“I hate flowers – I paint them because they’re cheaper than models and they don’t move.”
Georgia O’Keeffe in Laurie Lisle, Portrait of an Artist: A Biography of Georgia O’Keeffe, 1981
As you may be aware, I am currently taking part in the Blogging A-Z April Challenge, and my theme this year is: Writing Letters to Dead Artists. The overall concept is to explore the artists who have touched me through a particular work and then pose them a question. They then send me a reply, and even I’ve been surprised by what they’ve come back with, because much of it has been news to me. So, you can make of that what you will.
Today, I’ll be writing to American artist, Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986), who has taken me beyond the bustling streets of New York and up into its iconic, soaring skyscrapers which she loved to paint from the ground looking up like teeny Jack staring up at the Giant. I have never been to New York, and yet I’ve sung and danced to the song with absolute gusto to a band called Paris Dumper at The Nag’s Head, an English-style pub in Sydney’s Glebe. It was always their closing song, and an electric end to a great night out.
So, Frank Sinatra’s New York. New York is the ideal musical accompaniment today.
Please excuse my ignorance, but I only stumbled across Georgia O’Keeffe two weeks ago when I was desperately hunting down dead artists to fill vacant letters of the alphabet for this challenge. I feel a little remiss in not getting to know her sooner. However, my justification is that I’m Australian, and art seems to be a bit of a nationalistic thing. We don’t always get exposed to artists from other countries. Moreover, my poor, overstretched brain also has its limits. You can’t know everyone. That said, one of the things I love about writing, is how my limits are continuously stretching and expanding, hungrily devouring fodder like a starving teen fueling a growth spurt.
Georgia O’Keeffe Untitled 1970 oil.
Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) has been described as “the mother of American modernism”. Yet, within this framework, her subject matter is quite diverse. Indeed, there’s so much more to her, than just her infamous, flower portraits. A few nights ago, I was stoked to stumble across her series of New York Skyscrapers 1925-29. These were painted while she and her famous photographer husband, Alfred Stieglitz, were living in a 30th floor apartment in the Shelton Hotel, one of New York’s first residential skyscrapers. It had a gobsmacking view across the city, and they really were living and breathing the New York vibe. In 1929, O’Keeffe made her first trip to New Mexico, where she made love to the rugged, arid landscape, and it soon became an integral part of herself. After her Stieglitz’s death in 1946, she moved to Abiquiu full-time. She lived there until her final few years, when she moved to Santa Fe where she died on the 6th March, 1986.
“When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for the moment. I want to give that world to someone else. Most people in the city rush around so, they have no time to look at a flower. I want them to see it whether they want to or not.”
That’s the condensed version. You see, I’m keen to continue on our travels, focusing more upon the road less travelled, than regurgitating biographical facts. Indeed, I’m much more interested in getting to know Georgia O’Keeffe the woman instead. I never expected this to be easy. However, when I scratched the surface, she burst into a thousand pieces, which have been very hard to put into any kind of order or structure to create a cohesive portrait. I shouldn’t be surprised, but it would’ve been much less work and mental angst, if she could’ve stayed between the lines.
No discussion of Georgia O’Keeffe is complete without mentioning her husband…the famous photographer, Alfred Stieglitz, who gave O’Keeffe her big break.
Georgia O’Keeffe, New York Night 1929. I have always marvelled at this little boxes of light through the darkness, signalling somebody’s home and wondered who is there, what they are doing. each box is like an illuminated mystery.
Stieglitz created and managed New York City’s internationally famous 291 Gallery located at 291 Fifth Avenue in Midtown Manhattan. While Stieglitz was at the forefront of photography, he also introduced some of the most avant-garde European artists of the time to the United States. These included: Henri Matisse, Auguste Rodin, Henri Rousseau, Paul Cézanne, Pablo Picasso, Constantin Brâncuși, and the Dadaists Francis Picabia and Marcel Duchamp. This was clearly a man who knew his art. Knew his artists, and was very well connected.
In early 1916, Anita Pollitzer, a friend of O’Keeffe’s, showed Stieglitz a series of her highly innovative charcoal abstractions. He found them to be the “purest, finest, sincerest things that had entered 291 in a long while”. In April 1916, Stieglitz exhibited ten of her drawings at 291 without her knowledge. At his request, she moved to New York in 1918 and their professional relationship soon became personal. She was 28 at the time and he was 52. She also became his photographic muse. In 1924, after he’d divorced his wife, they were married. O’Keeffe and Stieglitz were prolific letter writers and exchanged around 25,000 pieces of paper between them…a mind-boggling volume of correspondence, which covered the highs and lows of their relationship.
At this point, perhaps it’s pertinent to mention O’Keeffe’s battles with mental health issues, which were exacerbated by her husband’s affair with Dorothy Norman, who he called ”Dorothy-child.” Yet, despite this apparent confidence, apparently she experienced anxiety all her life. Yet, instead of making it her prison, she went on and did what she wanted to do regardless.
“I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life – and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do.”
Indeed, I wonder whether she might’ve known Dorothy Parker’s poem: Resume written in 1928:
Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.
I tend to feel this earlier O’Keeffe is almost a complete contrast to the fiercely independent, tenacious woman she became in later life, even before her husband’s death. Indeed, I can almost hear her singing from her grave: I Did It My Way.
This freedom could best be symbolized by her car, which she adapted into a mobile studio and was a critical necessity for her trips to and from New Mexico. As Carolyn Kastner, curator of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum explained:
“She would remove the driver’s seat. Then she would unbolt the passenger seat, turn it around to face the back seat. Then she would lay the canvas on the back seat as an easel and paint inside her Model-A Ford.”
After all, the heat in New Mexico was intense and she’d paint with the windows down, until the bees became a nuisance and she’d wind them up until the heat became too much and she headed home.
Georgia O’Keeffe painting in her car studio at Ghost Ranch, New Mexico.
As much as I don’t really like driving, it does provide that sense of freedom, which can really only be surpassed by learning to fly. There’s a huge part of me, which would love to jump in the car and escape somewhere and immerse myself in my writing, photography and possibly even paint. Indeed, playing my violin somewhere out in the middle of Australia’s Nullarbor Desert has a strange appeal, although my preferred escape has been driving a Kombi up to Byron Bay and going for a surf. The fact that I can’t surf or drive a Kombi has done nothing to dampen this dream, although now that the kids are getting older and my health isn’t quite so dire, it’s been awhile since I’ve been indulging in some Kombi dreaming.
I’m sure many of us indulge in some form of escapism, and I guess that’s where TV can take you on a thousand journeys without even leaving your chair. That ease of entertainment, I guess is something to watch out for. Living vicariously through a screen is a poor substitute for living and going on real life adventures of your own, instead of living through someone else.
Speaking of living, I’d better get on with this letter to Georgia O’Keeffe.
A Letter to Georgia O’Keeffe
A few short week’s ago, I’d barely heard of you, and yet now I’m in raptures. Not just with your paintings, especially your New York Skyscraper series, but with you as a person who was such a strident individual with your own ideas, and yet there was also your marriage to Alfred, with it’s 2500 pieces of paper, the photographs, his affair and then how he didn’t want to sell your paintings. He wanted to keep them all for himself. I’d also love to pile into your Model T with you and drive from New York to New Mexico. I’ve never ever been to America, but there’s something about America and the big road trip which has a certain magic and reminds me of my many trips across Australia’s Nullarbor Plain on my travels between Sydney and Perth. I’d better warn you though. I hope you like having plenty of stops, because I’ve never been an A-B traveller. I always have to stop.
Well, that assumes that I’d be driving the car, which is probably very doubtful. Something tells me that you wouldn’t hand over the keys to your beloved studio on wheels under any circumstances. That said, I think your eyesight started failing later in life so perhaps I would be driving after all.
Georgia, you’re such a woman of contrasts, that it’s hard for me to get my head around the seismic shifts in your works. While my personal favourites hail from your New York Skyscraper Series, my question relates more to the contrast between your mesmerizingly beautiful flower paintings, and the desolate bone paintings who carried out at Ghost Ranch, New Mexico. There’s such a gulf between the two. Could you please explain?!!
There’s so much more I could ask you, but this might well be the beginning of our own series of 2,500 pieces of paper. You never know. I have a hell of a lot of questions and who knows, perhaps you might just have a few of the answers.
By the way, did you happen to meet up with Australian artist, Sidney Nolan? I wrote to him yesterday. While I focused on his Ned Kelly Series, about an Australian bushranger, he also did a series set in the Australian outback about doomed Australian explorers, Burke and Wills. I think the two of you should go on a long car trip together and see what you can come up with. You might even what to take along his mate, Russell Drysdale and author Patrick White, although the last I heard Nolan and White had a falling out. However, one hopes those petty earthly squabbles would all get ironed out somewhere along the between heaven and Earth.
A Reply From Georgia O’Keeffe
Thank you so much for your energetic letter. I could sense your uncontained enthusiasm in each and every word. Indeed, your unstoppable energy reminded me of myself. No doubt, you also have something of my nervous energy, which was a positive negative force throughout my entire life. It drove me forward. I wouldn’t let it hold me back, but there were those times it overwhelmed me like a wave and swept me under.
Sometimes, I wonder if people don'[t have anything better to do than make up fantastic Freudian interpretations of my paintings, when my thinking was very practical. I painted flowers simply because they were there. They were cheaper than models and they don’t move. Quite frankly, I don’t know how my husband coped handled all those models. Sorry, I wasn’t going to go there. We both know what happened with that wretched Dorothy woman, although more than one of my so-called friends told me I’d got my comeuppance. You don’t always think of that when you’re a young woman caught up in the throws of passion and you have this incredible, world famous photographer falling at your feet. I was just a girl from a wheat farm in Wisconsin, who was dazzled by the bright lights. That’s all.
Anyway, getting back to my paintings of the animal bones, it was the same as the flowers. The bones were scattered across the landscape and I gathered up a barrel of bones and took them home. This was around the time that they were hell bent on finding the greatest American novel, the greatest American play. Indeed, Superman was created in 1938. America was looking for heroes. This was my cheeky contribution to the quest. You’ll notice the red, white and blue of the Stars and Stripes in the painting.
You see, abstract works aren’t always so cryptic as you might think, and I encourage you to release your inhibitions and preconceived ideas and explore more abstract works for yourself. Find your own meaning, if you must. Or, simply enjoy them for what they are.
By the way, I heard you gave up on art as a child because you couldn’t draw your dog. What a pity. No one should ever give up painting, drawing and expressing their inner world through art. It’s just like dancing, which I’ve heard you’ve embraced now that you’re almost 50 and battling this dermatowhatwhat disease. I don’t mean to be unsympathetic, but why do they give these rare diseases such long unpronounceable names? Humph…dermatowhat what…ther’s subject for an abstract work. How would you paint it?
See, I got you back with a tough question of my own!
PS Rowena, you don’t need a Kombi to go off the grid and you don’t need to drive to the end of the Earth either. You live in such an inspirational part of the world, surrounded by beaches, the ocean but also the bush. Don’t tell me you have nothing to paint!
Sources & Further Reading
The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum
Georgia O’Keeffe Exhibition at Tate Modern