Georgia O'KEEFFE US, 1887-1986
“I often painted fragments of things because it seemed to make my statement as well as or better than the whole could.”
- Georgia O'Keeffe
Recognized as America’s most celebrated woman painter, Georgia O’Keeffe created a highly original body of work ranging from lyrical nature studies and depictions of magnified blossoms to striking portrayals of the dry, arid desert of New Mexico. Along with her husband Alfred Stieglitz, she was an influential member of the New York art scene during the 1920s and 1930s, playing a vital role in the development of modernism in the United States. Her formal inventiveness, coupled with her enduring love of nature, have given us some of the most beloved images in the history of American art.
Born in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, to Francis Calyxtus O’Keeffe and Ida (Totto) O’Keeffe, O’Keeffe spent her childhood years on the family’s 600-acre dairy farm. She made her first drawings while attending parochial schools in Wisconsin and Virginia.
Intent on pursuing an artistic career, O’Keeffe studied at the school of the Art Institute of Chicago during 1905-1906, working under John Vanderpoel and others. Following this she went to New York, attending classes at the Art Students League with William Merritt Chase, F. Luis Mora, and Kenyon Cox during 1907-1908.
In the autumn of 1908, O’Keeffe moved to Chicago to work as a commercial artist. She initially supported herself by drawing lace and embroidery for advertisements. However, in 1910, when her eyesight began to suffer after a bout of measles, she gave up her commercial work and joined her family who had relocated to Charlottesville, Virginia.
O’Keeffe’s interest in painting was revived during the summer of 1912, after visiting Alon Bement’s art classes at the University of Virginia. An instructor from Columbia Teacher’s College in New York, Bement introduced O’Keeffe to the artistic theories of Arthur Wesley Dow, a noted painter and printmaker whose style was influenced by Oriental art and aesthetics.
Later that year, O’Keeffe moved to Amarillo, Texas to work as an art supervisor and teacher in a local public school. However, in 1914 she returned to New York in order to study with Dow at Columbia Teachers College. As well as inspiring her penchant for abstract form, decorative patterning and harmonious colors, Dow instilled in her an enduring concern for “filling a space in a beautiful way.”
Other seminal influences on O’Keeffe during this period included Wassily Kandinsky’s recently published essay, Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1914), which stressed the importance of conveying the artist’s inner emotions, and Arthur Dove’s early nature abstractions, which she saw in Jerome Eddy’s book, Cubists and Post-Impressionism (1914).
While teaching art at Columbia College in Columbia, South Carolina in 1915, O’Keeffe produced a series of abstract charcoal drawings and watercolors inspired by her association with Dow. In January of 1916, her friend Anita Pollitzer brought them to the attention of the dealer-photographer Alfred Stieglitz, evoking the now legendary response “At last, a woman on paper!”
A champion of such modernist painters and photographers as Dove, Marsden Hartley, John Marin and Paul Strand, Stieglitz gave O’Keeffe her first solo exhibition at his avant-garde gallery, 291, in 1917. During that same year, she also began posing for him, their collaboration resulting in some of the most remarkable portraits in the history of American photography.
At Stieglitz’s urging, O’Keeffe moved back to New York in June of 1918. In the ensuing years, he continued to exhibit her work at his various galleries, providing her with subsidies that allowed her to paint. In 1924, they married in Cliffside Park, New Jersey, the painter John Marin acting as witness to the ceremony.
During the late teens and 1920s, O’Keeffe painted nature abstractions based on the annual summer trips she and Stieglitz made to Lake George in upstate New York. She also painted views of Manhattan skyscrapers, exploring such formal concerns as light-dark patterning and flat planes. She went on to create such breathtaking urban nocturnes as “City Night” (1926; The Minneapolis Institute of Arts) and “Radiator Building-Night, New York” (1927; The Carl Van Vechten Gallery of Fine Arts, Fisk University, Nashville. Alfred Stieglitz Collection).
O’Keeffe had her first large solo exhibition at the Anderson Galleries in New York in 1923. The show, which featured one hundred oils and works on paper, attracted such eminent patrons and collectors as Duncan Phillips, who purchased The Shanty, a view of O’Keeffe’s studio at Lake George. She also commanded the attention of critics such as Henry McBride, who went on to become of her most avid supporters. In his review in the New York Herald, McBride noted her bold and very personal vision, stating: “She is interested but not frightened at what you will say . . . It represents a great stride, particularly for an American. The result is a calmness . . . There is a great deal of clear, precise, unworried painting.”
In 1924, inspired by the Precisionist photography of Paul Strand, O’Keeffe began painting close-ups of flowers and plants, allowing her simplified forms to fill the entire canvas, pulsating with the rhythms and energies of nature. While many critics and commentators interpreted canvases such as “Black Iris III” (1926; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The Alfred Stieglitz Collection) as sexual metaphors, O’Keeffe always denied the presence of symbolism in her paintings, preferring to focus on their formal qualities instead.
O’Keeffe made her first visit to New Mexico in 1929. Fascinated by the artistic possibilities of the parched empty desert, she visited and painted in Taos each summer. In 1949, three years after Stieglitz’s death, she settled permanently in Abiquiu, forty miles from Taos. O’Keeffe’s New Mexico subjects–sun-baked animal bones, canyons, mountains and churches–constitute some of her best- known work. During the 1970s, O’Keeffe turned her attention to modeling in clay, creating hand-crafted pots that echoed the simplified shapes found in her paintings. Assisted by the ceramic artist Juan Hamilton, she also supervised the production of elegant, curvilinear sculptures based on plasters she had made earlier in her career.
Prior to settling in New Mexico, O’Keeffe had retrospective exhibitions at the Brooklyn Museum (1927), the Art Institute of Chicago (1943) and the Museum of Modern Art in New York (1946). She had also been elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters. Important retrospectives of her work were organized in 1960 (Worcester Art Museum), 1966 (Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas) and 1970 (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York). Rediscovered by the women’s movement of the 1970s, O’Keeffe went on to reap additional awards and honors including the National Institute of Arts and Letters gold medal for painting (1970), an honorary degree from Harvard University (1973), and the Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor, awarded by President Gerald Ford in 1979.
O’Keeffe died in Santa Fe in 1986. One year later, the centennial of her birth was commemorated by a major retrospective exhibition organized by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Her impressive accomplishments have been memorialized in the numerous books and catalogues that have been published on her, and by the establishment, in 1989, of the Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation.