In 2016 I was visiting London for the first time. As part of a research trip for my PhD I visited the National Archives in Kew and attempted to see as many galleries and museums as I could. Georgia O’Keeffe’s first major retrospective outside the U.S. was on at the Tate, so I went. As a lover of flowers and colour and abstraction I was keen to see these oils in the flesh. In my trip diary I wrote:
This is the most rewarding exhibition I’ve seen on my trip so far and it makes me itch to paint. (Sat 9 July 2016)
I made notes on my phone about her brushstrokes, singling out a particular painting Black Mesa landscape, New Mexico / Out Back of Marie’s II (1930) because of the blue brushstrokes. I liked the painting so much I bought the fridge magnet sized copy of it.
Reflecting on O’Keeffe now, and this work again after 8 years, this issue of Slow Looking explores my changing impressions of her work, as well as attempting to trace some of the critical responses to her work over time (which the Artwork# series is always attempting to do).
This reproduction taken by someone visiting the painting at its home in the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, gives an impression of the brushstrokes that so captivated me in the Tate show. The photograph catches some of the reflective surface of oil on canvas.
My eyes go straight to the five or six blues making up the mountain range in this painting. Among the blues are black shadows and white slopes, carving the terrain and giving it movement and the quality of shifting light under moving clouds. Below are smaller black and grey mountains and an orange range that gives way to a few sparse trees at the bottom of the canvas. The contrast of blue and orange provides an obvious hook but there’s more going on in the mountains and even 8 years later I still really enjoy looking at this picture. Among the orange folds of the rock formation O’Keeffe has used pale greens and I notice mauve near the black mid-mountain range. The green treeline at the bottom provides a kind of respite from the heat and harshness of the rest of the composition. It’s all so deceptively simple but somehow makes me slightly breathless taking it in. How does she make it look so effortless?
These colours are not what I recall, however, due to the reproductions in catalogues and on the screen being so different from each other and from the artwork itself seen under gallery lighting. I can vividly recall the excitement of seeing the work and the itch to move paint around the canvas. The blues still stand out, no matter the version I am viewing.
What I didn’t note, and what I don’t recall the exhibition exploring is the openness with which O’Keeffe proclaimed this to be her country. This is an openly licensed image taken from her New Mexico residence, Ghost Ranch, where many of her most famous landscapes and skull and sky works were painted.
Black Mesa was painted of the Rio Grande Valley in 1930 while O’Keeffe was visiting the ranch of her friend Marie Tudor Garland. She started visiting New Mexico the year before and in 1949 would move there permanently, buying Ghost Ranch from the Roman Catholic Church. During 1929 she was the guest of arts patron Mabel Dodge Luhan in Taos. She learnt to drive and purchased a Ford, driving to Navajo sites in Arizona, Colorado and Utah and attending Native American dances.
She said of this period:
When I got to New Mexico: that was mine. As soon as I saw it: that was my country. I’d never seen anything like it before, but it fitted to me exactly.
This is evidently the feeling that so many painters have when inspiration strikes, a sense of belonging and rightness. These words also make me uncomfortable, they’re entitled and colonial but I can’t carve them off from any other artist who ever viewed and was awed by a landscape, myself included. We have all experienced wonder in the presence of nature. It’s the claim of possession in this quote, however, that is problematic and has caused hurt. It erases Native American, in this case Tewa, identity.
O’Keeffe’s words were used last year in a tourism campaign for Northern New Mexico. The footage of two young women riding horses through the rugged hills at sunset, a young voice morphing into O’Keeffe’s own scratchy recorded words make it absolutely clear whose country the tourism authorities think this is. Notably the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum condemned the use of her words. In 2020 they had explicitly distanced themselves from the use of ‘O’Keeffe country’ as a shorthand for the Abiquiú area and held a round table discussion to explore the history of place more fully.
In the catalogue for ‘Georgia O’Keeffe’ the 2016 exhibition that so wowed me, editor Tanya Barson describes the artist’s ‘deeper interest in the cultural complexity of the American Southwest’. O’Keeffe painted adobe churches and moradas (chapels) of the Penitentes sect, a community dating from the Spanish colonial era as well as the Native American adobe structures.
See for example, Ranchos Church (1930). She also painted representations of the spirit beings, tithu to the Hopi people, more widely called Kachina, which are sacred teaching objects used to instruct young girls and new brides about the supernatural beings who bring rain, control the weather or enforce the law. See for example Kachina (1938).
O’Keeffe’s engagement with and appropriation of Hopi cultural images is described as her ‘fascination’, but the question of permission is not discussed by Barson. The content of the paintings and how they moved the discussion taking place about American identity in new directions - towards an appreciation of regionalism, a modernity outside Manhattan, New Mexico as a place for making modern art, Indigenous cultures as a source of inspiration for this American modernity, and so on. Margaret Preston’s painting and printmaking in Australia did a similar thing (see for example Aboriginal Glyph (c1958)). The questions raised about national identity were certainly important in both the American and Australian contexts, but the question remains unanswered as to how the artists engaged with the people whose culture so inspired them.
Though not exhaustive, my reading suggests the scholarship on O’Keeffe has focused more on how the content of her work changed art in America, particularly because she was a woman and her chosen approach made her an outsider in a male-dominated metropolitan scene. Painting flowers up close and choosing to paint abstract landscapes and explore subjects outside the city was shocking at the time, though its easy to miss this given the huge influence O’Keeffe has had since.
Responding to different landscapes was an essential part of O’Keeffe’s abstraction, paintings which dealt with the scale of the canvas in ways that preceded the big name male artists but focused on identity as rooted in landscape and place. Probably the most notable example of abstraction with an American identity theme is Cow’s Skull: Red, White, and Blue (1931). Perhaps over the top to those who’ve lived through the Trump era, this painting uses the colours of the American flag and the skull of a cow as icons of vastness and harshness, to depict the context of the formation of (white) American identity.
The narrative most associated with O’Keeffe derives from the sensuality of her flower pictures. Her work has been overshadowed by the comparisons to genitalia in her flower paintings and the narratives of womanhood, largely manufactured by male critics. The flowers were revolutionary, and probably no one knew what to make of something so surprising and yet obviously familiar. Her partner, photographer and gallery owner, Joseph Stieglitz said at the time, “I don’t know how you’re going to get away with anything like that, you aren’t planning to show them are you?”
For O’Keeffe the reviews that focused on apparent sexual content of the work devastated her. She said:
When people read erotic symbols into my paintings they’re really talking about their own affairs.
But the narrative ran away, and while she was travelling to paint and ‘discovering’ new landscapes, Stieglitz and male critics commented on her exhibitions.
Stieglitz was central to the recognition of O’Keeffe’s work but scholars have been keen to note the degree of influence he and other associates had over the way her work was interpreted. Much has been made of her work as an expression of the essence of womanhood. Barson writes in the catalogue from 2016:
They saw in O’Keeffe’s work the essence of womanhood expressed through a modernist abstraction that was also, importantly, American. Following Stieglitz, critics advanced Freudian interpretations of her abstract and flower imagery, connecting these explicitly with her body and gendering her art in ways she found increasingly frustrating.
I was captivated by the colours, size and composition of O’Keeffe’s flowers when I saw them. I made notes about the way she used orange and red next to each other in Oriental Poppies (1927), the colours were so hot they were almost hard to look at. The black fuzzy stamens providing a place for the eye to rest, in a large canvas entirely taken up with the fiery petals. No cool colours like in Black Mesa, where contrast might take the eye to new places, just the full-on double poppy in your face. The flower’s reproductive organs are so close up that I remember feeling embarrassed walking through the room filled with this erotic botanica. Maybe O’Keeffe has a point, I’m talking about my own affairs when I see sexy lady bits in these flowers. But I know I’m not the only one.
White Iris (1930) is another example. Over a meter tall, it it recalls the sensation of being near a flower, touching it with your fingers or lips while inhaling its scent. This is how O’Keeffe intended the viewer to appreciate this subject matter. She said she wanted people to find a new appreciation for flowers, which are so often overlooked:
A flower is relatively small. Everyone has many associations with a flower - the idea of flowers. You put out your hand to touch the flower — lean forward to smell it — maybe touch it with your lips almost without thinking — or give it to someone to please them. Still — in a way — nobody sees a flower — really — it is so small — we haven't time — and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time...
Slow Looking is about what I see in a different artwork each month, and my reading of what critics have said over time. In this case the artist disagreed: ‘you hung all your own associations with flowers on my flower and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower — and I don’t.’ A great example of the stickiness of interpretation.
Often no matter the artist’s intent, the artwork has a life of its own beyond their control. In the 1970s O’Keeffe’s work was ‘rediscovered’ by feminists and women artists during the second wave, and celebrated by Judy Chicago in her hugely important Dinner Party installation. Such a rediscovery may have gone against O’Keeffe’s own intentions for her work and how she wanted it to be seen, but it placed her within a different canon to male-centred art history. Chicago sought to have women artists recognised in a history of their own without the caveats and disclaimers, the type of which O’Keeffe was often saddled with.
O’Keeffe was also frequently photographed by Stieglitz, and these images have become just as numerous as her paintings which further conflates her body with her work. A 1921 survey of Stieglitz’s photographs, including 45 pictures of O’Keeffe, many of them nudes, and established her place in the New York artworld. Stieglitz was an already famous, and married, photographer. Together, they were the IT couple of the 20s.
Searching for images of O’Keeffe’s work within the public domain brings up more images of her body than of her art, thanks to the volume of Stieglitz’s photographs and the fact that copyright has ceased on his work. I can’t help but feel this continues to add to the readings of her work that she disavowed. At the same time it’s important to remember that she was in a head-over-heels relationship with Stieglitz, as Jerry Saltz describes in a 2009 New Yorker review. The photoshoots with Stieglitz thrilled her.
I haven’t delved too deeply into the critical reception of O’Keeffe across time, partly because there were themes that grabbed me before I could get to the who-said-what-when about her work.
I like to conclude the Artwork# editions of the newsletter with a kind of summary of what I really think. O’Keeffe is a complex figure, a prolific painter whose influence on American art and many movements within it has been somewhat overshadowed by the mythic narratives used to describe her work while she was alive, and yet her popularity and reach is unquestionable. Her voice has been steadily heard in this discourse, however the paintings of flowers in particular have their own things to say. Her relationship to place is central to her painting and deserves further investigation. More can and should be said of her relationships with the Indigenous peoples whose land she loved to paint and whose important cultural objects she repeatedly depicted.
Activists draw attention to the disparity between our valuing of different art forms
Two short reviews from my recent travels on Australia's east coast
She painted one swollen stamen and the male critics had a field day...
This month I visited the inland city of Broken Hill to see some decolonial museum practices in action