wild world,” Georgia later said. She then taught in South Carolina where she had enough free time to work out her own ideas about art but also enjoyed relationships with men. This time of working quickly on charcoal drawings without censoring her ideas or gestures, often verging on abstraction, was crucial. She sent some to a friend, who showed them to Alfred Stieglitz, a New York gallery owner, influential by virtue of the clarity of his judgments and his desire to find in America the kind of art that was invigorating Europe.

O’Keeffe met Stieglitz in New York, and when she went back to teaching at a college in Canyon, Texas, they wrote to each other. By this time, O’Keeffe’s mother had died and her father disappeared. O’Keeffe took her 17-year-old sister to Texas with her. She was not understood at the college, but Stieglitz mounted her first small show at his gallery. A critic wrote: “Miss O’Keeffe has found expression in delicately veiled symbolism for what every woman knows, but what women heretofore have kept to themselves.”

When O’Keeffe contracted the flu in 1918 she had to take a leave of absence. As she was without funds or help, Stieglitz sent for her. When she arrived, still sick, he installed her in his niece’s studio and began to photograph her, often nude. Stieglitz had been unhappily married for many years, and he and Georgia became lovers despite the fact that he was 54 and she 30. Stieglitz mother, the matriarch of their large family, summoned them both to the family’s summer home on Lake George.

O’Keeffe continued to work and live with Stieglitz, in New York during the winter, and at the crowded family Victorian on the lake in the summer. Stieglitz did everything possible to allow Georgia to paint. He showed his photographs of O’Keeffe at his gallery and then her paintings. The response to the photographs colored the critics interest in O’Keeffe’s paintings, insisting on her intuitive femininity, while Georgia tried to emphasize the intellectual and technical underpinning of her work. Interest in her did help sell paintings however!

O’Keeffe and Stieglitz married in 1924, but their differences soon began to pull them apart. O’Keeffe was exhausted by Stieglitz’ outgoing personality. He was constantly talking and surrounded by people. She accepted an invitation to visit New Mexico in 1929, staying four months and having a wonderful time. Because she was no longer willing to pose nude, Stieglitz found other women to do so. Dorothy Norman, much younger, but also married, became a partner to Stieglitz both in his gallery and intimately, a relationship which continued throughout his life. O’Keeffe endured this, but had a nervous breakdown in 1932. For almost three years she painted little.

What saved O’Keeffe was falling in love with a place far from New York, the remote country of northern New Mexico. She continued to spend winters in New York, caring for her aging husband, but spent her summers mostly in the Southwest. Steiglitz had driven the prices of her work high enough that they were very well off. O’Keeffe could afford both a New York apartment for the two of them and the purchase of an adobe at Ghost Ranch. She continued to paint and the Museum of Modern Art held a large retrospective of her work in 1946, the year in which Stieglitz died.

O'Keeffe by Christopher Springmann, 1974
After his death O’Keeffe spent several years working with Stieglitz’ photographs, letters and papers, finding academic homes for them. She also purchased another, less remote house in Abiquiu and had it renovated, moving there permanently. She lived simply, but very carefully, making art out of her surroundings. As she grew older a staff helped with her gardens and housekeeping, as well as the stretching of canvases, her recordkeeping and correspondence. By this time she was able to direct her public image and made sure that a picture of fierce independence and indomitable will to paint dominated. She and her home were widely photographed and her paintings commanded increasingly high prices.

O’Keeffe hid the fact that she was losing her vision as she aged. She came to rely on a young man, Juan Hamilton, for safety and certainty in the last decade of her life, though she was close to her sisters and continued to travel. She died in 1986 and Hamilton spread her ashes over her beloved Pedernal, the mesa she could see from her home.

Because O’Keeffe’s work and her story unfolded during my lifetime, I was very aware of her. Her simplicity and austerity resonated strongly with my own ways of living, though I would probably see more in her paintings if I were an art student. I relish the paradoxical sense of O'Keeffe's fierceness and tenderness as a woman. I first read the excellent Georgia O’Keeffe: A Life by Roxana Robinson [1989] and, as more letters and documents have become available, even more detail is filled in by Hunter Drohojowska-Philp’s Full Bloom: The Art and Life of Georgia O’Keeffe[2004].