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Paintings On The Wall - Georgia O’Keeffe (1887 – 1986)
In the latest feature of the ’Paintings on the Wall’ series we discover the work of Georgia O'Keeffe. Journalist Adam Jacques profiles the painter below, and check out Paul’s thoughts on Georgia O’keeffe in his 'PS from PM'.
Blue Flower 1918
Grey Lines with Black, Blue and Yellow c.1923
Series I White and Blue Flower Shapes.”, 1919
WHEN IS A FLOWER NOT A FLOWER
Take a look at the paintings above and what do you see: a series of erotic, sexually charged artworks? Or just artfully arranged petals? Her early flower series caused an art-world sensation in the 1920s, propelling Georgia O’Keeffe to fame and notoriety with a little help from her mentor – and subsequent lover – the photographer Alfred Stieglitz. But Georgia O’Keeffe, one of the most famous female painters in American history, was far more than a mere purveyor of floral fleshy folds – erotic or otherwise. A founder of American modernism (painters who stuck a finger up at the Enlightenment ideal of better representing reality), her 900 plus works arced far and wide. From abstract masterpieces and pastoral mud huts, to thrusting skyscrapers, mountains, lakes and those iconic skull bones: her works came to define a unique fragment of Americana. Whole regions have been named after the artist, and young painters are still influenced by her groundbreaking abstract work. But behind the massive achievements lies a woman with a racy, complicated, eventful life with more breakdowns, breakaways - she quit painting three times - affairs and plot twists than a daytime soap opera. Even the FBI had a file on her. And of course all the while a fierce debate about the true meaning of those “flowers” continues to rage even to this day.
Before fame, fortune and New York found her, Georgia was a country girl. The oldest of five sisters, she grew up on a family-run farm under the big skies and flat farmlands of the Wisconsin prairies. And she’d be searching for those wide-open spaces all her life.
Georgia was 11 when she decided to be an artist – sagely informing her friend at school that she was going to be a painter. Overcoming early art criticism was her first hurdle, when her austere convent school art teacher declared her work too small and too dark.
ART COLLEGE REFUSENIK
You might imagine that it was just a short hop, skip and a jump from art college to becoming a fabulously famous artist living a bohemian existence in New York. Except nothing in Georgia’s life was straight forward. The slavish copying of still-lives at college and the imitating of realist works was just tedious. And she felt that many others there we far better at it. Another student and friend at the Art Students League in New York named Eugene Speiche (who liked to paint her nude), was inclined to agree with this assessment, once cheerfully remarking: "It doesn't matter what you do, I'm going to be a great painter and you will probably end up teaching painting in some girls' school.” With friends like these… It would be nice to have thought he would be wrong on both counts. He was not. Shortly after painting the exceptional still life below, Georgia quit the course, and stopped painting for four years. "Who wants to spend their life painting rabbits and copper bowls?” she asked.
Untitled (Dead Rabbit with Copper Pot) 1908
FROM TEACHING TO CHARCOAL ABSTRACTION
Her family were also flat broke, and so O’Keeffe took a job to help out, as a commercial illustrator – an experience she loathed. And it might have been the last we ever heard of Georgia. Thankfully a bout of measles intervened, which meant jacking it all in and returning to her family home to recover. And it inspired a new direction - teaching art. At Columbia Teacher’s College she met avant-garde art professor Arthur Wesley Dow who had a fabulous mantra: art doesn’t have to imitate real life - it could come from deep within. Top marks to Dow, then who inspired O’Keeffe to return to painting from a whole new direction. She ditched colour, and began to develop a passionate language of abstract forms and swirls that coalesced into a series of groundbreaking charcoal works, The Specials. Inspired by American Indian art, ‘No.12 Special’ is apparently a kiss (or, maybe, two inverted commas passionately getting it on). While another of the Specials, ‘No. 9’, tried to describe a headache: we see a dense morass of grey clouds colliding with a dark thicket of spikey protrusions. We think, pass the Paracetamol. Her new evolving language was a visual one, and it was groundbreaking. “I found I could say things… with shapes that I couldn't say any other way - things I had no words for,” said Georgia, and you can well believe her.
No. 12 Special 1916
No. 9 Special 1916
ENTER MR STIEGLITZ
This huge change in direction might never have seen the light of day had a friend of hers not sent - unprompted – several samples of Georgia’s free-wheeling charcoal works to eminent photographer and avant-garde New York gallery owner, Alfred Stieglitz.
Legend has it he exclaimed, “Finally, a woman on paper!” Quite what that meant is anyone’s guess (Georgia herself hadn’t a clue), but it was clearly a great thing as, the following year in 1916, he included her work as part of a group show at his 291 Gallery. His exhibitions had already included the likes of Picasso, Rodin drawings and Matisse - so you’d think O’Keeffe would have been thrilled at the opportunity. She was not. Georgia, now teaching art at a school down in Texas, sent him a letter demanding that her abstracts be taken down. Stieglitz's response was theatrical: 'You have no more right to withhold those pictures . . . than to withdraw a child from the world'. It stopped her in her tracks – and sparked off a flirtatious correspondence, which peaked at over 5,000 letters over the years to come (those of a voyeuristic deposition, and a lot of time on their hands, can even read them).
Stieglitz was 23 years her senior, and was already married, but in the frenzy of letter writing that followed – sometimes each sending two or three a day – they fell in love. It was the start of one of the most successful art duos of the 20th century. When, at his suggestion, she actually moved to New York, sparks flew when they finally met.
How do you whip up a media sensation in early 1920s New York? Exhibiting explicitly intimate photos of your lover, 23 years your junior would do it. "When I make a photograph I make love," said Stieglitz (casting some doubt over his knowledge of the reproductive process). It’s also a good way to guarantee an end to your current marriage when said nude, the younger Georgia, is being shot in the Stieglitz marital home when aforementioned wife walks in. Stieglitz was thrown out by an outraged Emmeline.
Georgia O’Keeffe Torso 1918, by Alfred Steiglitz
Georgia O’Keeffe by Alfred Stieglitz
Meanwhile, adding to that exhibition’s scandalous reception was some of the young Georgia’s own apparently erotic early canvases, which Stieglitz was at pains to promote as such. The resultant hullabaloo made her famous, and over the next 10 years Georgia became the highest paid woman artist in America, but at a cost.
These intimate photos taken by Stieglitz set the tone for how she, and her later work, was looked at. SEX!!!! That’s what many critics had in the back of their mind (nay, front!) going forward, and it’s fair to say it was to make Georgia very cross indeed as the years progressed. Not least of all with Stieglitz, who threw it out there in the first place. Stieglitz may have been the making of her – but in the end, he was almost the breaking of her, too. This is a guy who, later in their marriage, objected to her learning to drive. And it wasn’t over road safety. A possessive, controlling and demanding man, he would place enormous strains on their relationship, and her mental health.
BURSTING INTO COLOUR
But for now, together, their work went stratospheric. Inspired, he’d shoot abstract images of clouds, a photo bestseller. Then she’d paint her version of them. Getting up close and personal with Georgia with his lens inspired a change in her own art, which finally burst back into colour. Swooping in close to the action, like an animated paparazzi, her work took on a crisp, clean, photo-like vitality, the zoomed-in compositions looking like they’d emerged through the lens of a camera. Initially, Georgia drew inspiration from ideas around sensory stimulation: she had a fascination with synesthesia (people who experience “crossed senses” such as ‘seeing’ sounds as colours). So if you could ‘see’ a classical sonata, what would it look like? Georgia didn’t have synesthesia but had a go at visualizing it anyway, translating her favourite classical music into soaring visual symphonies: works such as the light audio ripples of ‘Music, Pink and Blue No.1.’ or the more strident, staccato tram lines of ‘Blue and Green Music’.
Music – Pink and Blue No.1, 1918
Blue and Green Music. 1919/21
FLOWERS OR VAGINAS?
After exploring the aural senses she moved on to more visceral topics: a series of large-scale studies of flowers, zoomed in so far you start to question what you’re looking at. Now if you’re of a delicate disposition, avert your eyes!! We’re going to do some serious intimate-organ name-checking here.
Stieglitz was convinced these so called flowers were in reality a sensuous expression of womanhood. He called her paintings “gloriously female”, and wrote an article about them. Freud saw sex in everything and when it came to O’Keeffe’s work, so did Stieglitz, who as early as 1919 applied Freudian theory to her work and claimed “her great painful and ecstatic climaxes” were close studies of the female vulva. Captivated, the rest of the contemporary critics piled in too – and rather than flowers, also saw a revelatory exposé of female sexuality. It was her work’s very ambiguity that made her famous.
Once you start looking for vaginas, pretty soon that’s all you’ll see. And for Georgia, this got old very quickly. She started rebelling at all the sexual labels being thrown with wild abandon at her abstract work. “When people read erotic symbols into my paintings, they’re really talking about their own affairs.” Which is a fair point. Until you actually look at the flowers.
There’s no getting away from the fact that her style of abstract art had a fleshy, bodily form to it. They may have flower on the title, but take a look at her 1918 work ‘Blue Flower’, or ‘Series I White and Blue Flower Shapes’ (see very top), which she painted in 1919. It’s hard not to look at these delicate frilly folds and not see sex. “They’re almost pornographically labial,” splutters one modern-day critic. And we’ve yet not got to her work ‘Grey Lines with Black, Blue and Yellow’ (see below). You don’t even have to squint to see carnal configurations here. The 1970s feminist authors such as Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro saw it as the embodiment of girl power. Yet now the tide is turning again: some revisionist historians and curators, such as the Tate Modern’s Tanya Barson, disagree: seeing sex is an outdated perspective.
Grey Lines with Black, Blue and Yellow c.1923
NEW YORK CITY LIFE
When Steiglitz and Georgia finally married, in 1924, it felt like between them they’d shaped and molded the very foundations of American modernism. “She is the spirit of 291 [Gallery]” he told a friend. And they hung out and partied with his circle of other early modernists including the likes of Charles Demut, Arthur Dove and Marsden Hartley. But a crunch time was soon coming.
Probably at least in part to get away from all this Freudian hysteria, Georgia started moving towards more realistic compositions after that. She talked with Stieglitz about painting New York itself – who promptly informed her to stick with softer-shaped more womanly artistic pursuits. There’s no better ‘screw you, Steiglitz’ than her subsequent series on skyscrapers, including her ‘Ritz Tower, Night’, depicting a soaring monolithic edifice moodily topped by blue-tinged clouds. “When I wanted to paint New York, the men thought I’d lost my mind,” she later said. And looking at an even earlier work, ‘New York Street With Moon’, she did a fine job - not painting New York as it was, but as it was felt to her: capturing a witching-hour vision of Manhattan, a street lamp casting an eerie glow across the cityscape, a throng of buildings artfully set against a moody patch of sky.
New York Street With Moon, 1925
Ritz Tower, Night 1928
NEW YORK LOSES ITS GLOSS
The cracks in their relationship started showing not long after their marriage. Now famous in her own right, what previously felt like a nourishing guiding hand now started to feel more like a strangulatory grasp - exerting control over her art and their relationship. Yet she also knew what she owed him: "I feel like a little plant that he has watered and weeded and dug around," she once wrote. Interesting, too, that she saw herself as a flower…
If some people employ a degree of subterfuge when conducting an affair, Stieglitz wasn’t one of them: his ego was too big to bother. By 1927 Stieglitz’s interest in his creation was waning – and he sought a new ingénue, socialite Dorothy Norman - who at 21 was several years younger than his own daughter from his first marriage, Kitty. He began an affair with her openly, employing his lover at his gallery. And to show what a meanie he could be, he even had a public photography exhibition, in 1932, comparing his wife with his young mistress. Ouch. Georgia tolerated this affair until 1933, where a nervous breakdown – following a fight with him over a proposed art installation – saw her hospitalised for two months, for psychoneurosis. The wound between them never healed. But then without that it may not have propelled Georgia to take evasive action to redefine her art – and her relationship with him - and finally take the public view of her beyond her flowers.
Of course O’Keeffe was no saint either - according to several biographers she had a nasty side to her, too. While photographer (and close friend) Ansel Adams once described her as “psychopathic”, author Jeffrey Hogrefe attributes O'Keeffe's own frequent rages to some suppressed memories of childhood incest. Her relationships with women were also often tempestuous. Meanwhile both Hogrefe and another biographer, Benita Eisler, both argue that after being committed for two months in hospital she finally accepted her own bisexuality - before going on to flirt with and then dominate a series of women herself. Even Mexican artist Frida Kahlo boasted that she’d experienced a flirtation with O'Keeffe.
After her discharge Georgia resolved to free herself from her husband's grip by ramping up the solitude, and spending less and less time in New York. Creatively, it was good timing. After the Wall Street Crash of 1929, much of the creative anima of the city had faltered - and like Georgia – much of the artistic horizon of American art had moved westwards - to the faraway. His infidelity, then, would see O’Keeffe redefine herself, not as he saw her, but as she saw herself.
FLOWERS BECOME FLOWERS
Meanwhile, O’Keeffe continued to paint large-scale portraits of flowers – albeit this time in less abstract and more definitively flower-like terms. “Most people in the city rush around so, they have no time to look at a flower. I want them to see it whether they want to or not." And with her photographic sensibility, painterly vibrancy and delicate flowing touch, she turned petals into something captivating. Which is how a painting of a highly toxic, hallucinogenic stink weed sold two years ago at auction, for over £35 million, a record for a work by a female artist.
Calla Lillies on Red 1928
White iris 1930
Black Iris 1926
Jimson Weed/White Flower No.1 1932
REMAKING HERSELF IN NEW MEXICO
You know your psyche has become enmeshed with the landscape around you when it’s named after you. The area around Santa Fe, New Mexico, is now known colloquially as “O’Keeffe Country”, and on her first long summer there painting, in 1929, it bewitched O’Keeffe. It became a regular stomping ground – without Stieglitz – as she returned there for longer and longer stretches. And after his death she would eventually live out the rest of her days there. “As soon as I saw it: that was my country. It fitted to me exactly.”
Her life-long search for big-open skies had ended, and the arid, desolate, high-altitude region profoundly affected her. It had a crystal-clear light that brought out astonishing colours – rusty red rocks and electric-blue skies “the air was different, the sky was different, the wind is different”, she once said.
Black Messa Landscape New Mexico. Out back of Marie's ll 1930
My front yard, summer 1941
And she had an exceptional skill for capturing the colors, curves and textures of the landscape, which she did to great effect with ‘Black Messa’, in Alcade, New Mexico: vertically stacked rusty-red rocks with purple tints, their ancient grooves etched in the rock like a walnut. Some critics have attacked her smooth painting style as having a simplistic, flattened look – though, she wasn’t seeking to paint reality. The view from the front of her ‘Ghost Ranch’ home, where she later moved, was incredible. And it’s one she couldn’t resist sharing and talking about to all who’d listen. She was to paint ‘My Front Yard' over and over, 100s of times, which isn’t obsessive at all. At one point she declared, perhaps a little too hopefully, “God told me if I painted it enough I could have it.” The land had become her muse. And she was wonderfully proprietorial about it too – it was her landscape.
But there were no flowers here. Instead her eyes fell on the sun-bleached skull bones that littered the landscape. Initially, on her shorter visits, taking them back to New York to paint.
Cows Skull with Calico Roses 1931
With ‘Cows Skull with Calico Roses’ she added a touch of the macabre, decorating the skull that she’d found with fake white flowers. Death – that’s the first word many people think about when they see a skull in situ. Not Georgia. “Bones do not symbolise [that] to me. They’re strangely more living than the animals walking around.” It’s not a sentiment you hear every day, but if your brain belongs to Georgia, it also sparked off something revelatory: could this, eerie, empty place stake a claim to the authentic heart of the nation? In works such as ‘From the Faraway Nearby’, giant exaggerated antlers loom out over the desolate red-rust landscape of the South West, which not only gave her a unique painterly language of her own, but finally, too, delivered a slender piece of uniquely American iconography that all artists were searching for at the time – The Great American Thing.
From the Faraway Nearby, 1937
Georgia O’Keeffe in the Southwest 1937, Ansel Adams
DEATH OF STEIGLITZ
When Stieglitz died, in 1946, she moved to New Mexico permanently – nothing more was tying her to the Big Apple. Except carrying out a small piece of long-overdue revenge (proof too, that it’s best served cold), when administering his estate. She fired his long-standing mistress, Dorothy Norman, from her role at Stieglitz’s gallery. When, in the late 1940s she was featured in a string of photo stories for the likes of Vogue and Life magazine, we finally see her not as Stieglitz intended, but as she saw herself: the reserved, black- garbed, Spartan-living high priestess of the desert wrinkled form the harsh sun and living close to the land – surrounded by her skulls.
BACK TO ABSTRACT
She was by this point, by some accounts, a slightly scary and cantankerous woman, and according to one biographer, Eisler, had withdrawn inwards, acting callously towards close friends, and freezing them out of her life. Perhaps it was indeed due to the emotional scars built up over a sometimes difficult life. <
Her last paintings before blindness took hold in the 1970s look much like a return to her early work, as she switched to full abstraction, often redoing the same subject again and again, evolving it slightly further each time. But there is a wily cleverness and playfulness at work here, too: paintings such as ‘It was Blue and Green’ and ‘Winter Road 1’ are bird’s eye perspectives of real places, just with all the reference points stripped out: Winter Road is a real road set amongst the mountainside. While the waterlilies -like ‘Sky above the clouds lll’ might seem abstract at first, but is actually pretty representational once you know it’s a skyscape inspired by air travel – Monet style
It was Blue and Green 1960
Winter Road 1, 1963
Sky above the clouds lll.
THE FINAL YEARS
By the end of her life, Georgia’s view on flowers had experienced something of a shift. “I hate flowers - I paint them because they're cheaper than models and they don't move,” she said. There speaks a woman who carries a heavy burden from too many years of dealing with other people’s expectations. But who can blame her? By the time you get as far along in life as Georgia did – she was 98 years old when she died – you’re entitled to be known for far more than flowers, which after all represented just five percent of her work. Yet almost 100 years later people are still banging on about those naughty frilly flowers that she painted. Did the lady protest too much by denying any sexual associations at all? The debate rages today about it still. But perhaps by refusing to state the bleeding obvious she also stopped others from moving on, too. Those flowers are definitely vaginas – whether she intended it or not (or perhaps that says more about this writer and his own associations over her work). Maybe what counts is accepting them in any way you feel like - while remembering that, for Georgia, they were only ever a small part of her incredibly diverse work: time to avert our eyes elsewhere in her collection.
A PS from PM:
"The thing about Georgia O' Keeffe paintings is that her flowers are often seen as erotic. But many flowers do look erotic anyway - and many of nature’s creations have a distinctively sexual appearance. The stinkhorn fungus looks extremely phallic, and many natural forms can be seen as such. So, in a way, Georgia is simply pinyin what is there in front of her anyway. But her erotic flowers are just a small part of her body of work, and her overall output is in fact very varied. I enjoy her paintings of the New Mexico desert, as well as her New York scenes, and her abstract pieces. She is a great American artist, and also an important pioneer of woman rights."