Georgia on Her Mind: Georgia O'Keeffe's Life and Work Without Freudian Interference

Excerpt from The Metropolitan Museum's Timeline of Art History (written by Lisa Messinger):
For seven decades, Georgia O'Keeffe (1887–1986) was a major figure in American art. Remarkably, she remained independent from shifting art trends and stayed true to her own vision, which was based on finding the essential, abstract forms in nature. With exceptionally keen powers of observation and great finesse with a paintbrush, she recorded subtle nuances of color, shape, and light that enlivened her paintings and attracted a wide audience. Her primary subjects were landscapes, flowers, and bones, explored in series over several years and even decades. The images were drawn from her life experience and related either generally or specifically to places where she lived. [Click here for the rest of Ms. Messinger's essay and corresponding images.]

Georgia O'Keeffe (1887–1986), c. 1960, Michael A. Vaccaro, b. 1922.

In this photograph, the artist, age seventy-three, poses next to her earlier canvas, Pelvis Series, Red with Yellow (1945). The painting is part of a large series of compositions made between 1943 and 1947 that depict an animal pelvis bone, viewed either in its entirety or in fragmentary detail. Usually O'Keeffe reproduced the natural bleached-gray color of the bone, but here she deviates into expressively bold colors that make the image appear more abstract. By eliminating all extraneous detail and any sense of place, our attention is focused solely on the essential elements of the composition—the empty socket of the bone through which a golden sky can be seen. Her friend, the novelist Jean Toomer, once noted that she painted "the universe through the portal of a bone." [Source]













Early Abstraction, 1915.













Drawing XIII, 1915.

In drawings like this, O'Keeffe asserted her independence from her traditional art training. Filling large sheets of paper with bold strokes of charcoal, her compositions evoke the growth and movement of nature through abstract forms. Here, the image is divided into three parallel sections. On the right, meandering lines suggest a flowing river or a rising flame. Four rounded bulbs in the center recall a rolling hillside or densely foliated trees, while the jagged line at left, accentuated by erasure marks, alludes to mountain peaks or a flash of lightning. The power of these early drawings was not lost on Alfred Stieglitz, who immediately offered to show Drawing XIII and other O'Keeffe charcoals in an exhibition at his gallery 291 in 1916. [Source]













Standing Female Nude, Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), 1910.

In March 1911, Alfred Stieglitz's small gallery in New York, 291, opened a large exhibition of forty-nine drawings and watercolors by Pablo Picasso, the artist's first showing anywhere in America. Among the highlights in the show, which surveyed the development of his art up to Analytic Cubism (1906–11), was this highly abstract charcoal drawing of a standing female nude, one of several studies on this theme he produced in the spring of 1910. It was, no doubt, one of the most radical drawings in the show and its linear, lattice-like construction prompted the press to derogatively call it "the fire escape." Although reduced to a series of lines and semicircles, without any semblance of three-dimensional form (despite areas of considerable shading), the essential parts of a human body—head, neck, shoulders, arms, torso, breasts, legs, and kneecaps—are all there. The controversy caused by this drawing was incitement enough for Stieglitz to purchase the work for his collection as a representation of the new direction of modern art. In 1913, he lent it to the large international exhibition of modern art in New York known as the Armory Show, where it was overshadowed by the uproar surrounding Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase. [Source]













Alfred Stieglitz at 291, Edward Steichen, (1879–1973), 1915.

291 Fifth Avenue was the address of Alfred Stieglitz's first gallery, the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession, commonly known as "291." Stieglitz opened the gallery in 1905, promoting and exhibiting fine art photography in what had formerly been Steichen's studio. 291 would soon offer Americans their first opportunity to see exceptional modern painting in exhibitions featuring the Europeans Henri Matisse, Auguste Rodin, Pablo Picasso, and Paul Cézanne, and the Americans John Marin, Arthur Dove, and Marsden Hartley. Steichen's portrait of Stieglitz, made shortly before Stieglitz closed 291 in June 1917, captures the bristling power of this persuasive early advocate of the avant-garde. [Source]













Sentimental Music, Arthur Dove (1880-1946), 1913.

Dove frequently listened to music while he painted, and he created numerous music-related works throughout his career. As an artist, he took a particular interest in the improvisational techniques of jazz, and his diaries make reference to favorite music ranging from Louis Armstrong and George Gershwin to the popular big-band sounds of Paul Whiteman and Bing Crosby and even the avant-garde work of Igor Stravinsky. Like several of his fellow American modernists, including Georgia O'Keeffe and Stuart Davis, Dove was also interested in the concept of synaesthesia, or the interaction of the various senses of perception: he worked with the idea that certain combinations of form, color, and line could evoke the same emotional and physical responses as the dynamics and harmonies of musical sound. [Source]













Music Pink and Blue, No. 2, 1918.













Series 1, No. 1,1918.













Series 1, No. 3,1918.













Series 1, No. 4,1918.













Series 1, No. 8,1918.













The Stag at Sharkey's, George Bellows, American Ashcan School Painter (1882-1925), 1909.

"Despite a short career -- he died at 43 -- Bellows was one of Ashcan's stars. Stag at Sharkey's embodies the grittiness, violence, and masculinity of the new city. In 1909, when Bellows completed this painting, prizefighting was illegal in New York. Athletic clubs such as Sharkey's were the equivalent of Prohibition's speakeasies -- illegal, but they did a booming business. In Bellows's boxing match, the spectators are vulgar; their expressions indicate that they are at least as violent as the match they are watching. But the boxers themselves are reminiscent of stags in nature, still graceful while locked in combat." [PBS Source]













New York Interior, Edward Hopper, c. 1926.

"Whom did I meet? Nobody. I'd heard of Gertrude Stein, but I don't remember having heard of Picasso at all. I used to go to the cafés at night and sit and watch. I went to the theatre a little. Paris had no great or immediate impact on me." -- Edward Hopper on his time in Paris. [Source, quoting from Lives of the Great 20th-Century Artists, by Edward Lucie-Smith]













Woman Combing Her Hair, Edgar Degas, (1834-1917), 1886.













Blue Flower, 1918.













Black Iris, 1926.

This monumental flower painting is one of O'Keeffe's masterpieces. Using colors that are subtly graded from impenetrable black-purple and deep maroon to soft pinks, grays, and whites, she captures the ephemeral quality of this springtime bloom. By enlarging the petals to over-lifesize proportions, O'Keeffe forces the viewer to confront what might otherwise be overlooked and, in turn, elevates the ordinary to the extraordinary. When her magnified flowers were first shown in 1924, even Stieglitz was shocked by their audacity. Critics saw sexual content in their delicate contours, organic forms, and lush surfaces, even though the artist always denied such associations. [Source]













Cow's Skull, Red, White, and Blue, 1931.

Cow's Skull: Red, White, and Blue prominently displays the three colors of the American flag. Painted at a time when American artists, musicians, and writers were interested in identifying a uniquely American style and subject matter for their work, O'Keeffe offered a dissenting opinion about what images could best symbolize America. Rather than paying homage to the lush agricultural landscape as the Regionalist painters did, or uncovering urban problems like the American Scene painters, she used a weathered cow's skull to represent the enduring spirit of America. Although she made it as a joke on the concept of the "Great American Painting," the picture is a quintessential icon of the American West. [Source]













From the Faraway, Nearby, 1938.

Since 1935, O'Keeffe had been experimenting with compositions that combined skeletal and landscape imagery, without regard to their relative size, scale, or perspective. Rendering each element in equally sharp focus, she blurred the spatial distinctions between what is perceived of as being near and what is far. Here, an enormous animal skull rests tentatively on the narrow strip of land at the bottom, emphasizing the strong similarities between the color and shape of the enormous antlers and the hilltop peaks. Despite her hyperrealistic painting style, there is no verisimilitude to the scene. Even the animal skull with its extravagant number of antlers is an imaginative invention. Merging these images into a single composition, however, may have been O'Keeffe's way of summarizing her feelings about the Southwest. Originally titled Deer's Horns, Near Cameron, after her 1937 camping trip to Arizona with photographer Ansel Adams, she later gave it this more poetic title that suggests both a physical and emotional reality. As O'Keeffe wrote (1976), the Far Away was "a beautiful, untouched lonely-feeling place." [Source]













Broken Column, Frida Kahlo (1907-1954), 1944.













The Black Place II, 1944.

The Black Place was the name O'Keeffe gave to one of her favorite painting sites, located in the Bisti Badlands in Navajo country, about 150 miles northwest of her home in Ghost Ranch. It was a stretch of desolate gray and black hills that the artist said looked from a distance like "a mile of elephants." Isolated far off the road and away from all civilization, O'Keeffe made several camping trips there in the 1940s, with her assistant Maria Chabot. Writing to Stieglitz in 1944, the year Black Place II was made, Chabot described in words what O'Keeffe captured in paint: "… the black hills—black and grey and silver with arroyos of white sand curving around them—pink and white strata running through them. They flow downward, one below the next. Incredible stillness!" (Maria Chabot—Georgia O'Keeffe: Correspondence 1941–1949, 2003, p. 193). Over a period of fourteen years, from 1936 to 1949, her visits to the Black Place sparked a torrent of work that was almost unparalleled in her career. Between 1944 and 1945 alone, she completed six canvases, including Black Place II, one very large pastel, and at least nine pencil sketches. [Source]













Georgia O'Keeffe, Alfred Stieglitz, 1918.

"Stieglitz photographed me first at his gallery '291' in the spring of 1917. . . . My hands had always been admired since I was a little girl—but I never thought much about it. He wanted head and hands and arms on a pillow—in many different positions. I was asked to move my hands in many different ways—also my head—and I had to turn this way and that. . . . Stieglitz had a very sharp eye for what he wanted to say with the camera. . . . His idea of a portrait was not just one picture. His dream was to start with a child at birth and photograph that child in all of its activities as it grew to be a person and on throughout its adult life. As a portrait it would be a photographic diary." —Georgia O'Keeffe, 1978

Following Stieglitz's death in 1946, his widow, Georgia O'Keeffe, placed on deposit at the Metropolitan seventy-two photographs from his twenty-year composite portrait of her. In 1997, they became a gift through the generosity of The Georgia O'Keeffe Foundation and Jennifer and Joseph Duke, joining seven other portraits of the legendary painter that had been part of Stieglitz's 1928 gift of twenty-two photographs—the first photographs acquired by the Museum as art. [Source]













Georgia O'Keeffe, Alfred Stieglitz, 1918.













Georgia O'Keeffe, Alfred Stieglitz, 1919.

Stieglitz's famous photographic cycle of O'Keeffe began in 1917 when she was thirty years old and he was fifty-three, and ended in 1937 when ill-health caused Stieglitz to put down his heavy camera. In over 300 black-and-white photographs—some of them candid shots, many more of them showing her nude and provocatively posed—Stieglitz revealed to the world O'Keeffe's strengths and vulnerabilities, and almost single-handedly defined her public persona for generations to come. [Source]













Georgia O'Keeffe, Alfred Stieglitz, 1919 .













Georgia O'Keeffe, Alfred Stieglitz, 1921.

This photograph, one of more than 300 images Stieglitz made of O'Keeffe (1887–1986) between 1917 and 1937, is part of an extraordinary composite portrait. Stieglitz believed that portraiture concerned more than merely the face and that it should be a record of a person's entire experience, a mosaic of expressive movements, emotions, and gestures that would function collectively to evoke a life. "To demand the portrait that will be a complete portrait of any person," he claimed, "is as futile as to demand that a motion picture be condensed into a single still." [Source]



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The Dangers of Freud and Stieglitz: After seeing just a few images of Stieglitz's composite portrait of O'Keeffe, her paintings take on a different subtext, but it's one we project onto her work and not one that is implicit.

Music Pink and Blue, No. 2, 1918.













Series 1, No. 1,1918.













Series 1, No. 3,1918.













Series 1, No. 4,1918.













Series 1, No. 8,1918.













Blue Flower, 1918.













Black Iris, 1926.