“Living out here has just meant happiness,” O’Keeffe gushed when referring to her home in New Mexico’s village of Abiquiu. “Sometimes I think I’m half mad with love for this place.”
The world is apparently half mad for O’Keeffe’s acclaimed artwork. Would you believe just last year, Sotherby’s of New York auctioned her prized painting, Jimson Weed, White Flower No. 1 (1932), for . . .
Owning an O’Keeffe is undoubtedly pure happiness for one wealthy wildcat.
I guess I’ll have to stick to my usual – postcards, prints, and photographs of the originals for any happiness when it comes to world renowned art, although I have an original of my sister’s (Lynda is a very talented artist, too). A life of travel does afford me the chance to see a few originals from time to time (pure bliss!); which is what Jimmy and I did earlier this year during a trip to New Mexico, where the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, the only museum in the United States dedicated to an internationally-known woman artist was located just blocks from Santa Fe’s famed Plaza.
Of course, with those prices floating around the art world, photographs were not allowed, at least beyond the first section of the gallery devoted to O’Keeffe’s drawings. The staff followed me and my camera around like a hawk looking to snag a hapless hooligan roaming the desert. I guess walking the streets of Santa Fe for four hours in shorts, tee shirt, hat, and athletic shoes didn’t exactly leave me looking a cultured connoisseur of the arts when I arrived midday, hot and bothered.
How does a rather plain looking farm girl from Wisconsin become the Mother of American modernism at the turn of the 20th century?
Certainly O’Keeffe’s humble beginnings in 1887 as the second child of seven born to Irish immigrants (her mother was Hungarian, her father Irish) living in the Midwest provided fertile ground, literally and figuratively, for the dreams of an entire generation looking for a better life across the pond, much less for an aspiring artist.
It certainly helped that she hitched her star to avant-garde photographer Alfred Stieglitz. Eventually, and truth be told, reluctantly, (she refused to include “honor and obey” as part of her marriage vows) she married her mentor and lover (she was 37, he was 59). It had taken six years for Alfred to wiggle out of his first marriage.
Stieglitz was O’Keeffe’s biggest supporter. Alfred just happened to have an equally big platform (and ego) as owner of the internationally famous New York art gallery, 291. Of course, his nude photographs of O’Keeffe, taken at the height of their courtship, helped revive his career, too. No matter the scandal of Stieglitz’s nudes caused critics and the public alike to view her early abstracts, natural organic forms, as little more than sexual innuendo suggestive of the female anatomy.
Whether she was Stieglitz’s doe-eyed ingénue to his Svengali manipulation or implicit in using sex to help market his nudes and launch her career is anyone’s guess. I’m guessing they both knew what they were doing. The results certainly helped distinguish O’Keeffe from her male counterparts, and garnered a considerable fan base with the women of the world who admired her chutzpah as much as her abstracts.
That’s what I like most about Georgia O’Keeffe. She took on the establishment and steadfastly remained true to her vision. Having been trained at the Art Institute of Chicago in the art tradition of the time, she determined tradition was not for her.
“I had things in my head not like what I had been taught.”
She went on to write, after giving up painting for a time rather than go with the flow, at least until her creative side got the best of her: “There was no one around to look at what I was doing – no one interested – no one to say anything about it one way or another. I was alone and singularly free, working into my own, unknown – no one to satisfy but myself.”
You go girl!
Eventually, being true to her vision earned O'Keeffe, the Mother of American Modernism, a place in the Academy of Arts and Letters in 1962; a Fellow in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1966; the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977, the highest honor awarded to American civilians; the National Medal of Arts in 1985; and 12 years after her death, a 32-cent postage stamp bearing the likeness of her 1927 painting, Red Poppy.
Not all of her work over seven decades of artistic evolution excited me. I am most enthralled with her Southwest period landscape paintings. You can have a peak at most of her paintings available online via this link. In 1949, three years after the death of Stieglitz, she left New York for the wide open spaces of New Mexico.
“It is the most wonderful place you can imagine. It’s so beautiful there. It’s ridiculous.”
Free to return to the plains and plateaus she’d come to love during earlier visits there, she embraced the solitude that was truly her muse, living a life of Zen simplicity (all that simplicity included household staff, administrative assistants, and a revolving cast of household guests) in the mystic badlands of New Mexico.
She took her career in another direction, devoting the last two decades of her work to “the wideness and wonder of the world as I live in it”, painting the hills and plains and plateaus and architecture (and a few skeletal remains of rams’ heads) with her usual techniques of elimination that exquisitely revealed the very essence of a subject or location.
She traveled the world when she wasn’t painting until she lost her eyesight to macular degeneration at 78. She took up sculpting with the help of a hired hand (maybe the young ceramic artist was a bit more than a hired hand), John 'Juan' Hamilton.
O’Keeffe left a good portion of her estate to Juan when she died in 1986 at the age of 98. To his credit, he relinquished most of his inheritance (albeit, under a cloud of suspicion) to establish a non-profit Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation with the intent of making O’Keeffe’s work widely accessible to the public.
On behalf of the public, thank you Juan; and thank you, Santa Fe's Georgia O'Keeffe Museum.
But most of all, a million thank yous (or more accurately, 44.4 million) to you, Georgia O'Keeffe, for bringing art into the modern world so elegantly and colorfully.
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