The O'Keeffe Museum II
Bill Long 6/29/07
Her Story and Her Work
But by the late 1920s, Georgia O'Keeffe was becoming restless. She had been brought into Stieglitz's life and circle for years, had learned how to paint flowers and nature scenes, had enjoyed his life both in NYC (Winter/Spring) and Lake George, NY (Summer/Fall), but something was missing in her life and work. She needed what you might call a new series of images, a new fount of knowledge or information on which her fertile imagination could play. Fortunately, at this time she received an invititation from Mabel Dodge Luhan (about whom more in another essay), who had moved from NY to Italy to Taos, NM in the late 1910s and had set up a sort of intellectual/artist community in a large home within walking distance of Taos Plaza, to come and visit her. So, in May 1929 she took the train from NYC with friend Beck Strand to visit Luhan.
What she saw in New Mexico transformed her life. The breathtaking vistas, silent deserts, jutting mountains, dusty stream beds, unusual flowers and dry climate struck a responsive chord in her. Each year after 1929 she would visit NM, staying longer on many occasions, until she bought a home in Abuquiu and set up a studio at Ghost Ranch. She kept returning to NYC each year, to be with her husband, but after his death in 1946 and the concluding of his estate, she moved to NM for good in 1949 and made it her home.
Interpreting O'Keeffe in New Mexico
The image of Georgia O'Keeffe from the 1920s, as a carefree sex symbol, continued to follow her as she aged. But, as I see it, she really didn't think that the 1920s image was fitting for her as she matured. The Stieglitz photos of the 1920s had provided a template through which people would see her other work. Her flowers became representations of feminine sexual organs. Her abstractions must have had a sexual connotation. That was how people interpreted her. But just as she wanted to become her own woman in her artistic work (she once said, "Women don't make good painters," they said. "I never thought of it that way. I just painted, that was all"), she would become her own woman in how she wanted others to interpret her life. One man (Stieglitz) had "interpreted" her life in the 1920s through the sexual photos; now she was going to be the master of interpretation of her own life in New Mexico. Thus, she needed to have another template of her life drawn up, or put out there, for the public, and in 1960 the photographer Tony Vaccaro provided this template. The intriguing exhibit Georgia O'Keeffe, Illuminated, on display at the O'Keeffe Museum through Sept. 9, 2007, shows how she created a "new persona" for herself. One of the 27 photos is online here.
Though I cannot reproduce any of Tony Vaccaro's photos here, let me describe a few of them to you. Several of them are black & white photos, and they show O'Keeffe in domestic situations. She is sitting at her dining room table at Ghost Ranch (everything, however, is neatly arranged--you can tell that she 'worked out' even the spacing between the cups and plates), or she is standing in her artistic studio, or in her garden, at the same place. Two photos show her "in town": one of them as she stood on a crate to make a phone call from a pay phone and one in front of a store. These seem to be saying: 'Here I am, Georgia O'Keeffe. I have a rich and balanced life in home and in community. I can contact the outside world, but I am just as content to enjoy the inner world of my art.'
Then there are the photos from nature. One of them is linked above. Some of these are in color, and they show her outside in the desert, drawing either the scene before her or superimposing a flower on the desert. This last image is significant, I believe, because it is her way of "uniting" two major threads or themes from her life. She began painting flowers in 1923, in the "Stieglitz" period, when she was the "sexual" Georgia. She began painting desert landscapes in the 1930s in NM. Now, by putting them together she is saying, 'This is my life, my attempt to link the floral and desert worlds of my life.' But she does so in garments that are spare; her hair is neatly pulled back in a bun; she doesn't look into the camera. It is as if she is taking on not so much a nun's attire as a deliberately "sexless" pose (except for the bun), so that she "de-emphasizes" the very thing that Stieglitz wanted to highlight 35 years previously.
But she is also saying something else to me through these photos. By having many of them outside, with her as a small part of each of the pictures, it is as if she is saying that she never wants to dwarf her subject matter. It is larger than she. She is privileged to draw her inspiration from the subject matter, but she never is bigger than what she paints. Flowers, even those flowers that are smaller than she, are "bigger" than she is on the canvas. And the majestic dry NM mountains tower over her. Her sources of inspiration remain larger than she. Perhaps that is the key to Georgia O'Keeffe as artist: she knew how to keep things "in perspective."
Keeping Life "In Perspective"
Nowhere is this last point more clear than her quotation about Pedernal, the mountain that was directly in view from her living room at Ghost Ranch. She said on one occasion, in a quotation from the video on her life at the museum, "I painted it often enough thinking that, if I did so, God would give it to me." That is the statement of one who knows that her artistic skill is a derivative skill, derived from the inspiration that nature provides. Or, as she said on another occasion (quotation from the exhibit), "My painting is what I have to give back to the world for what the world gives to me." In that statement we see a person profoundly grateful for the beauty all around her, and humbly trying to reproduce it with gratitude.
But O'Keeffe was not above wry humor. One photo of her on the rear of a motorcycle (not in this museum, I recall, but in the New Mexico Museum nearby), shows her speeding away across the desert, looking back into the camera with a devilish grin and a gleam in her eye, as if she is saying, "I am loving my life. How about you?" Or, she was quoted on another occasion as saying, "Singing has always seemed to me the most perfect means of expression. It is so spontaneous. Since I can't sing, I paint." This statement is reminiscent of Woody Allen's statement on comedy, "Comedy is no one's first choice."
I still have more to say about her and the exhibit at the museum. But we get the impression through the photos especially, that we are now in the presence of a woman who wants to be known as a lover of the land and the simple artistic life, as one who is "in the picture" when nature and flowers are there, but is certainly not dominating the picture, is one who has become free from earlier images of herself as she lives out her life in the life-giving heat and warmth of the New Mexico desert.
My final essay will examine a few more of her quotations--centering on the issue of abstraction and realism, and then say a few words about the exhibit paintings.