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23 march 2017
Georgia O'Keeffe is linked with various schools of art: with mainstream modernism, with Depression-era stylized realism, with Abstract Expressionism, with radical feminism. In Nancy Scott's view, though, O'Keeffe was usually able, against heavy odds, to do what she wanted, what she was good at – and, for better or worse, to follow her personal vision. "Nerve," she called her primary attribute:
I don't think I have a great gift. It isn't just talent. You have to have something else. You have to have a kind of nerve and a lot of very, very hard work. (195)The best thing that ever happened to Georgia O'Keeffe was that Alfred Stieglitz discovered and promoted her. That was also the worst thing that ever happened to her. Not personally, perhaps – though their marriage was a mighty roller-coaster, they appear to have been emotionally inseparable. But in Scott's analysis, Stieglitz read his obsessions into O'Keeffe's work and her person. He appears to have been primed to discover "Woman" painting from the heart of her gender, and to have decided that O'Keeffe was that Woman. Her took an individual and tried to shape her into an archetype. The result is that, a century later, Scott couldn't write a book about O'Keeffe, and I apparently can't write about that book, without starting with Stieglitz.
But O'Keeffe was a determined artist, with an unusual degree of notoriety, before ever meeting Stieglitz. I recently wandered into the "Living Modern" exhibit on O'Keeffe's life and image at the Brooklyn Museum – while I was in the course of reading Scott's book, but completely unaware that I would find an O'Keeffe show at the museum. I was struck by two early portraits of O'Keeffe painted by her art-school contemporaries. She studied with William Merritt Chase, the gifted, demanding Impressionist. She studied with Alon Bement, and with Arthur Wesley Dow – men now literally footnotes to her own biography, but in Scott's view the teachers that O'Keeffe needed. They held uncompromising theoretical views about art but knew when to let students steer their own course with respect to those views.
O'Keeffe studied intermittently, because her family was sometimes flush, sometimes straining to make ends meet. The O'Keeffes were both original and typical, an ambitious and profligate American middle-class family who had no particular social connections but plenty of the nerve that would later help Georgia. O'Keeffe taught school art classes in Amarillo and later returned to teach college art classes in Canyon, Texas, a venue that introduced her to the Western American landscapes she would interpret for the whole world.
Her New York years, 1918-29, marked the peak of her intimacy with Stieglitz, and the establishment of her signature style: satiny textures (she used very little oil in her paints) and images that seem to hit halfway between representation and abstraction. Her flowers, which even Jesse Pinkman in Breaking Bad realizes look like genitalia, also look like flowers, and also look like sheer swirls of contrasting color. Her stylized views of Long Island City from the windows of the Shelton Hotel where she lived with Stieglitz are masterpieces that look in the direction of American Precisionism and its concern with industrial forms. (Scott notes that the painter Charles Demuth and the photographer Paul Strand, also affiliated with Precisionism, were good friends of O'Keeffe's.) But other paintings of the city, like the triptych of Manhattan scenes that O'Keeffe created in 1932, are less successful. New York was ultimately not perhaps too angular for her – she was also obsessed with squarish desert buildings – but too busy for her. The best O'Keeffe buildings are spare and uninhabited.
And then she was off to the New Mexico scenery that made her legendary. I am drawn to some of these works (her images of Ranchos Church, the Pedernal near Ghost Ranch, and her patio door in Abiquiú) but less to others like the endlessly repeated skulls and pelvises that impose themselves on desert colors and forms. Stieglitz died in 1946, when O'Keeffe was 58. She would paint on for many years, even after blindness made her dependent on assistants, but she became increasingly isolated from fashionable art circles in New York or Los Angeles. The world, instead, came to her, when it could manage the trek. The 2017 Brooklyn Museum show included one of Andy Warhol's 1979 portraits of O'Keeffe, silkscreened in orange ink and spackled with diamond dust.
She reportedly didn't like Warhol's portraits of her (193). But the two icons were akin in many ways. They came from middle America and the American middle class; both had eastern-European ancestry. They both made livings at art before they made fortunes at it. And both, even when they became impossibly famous, returned again and again to the things they did best: color-saturated silkscreen snark in Warhol's case, bold fusions of natural and abstract forms in hers. Both Warhol and O'Keeffe seem almost too famous to admire unironically, but in neither case, ultimately, does the fame seem unwarranted. They both had lots of nerve and worked really, really hard.
Scott, Nancy J. Georgia O'Keeffe. London: Reaktion, 2015.