“Nothing is less real than realism. It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis that we get at the real meaning…”
Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) is mostly known for her flower paintings with which she sought to share the beauty she witnessed, through magnification. In a letter to William Milliken, director of the Cleveland Art Museum, she wrote: “I do know that the flower is painted large to convey to you my experience of the flower.” At the age of twelve, O’Keeffe had already decided to become an artist and up to her death at the age of 98, art was her primary language.
Upon reading Wassily Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art in 1914, O’Keeffe experienced a sense of unity with Kandinsky’s belief that an authentic artist is creating art from an “internal necessity” and revealing new ways of understanding the world. Kandinsky, who painted rich abstract art full of color, form and lines, has been credited with painting the first abstract works. O’Keeffe went from abstract towards more representational works in the 1920s, contemplating objects and places mainly in nature and architecture. She painted her emotional/spiritual interpretation of the world which was in her eyes never limited to the mundane level. Although O’Keeffe is generally not considered to be a metaphysical painter, she was aware of the currents of mystical thought in the 1930s through personal contact with the theosophical teachers A.R. Orage and Jean Toomer.
Some art historians believe that O’Keeffe moved away from abstract painting in order to distract the theorists who at the time were interpreting her work from a Freudian perspective. O’Keeffe never admitted to painting female genitalia, although her sensual art was often interpreted in this way. According to the artist she was revealing vital parallels between animate and highly sensual forces in nature and humans.
To achieve the intense, soft and sensual shapes, O’Keeffe preferred dense canvas fabric with a close, fine grain, which she primed carefully on both sides with a special primer. Despite the fact that O’Keeffe stubbornly stated that she was painting forces in nature and humans, which are not in any way restricted to or only inherited by the female sex, she was celebrated by feminists in the 1970s. O’Keeffe rejected their celebration and refused to cooperate with the feminists, because she found that they didn’t understand her work.
In 1925, O’Keeffe moved into a two-roomed suite on the 28th floor of the Sheraton Hotel with her husband, photographer and modern art promoter Stieglitz. They were among the first to live above the roofs of Manhattan and the impressive view inspired O’Keeffe to paint the cityscape. Her male colleagues advised her not to venture into architecture, but the opposition did not discourage O’Keeffe. Despite the sharp edges and right angles, her approach to painting did not change; what we see in these paintings is not a representation of reality, but an emotional response to the spectacular view outside her windows. She said “One can’t paint New York as it is, but rather as it is felt.”
Cow’s skull with Calico Roses, 1932, Oil on canvas, 91.2 x 61 cm, Copyright Georgia O’Keeffe Museum
In the summer of 1917 O’Keeffe discovered New Mexico’s dramatic open spaces with desert landscape and intense light and she wrote to her husband “…it is not a country of light on things. It is a country of things in light…” When she experienced difficulties in her marriage 1929, New Mexico was the place which allowed her to distance herself from all aspects of the big city. The landscapes of New Mexico presented a challenge to the painter, who took on the challenge with great curiosity. From 1929 and onwards, O’Keeffe would regularly spend a part of the year in New Mexico, until finally settling down in her first house, Rancho de los Burros, in 1940.
On her desert walks, O’Keeffe picked up sea shells, rocks, and skulls, pieces of wood and sun-bleached bones and took them home. When the desert trophies started appearing on her canvases, the critics drew parallels to death and resurrection, but for the artist the remnants of deceased animals revealed something else. In her own words: “The bones seem to cut sharply to the center of something that is keenly alive… even tho’ it is vast and empty and untouchable – and knows no kindness with all its beauty.” O’Keeffe painted close-ups of other objects in the desert, such as rocks, trees, cliffs and mountains, for more than four decades.
Early Spring Trees Above Irrigation Ditch, Abiquiu, 1950, Oil on canvas, 30 x 26 in, Copyright Georgia O’Keeffe Museum
Untitled (Tree), 1940s/1950s, Graphite on paper, 10 ¼ x 8 in, Copyright Georgia O’Keeffe Museum
From the 1950s to the 1970s, O’Keeffe traveled around the world, visiting Europe, India, the Middle East, Southeast Asia and the Far East. The view from the airplane inspired her last two major series, Aerial Views of Rivers and Sky Above Clouds. These works were perhaps O’Keeffe’s most quiet, light and meditative works. The subject matter called for huge canvases and the fourth and final work in the Sky Above Clouds series was over 7 meters wide and almost 2.5 meters high. The painter who was 77 years old had to convert the double garage into a second studio, in which she worked from 6 am to 9 pm to finish the picture before winter arrived. The last trip went to the Pacific coast of Costa Rica in 1983 at the age of 96.
The Brooklyn Museum in New York staged the first retrospective of O’Keeffe’s work in 1927 and throughout her career O’Keeffe received recognition in numerous ways. On January 10, 1977, President Gerald R. Ford presented O’Keeffe with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor awarded to American citizens. Although she experienced physical complications in her mid 80s, O’Keeffe was able to create new artworks with the help of her assistant, confidante, pottery instructor and business manager Juan Hamilton. In her late 90s, O’Keeffe became increasingly frail and died in Santa Fe at the age of 89.
Sky Above Clouds I, 1963, Oil on canvas, 36 x 48 in, Copyright Georgia O’Keeffe Museum
Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, ”Georgia O’Keeffe, Flowers in the Desert” (Taschen Basic Art Series) by Britta Benke, “Ansel Adams and Georgia O’Keeffe: On the intangible in art and nature” by A Hammond, “Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986)” by Lisa Messinger (www.metmuseum.org), Wikipedia.org