I went to Santa Fe in search of Georgia O’Keeffe. As if to prove her own belief that “Colors and shapes make a more definite statement than words,” she created more than 2,000 oil paintings during her 60-year career. Not one to mince words, she once said: “The worst thing you can say about a painting: pretty.”
I was not disappointed. I’d “discovered” Georgia O’Keeffe in high school when I saw her huge “Sky Above Clouds IV” at the Art Institute of Chicago. (It’s 8 feet x 24 feet.) I loved the story of a woman who was able to capture the feeling of flight, when she started to travel in her seventies. “The sky below was completely full of little oval clouds…”
Sun Prairie, Wisconsin: Where it all began
O’Keeffe was the second of seven children, born in 1887 on a farm 20 years after, and 60 miles east of another famous Wisconsinite, Frank Lloyd Wright. “My first memory is the brightness of light all around.”
She loved art from the get-go. Her parents wisely arranged for her to have art lessons at home, and she went on to dazzle teachers during her school years. She graduated from high school in 1905, determined to become an artist.
Fun fact: Georgia O’Keeffe Museum claims to display the only painting with the artist’s signature on the front. Not long after, she would begin to sign the back of her works with an “OK.” She added a star if she loved it.
Thankfully, the Georgia O’Keefe Museum walks us through her life, from early sketches of her sisters to paintings done with the help of assistants near the end of her life, when she was nearly blind from macular degeneration. Undeterred, she said, “I can see what I want to paint. The thing that makes you want to create is still there.”
Not a moment to waste! Off she goes!
After high school, O’Keeffe headed straight to the Art Institute of Chicago for two years, then on to New York City, for two more years at the Art Students League, where she studied traditional realism painting. She even won an award for her “Dead Rabbit with a Copper Pot” painting. It was a far cry from what would become her first love, abstracts, based on nature.
She found a new way to paint, “to fill a space in a beautiful way,” during a summer course at University of Virginia in 1912. Just in time: She was able to practice the new method while she taught art at Amarillo, Texas, public schools for the next two years.
Escaping from Texas in 1914, she returned to New York City, this time to Columbia College, first for more study, then as a teacher. In her free time, she experimented with abstract charcoal drawings. “I realized that I had things in my head not like what I had been taught–not like I had seen–shapes and ideas so familiar to me that it hadn’t occurred to me to put them down.”
She sent a few sketches to a friend—and her life changed. Dramatically…
The Stieglitz Years
O’Keefe’s friend showed the charcoal drawings to Alfred Stieglitz, who kept them. Already famous for his own photography, he ran an art gallery featuring new and avant-garde artists. “Stieglitz was the most important person in the New York art world,” said Sarah Greenough, head of the photography department at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. O’Keeffe? Yeah, she was just a schoolteacher from Texas.
Stieglitz and O’Keeffe began corresponding in 1916. In 1917, he included ten of her drawings in an exhibition. In 1918, he offered to support her for a year while she worked. She accepted. In 1919, he left his wife and moved in with O’Keeffe for the rest of his life. In 1924, they married. He was 60, she was 34. (Read their early steamy letters in The Faraway One, edited by Sarah Greenough.)
They became a “power couple” in New York, spending winter and spring in the city, summer and fall at Stieglitz’s family home in Lake George. He successfully promoted her paintings, and by the mid-1920s, Georgia O’Keeffe was one of America’s most recognized artists, especially known for her cityscape and flower paintings. Starting in New York, she always chose metal frames for her oil paintings.
New Mexico, 1929: The shift begins…
In 1929, O’Keeffe took a city break with her friend, Rebecca Strand, and they went to Taos, New Mexico. She thrived in the outdoors, hiking and exploring the mountains. She collected fossils, rocks, and bones for her paintings. In New Mexico, she experienced an independence she hadn’t known–she even learned to drive!
O’Keeffe was hooked. For twenty years, she returned. Stieglitz never went, so New Mexico was “hers.” Always a loner (“I find people very difficult.”) she was content to hole up and create. In 1943, she said, “Such a beautiful, untouched lonely feeling place…It is a place I have painted before…even now I must do it again.”
Alfred Stieglitz died in 1926. Shortly after, she began to design her new home in Abiquiú. She made the permanent move to New Mexico in 1929. Critics began to gripe that she only painted New Mexico. The truth was she always painted things she knew or places she had been. She didn’t care: “It takes courage to be a painter. I always felt I was walking on the edge of a knife.”
Georgia O’Keeffe Museum holds a rare collection of her paintings of Native Indian masks and figures. The Katsina figures are sacred to the Hopi and Pueblo people. While O’Keeffe was fascinated with the shapes and colors, today the paintings would be considered “religious” and an artist would be prohibited from creating them.
O’Keeffe always painted what caught her fancy. “I think being interested is the best thing I know of. I don’t care what you’re interested in.”
O’Keeffe would make her final unassisted oil painting in 1972. Then she transitioned to watercolor and pencil until 1982. With the help of her friend and assistant, Juan Hamilton, she worked with clay until two years before her death in 1986, at age 98.
Georgia O’Keeffe Museum: If you go
Georgia O’Keeffe Museum is open every day of the week, 10am to 5pm. General admission is $13 per person; under age 18 is free.
Photography without flash is permitted. No tripods or selfie sticks. Only small bags or purses are allowed within the gallery. Complimentary lockers are provided for backpacks, large daybags, and shopping bags. Food and beverages are not allowed in the Museum.
More New Mexico posts!