Georgia O’Keeffe was one of the first painters of the American Modern movement and succeeded in a typically man-dominated world. She was a role model for future generations of female painters. The origin story of Georgia O’Keeffe, born in 1887 and brought up on a farm in Wisconsin, passed away in 1986 at the age of 98 in New Mexico is a shining example of a century of relations between art and women: from the early sexualising interpretations of her paintings, to the later adsorption via feminist art of the 70s to her current rediscovery owed by the modern art industry. O’Keeffe’s incredible popularity, which she still enjoys to this very day in the United States, where she is the American artist, cannot be separated from her representation of flowers, disseminated the world over. Her Jimson Weed/ White Flower No. 1, 1932, a floral still life, fetched 44.5 Mill $ in 2014 at Sotheby’s in New York, making her the most expensive artist in the world. O’Keeffe’s proper excessive presence, to a certain point – most know her only thanks to postcard and posters, which only represent a snapshot of her whole work – and a sensationalist biographical hype about the ‘outlier’ artist resulted in the banalisation of her fame, similarly to her colleague Frida Kahlo, something that stood in the way of history of art ever taking a proper interest in her work for a very long time.
O’Keeffe’s artistic roots begin in New York where she exhibited for the first time at the 291 Gallery in 1916, i.e. more than a hundred years ago. Back then it was the most important forum for European avantgarde and was run by photographer Alfred Stieglitz, who would then become her husband. Her less-known early work, influenced by the spiritual abstraction of Wassily Kandinsky, related to the idea of synaesthesia, meaning ‘translating music into something visible to the eye.’ Her early work is already characterised by a complex change of nature-like subjects and abstraction, never following a linear development when it comes to style. At the best, we can attempt to interpret it based on the strong ties O’Keeffe has to specific locations: these locations always renewed her pictorial language and inspired her to pick up specific themes. The prairies of western Texas, the urban spaces in New York, and the summer breeze of Lake George as well as the unspoilt nature of New Mexico.
Georgia O’Keeffe is a shining example of a century of relations between art and women.
The first two decades of O’Keeffe’s work embody the moment when American art finds its defining traits, so to speak. In Stieglitz’ circle, dominated by men, O’Keeffe evolves to become a pioneering artist and one of the founding figures of the American modern movement. However, already early on, under the influence of the writings of Sigmund Freud, Stieglitz stylised her work as the epitome of being a ‘woman’ as well as authentic American art, which articulated itself in the shape of a new, modern abstraction. Stieglitz’ picture portraits of his wife, including many nudes which depict the female artist as a model and conscious collaborator, allowed the artist to become an icon of the roaring 20s and required her to incorporate both her working and personal aspects into one
For her whole life, O’Keeffe fought against this essentialist and sexualised interpretation of her art just as she did with any categorisation that pigeonholed her as a ‘female’ artist – the same happened with her adsorption of feminist artists in the 70s. Wanting to take a stand against Lucy R Lippard’s slogan of ‘Art has no gender but artists do,’ O’Keeffe wanted to experience art beyond gender. However, that didn’t stop her fighting and working for women rights. From 1914 onwards she fought as a member of the National Women’s Party for the right to vote. In a letter to Eleanor Roosevelt from 1944, O’Keeffe appealed to her to work to the benefit of the Equal Rights Amendment, a bill that would ensure equal rights for men and women. ‘It seems to me very important to the idea of true democracy (…) that all men and women stand equal under the sky. I wish that you could be with us in this fight.’
O’Keeffe’s monumental flower paintings announcing pop art of the 20s and 30s push her innovative translation of photographical strategies, such as sharp focus, cutouts and close ups onto paintings. At the same time, her work constituted the background for photographers the likes of Edward Weston, who continued to develop close ups and fragmentations of everincreasing entanglement of representation and abstraction. Even though O’Keeffe leans in to realism and thus tries to diminish the excessive sexualising interpretation of her abstract work, many critics only focused on the fact that the beautiful petals were evocative of the female (and male) genitalia, a thesis O’Keeffe rejected. ‘If people see erotic symbols in my paintings, then they’re actually talking about what goes on in their heads.’ To this very day, one hundred years after O’Keeffe’s debut, her work is still associated with the creation of the ‘Great American Thing’: she embodies the historical will to create a national, American art in her work, taking a step back from the European tradition, expressing itself in a specific link between abstraction and the American landscape. O’Keeffe finds rural America first at Lake George, where the Stieglitz family had a summer residence, and then in southwestern America, where she gradually spends more time from 1929. This is where she creates an alternative identity as an American artist. This identity contained a departure from the euphoria of the industrial revolution, which was celebrated especially by representatives of the Precisionism and Dadaism movements, and a depiction of urban spaces as a mirror of the modern times.
Considering its history and topography, the southwestern part of America represents the ideal location to depict a specific American iconography, following in the aspirations of past literates and artists. Especially the paintings, which contrast larger-thanlife bones to the desert landscape of the southwest, embody the ‘essence of America’. New York doesn’t represent the country, but the land to the west of the Hudson river does, as we see in The Faraway, ‘a beautiful, untouched, solitary location.’ O’Keeffe processed and overcame the tradition of the refined American landscape painting, moving to the west. Her image turned increasingly from a sexually free woman to that of an immigrant, resettling in New Mexico, where she moved for good in 1949. Since then, she became the untouchable Diva of the Desert, a pioneer who embodied the national myth of ‘going west’, the American dream of individual self-realisation.
If people see erotic symbols in my paintings, then they’re actually talking about what goes on in their heads.
The intensive experience of the sheer boundless, unspoilt vast New Mexico inspired O’Keeffe to produce her reduced landscape pictures. Her vast series from the 50s and 60s featuring patios, clouds, streets and rivers, reveal her search for pictorial equivalents of infinity, spaces filled with light, with an abstract feel anticipating expressionism and minimalism. ‘The inexplicable element in nature creates the impression that the size of the world exceeds by far the imagination of my mind. I may be able to understand something by shaping it. Finding that feeling of infinity may be just as simple as looking to the horizon or crossing that next mound.