Georgia O'keefe: Artist

Georgia O'Keefe was an American original: an independent and unique artist who painted boldly colored still-lifes and haunting landscapes using a synthesis of the abstract and the representational.

Georgia O'Keeffe, a unique blend of abstract and representational artist, was known for the purity, boldness, and clarity of her still-life compositions. She was considered the premier female artist of the 20th century, a title she considered sexist. She was an artist ahead of her time, a modernist who used minimalism and anticipated the reductivism of the 1970s. In her long career, O'Keeffe focused on nature as well as man-made works, but rarely painted living creatures or people. She used bright colors, and created more than a hundred often giant-sized flower paintings, such as "Black Iris" (1926) and "Red Poppy" (1927). She also painted fragments to represent a whole, like the hole in a pelvis, or a single wall. She created large paintings of desert scenery, and focused on close-up views of a single blossom or object, such as a cow's skull. She sometimes juxtaposed otherwise unrelated objects, such as flowers and bones, e.g., "Horse's Skull with White Rose" (1931).

O'Keeffe was born on November 15, 1887 in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin to a farming family, the second of seven siblings. Her childhood farm life in the Midwest greatly influenced her art and her later life; she would never be as comfortable living in cities. The democratic egalitarianism of prairie society contributed to her artistic and personal fearlessness and originality.

When O'Keeffe was sixteen, the family moved to Williamsburg, Virginia, where she took art classes for the first time and was recognized as a talented student. Two years later, she studied art at the school of the Art Institute in Chicago. In 1907 she attended the Art Students League in New York and took William Merritt Chase's portrait and still life class. Chase was a famous painter in his own right who taught the traditional European methods because he believed American painting was too provincial. O'Keeffe learned technical skills such as the use of painting materials and how to paint rapidly. At the end of her first year there, she won a prize for a still life. She also discovered 291, Alfred Stieglitz's art gallery, where she was exposed to the works of artists such as Rodin and Matisse. Stieglitz was a self-made man who had begun his career as a photographic chemist and achieved many technical successes with photography. He opened his gallery to display what he considered the art of photography. He later began to show avant-garde drawings and paintings.

Her father's failure in various business ventures forced O'Keeffe to become a commercial artist for two years to help support her family. Eventually they all moved to Charlottesville, Virginia, where she attended the summer art classes at the University of Alon Bement, a visiting professor from New York's Columbia University.

From 1912 to 1914 O'Keeffe worked as a teacher of drawing and penmanship in Amarillo, Texas, a rowdy frontier town in the windy Panhandle. She responded strongly to the vast emptiness of the Texas plains. She was perceived by townspeople as unusual because she wore black tailored outfits, pulled her hair straight back, and took long walks by herself.

During her summer breaks, O'Keeffe taught drawing at the University in Charlottesville as the teaching assistant of Bement, who encouraged her to go to New York and study with Arthur Wesley Dow, head of the Fine Arts Department at Columbia. Dow did not approve of the imitative and naturalistic European style of painting. He was more experimental in his approach, and admired classical Japanese paintings in particular. O'Keeffe absorbed his ideas and used them throughout her artistic career.

While in New York, O'Keeffe again visited 291 and was exposed to the works of Braque and Picasso, as well as the American painters Marsden Hartley, and John Marin. Radical politics and avant-garde art were in vogue; the art maven and writer Mabel Dodge, who would later draw creative artists of all kinds to her home in Taos, New Mexico, held a weekly cultural salon in Greenwich Village.

In the fall of 1915, O'Keeffe taught art at a teachers college in Columbia, South Carolina. In her free time she experimented with charcoal and drew abstract shapes, struggling to find her own style. These early works represented her dreams and visions. She mailed them to her Columbia classmate and good friend Anita Pollitzer, who showed the works to Stieglitz. He was impressed, later exhibiting them at his gallery without O'Keeffe's knowledge or permission. Embarrassed, she demanded that he end the exhibition, to no avail. The public was shocked by what it perceived as the frank sexuality of her shapes; throughout her life, she denied the Freudian symbolism that others saw in her art.

In 1916, O'Keeffe accepted a job at Texas Teachers College in Canyon, Texas. While there, she abandoned charcoal and started using oils in vibrant colors, and also experimented with watercolors. She sent much of her work to Stieglitz. O'Keeffe had her first solo exhibition of charcoals, oils, and watercolors in 1917.

Later that year, O'Keeffe visited Colorado and New Mexico for the first time. She loved it at first sight, and resolved to return someday. When she got back to New York, she and the unhappily married and considerably older Stieglitz moved in together and became lovers. She began spending part of the year in Lake George, New York, with members of the Stieglitz family, devoting much of her time there to painting. She began to paint large flowers and leaves, and big trees.

Stieglitz, inspired by the strength and beauty of O'Keeffe's face and body, photographed her nude. In 1921, many of these photos were first exhibited in New York at his gallery, and caused quite a sensation.

In 1924, he and O'Keeffe married after Stieglitz was granted a divorce by his first wife. The following year, his exhibition showcased seven American artists, including John Marin, Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove, Charles Demuth, Paul Strand, and Georgia O'Keeffe, to great acclaim. Stieglitz then opened the Intimate Gallery, and the couple moved into the 28th-floor penthouse at the Shelton Hotel. O'Keeffe began to paint cityscapes and skylines.

In the summer of 1929, O'Keeffe returned to New Mexico as the Taos house guest of Mabel Dodge Luhan (she had recently married a Pueblo Indian named Tony Luhan). It was the first of a series of summers she would spend in New Mexico. Artistically, she was finding her focus in her unusual representations of landscapes, flowers, and other natural shapes. O'Keeffe utilized everything around her: the vastness of the Southwest sky and land, its sounds and dangers, and its canyons, hills, rocks, and bleached animal bones. She saw the bones as a unique way of depicting the desert that wouldn't be imitated by other artists, as her large flowers had been. O'Keeffe considered these natural elements a vital part of her life and her art.

Later that year, she was included in an exhibit of paintings by nineteen living Americans at the new Museum of Modern Art in New York. A 1930 exhibition at An American Place, Stieglitz's new gallery, featured O'Keeffe's first New Mexico works; thereafter she had an annual exhibition through 1950. In 1939, she was selected as one of twelve outstanding women of the past fifty years at the New York World's Fair. Her painting of a sunset on Long Island represented New York in the fair exhibition.

O'Keeffe returned to New Mexico in 1934 and stayed at Ghost Ranch, at that time an isolated dude ranch. She bought a summer house at Ghost Ranch in 1940. In 1945, she bought her second house in New Mexico, not far from Ghost Ranch in the tiny village of Abiquiu, and remodeled it as her winter home.

Stieglitz died of a stroke in 1946, and O'Keeffe spent the next two years settling his estate in New York. She kept their New York apartment, but lived mostly in New Mexico from 1949 to the end of her life.

O'Keeffe always considered herself an American rather than a Southwestern artist and remained aloof from what she considered the provincial Santa Fe and Taos artistic community. She was already well established as an artiest before she arrived in New Mexico. She maintained her connections with the New York avant-garde world even after she settled in New Mexico.

O'Keeffe was rather bored by people and society, preferring to live and work in relative solitude in Abiquiu or at Ghost Ranch. She was an intense, plainspoken person who lived in the moment, focusing on the essence of things in her life as well as her art, and eliminating the superfluous. She enjoyed exploring the surrounding country on foot, on horseback, or by car, sketching and even painting in the back seat. She often took photos that she later used to create paintings. One of her peculiarities was that she didn't like to sign her paintings, believing that it detracted from their design. If she was pleased with a painting, she would draw a star with "OK" in the center of the backboard. She also had little interest in naming her works, often leaving that to others.

In 1951, O'Keeffe made her first trip to Mexico, where she met the artists Diego Rivera, Frieda Kahlo, and Miguel Covarrubias. She spent the next decade traveling throughout the world. Asia was her favorite continent, and she became especially fond of Chinese art.

The representational and delicate O'Keeffe style became unfashionable in the 1950s, when abstract expressionist painters such as Pollock and De Kooning were popular. But O'Keeffe continued to paint and experiment. In the 1950s and 1960s, her inspiration was her immediate world: her patio door and post ends, her courtyard flagstones, and later her airplane flights. Her largest canvas, "Sky Above Clouds IV" (8 feet x 24 feet), was one in a series of "cloudscapes" as viewed from a plane. In 1962 O'Keeffe was elected to The American Academy of Arts and Letters, the most prestigious group of creative artists in the country.

At the age of 84, O'Keeffe began to go blind, eventually retaining only peripheral vision. She did her last unassisted oil painting in 1972. The next year, a handsome young ceramic artist named Juan Hamilton arrived at her door to offer his assistance as a handyman. He became her controversial assistant, companion, and representative for her remaining years.

Through the late 1960s and 1970s, despite her advancing age and blindness, O'Keeffe continued to paint large sky and river paintings, as well as smaller scale still-lifes of rocks and other natural forms. In 1976, with Juan's encouragement, she published "Georgia O'Keeffe," a best-selling collection of her reproductions with text by the artist. She also experimented with sculpture and ceramics, with Juan's assistance.

O'Keeffe received the Medal of Freedom from President Ford in 1977, and a film portrait by Perry Miller Adato on public television made her known to an even wider audience. Her 90th birthday celebration took place at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. amidst this resurgence of public interest in the woman and the artist.

In 1984, in failing health, O'Keeffe moved to Santa Fe to live with Juan Hamilton and his family. She received the National Medal of Arts from President Reagan in 1985. The next year she died, leaving most of her estate to Juan Hamilton, which prompted a legal suit by O'Keeffe's family. Hamilton eventually agreed to turn over more than two-thirds of his inheritance to the museums and institutions in her original will.

On March 17, 1997, the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum opened in Santa Fe, with its first exhibition curated by Juan Hamilton. It is the first art museum dedicated to the work of an internationally acclaimed woman artist.

Georgia O'Keeffe remains a controversial artist with an original style who has received her share of criticism. Critics are divided about the merits of her art. But whether she is considered a genius, or merely talented, she came closer than many artists to recording her particular fascination with life. Near the end of her career, she commented: "Filling a space in a beautiful way. That is what art means to me."

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