Georgia O’Keeffe, Black Mesa Landscape, New Mexico / Out Back of Marie’s II 1930, Oil on canvas mounted on board, 24 1/4 x 36 1/4 (61.6 x 92.1), Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. Gift of The Burnett Foundation © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.
In a desert landscape, time can appear to slow to an extent which becomes difficult to measure. The sky each day can be virtually identical to that of the previous day. Evenly spaced clouds cast tidy shadows over the landscape. The result of walking to a horizon might seem equivalent to staying put. In a scenario where virtually nothing changes, neither the landscape, the climate nor the viewpoint, the only variable which the viewer, a painter perhaps, might be sensitive to is herself as she stands within the landscape. The painter Georgia O’Keeffe (1887 – 1986) was drawn to New Mexico perhaps in part because of the sun-baked permanence of the landscape. It is the kind of climate which allows an artist to spend time examining geographical features, without risk of the weather transforming the view beyond recognition. It is the same kind of permanence that drew Cezanne back repeatedly to Mont St. Victoire.
Georgia O’Keeffe liked to suggest that location was of incidental importance to her work, having written in 1976 “Where I was born and where and how I have lived is unimportant.”*. As a statement of fact however, this is amply contradicted by the majority of her paintings, which are very much products of the places in which the artist spent different stages of her life. It is more likely that O’Keeffe, through this defiant statement, was taking control of her own story in much the same way as she had learned to do as far back as the 1920s in New York.
“They make me seem like some strange unearthly sort of creature floating in the air – breathing in clouds for nourishment – when the truth is that I like beef steak – and like it rare at that.” – Georgia O’Keeffe
From the moment of her first solo exhibition at 291, the New York gallery of photographer and influential art world figure Alfred Stieglitz, O’Keeffe’s public reception was being stage managed in a way which foregrounded her status as a female artist. It was a reading of her work which the artist thought bore no relation to what she was producing; “They make me seem like some strange unearthly sort of creature floating in the air – breathing in clouds for nourishment – when the truth is that I like beef steak – and like it rare at that.”. Having met in 1916, O’Keeffe and Stieglitz formed a relationship which was both professional and to different degrees mutually developmental, and which evolved into a personal one very rapidly, with the couple ultimately marrying in 1924. In 1925 O’Keeffe and Stieglitz moved into an apartment in the 34 storey Shelton Hotel on Lexington Avenue. By this time O’Keeffe was firmly established in Stieglitz’s professional circle of what she called ‘city men’; a circle which included the photographer Paul Strand (1890 – 1976), and the painters Marsden Hartley (1877 – 1943) and John Marin (1870 – 1953). From 1925 until 1929 O’Keeffe painted a series of New York cityscapes inspired by the emerging metropolis, seen both from street level and from the windows of the couple’s apartment. These paintings are among the most solid works the artist produced in her entire career. Their slightly fractured planes, emphasised, if not created, by the steam and smoke rising from the city, speak more of the influence of male dominated European Cubism than any presumed femininity or lightness of touch.
New York Street with Moon, 1925, Oil paint on canvas 1220 x 770 mm, Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection on loan at the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid © 2016 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum/ DACS, London.
A decade earlier, O’Keeffe had been drawn to the concept of Synaesthesia. In visual art this was the idea, explored by Wassily Kandinsky, amongst others, that one sense could be stimulated by an experience in another; for example, the idea that the experience of music could be transmitted directly to the creation of something visual. It is likely that O’Keeffe held to the essence of this concept to the very last painting. It was however, a way of speaking about painting which by the 1950s had become entirely supplanted by a far more objective analytical thread being woven by critics such as Clement Greenberg. It might seem ironic that an artist such as Georgia O’Keeffe, who fought to remain above any analysis of her work based on gender, would fall foul of a backlash against principles and concepts which had been most enthusiastically asserted by the community of male artists and critics from which she had emerged. None of this however, stopped O’Keeffe from developing her body of work along her own lines.
Georgia O’Keeffe 1887-1986 – Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1 1932, Oil paint on canvas, 48 x 40 inches, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Arkansas, USA, Photography by Edward C. Robison III © 2016 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum/DACS, London.
The Wall Street Crash in 1929 marked not just the end of O’Keeffe’s interest in painting the city, but also marked a shift in her relationship with Stieglitz. Instead of travelling as usual to Lake George in upstate New York to spend time with Stieglitz and his family, she decided to travel south west to New Mexico, a place she had first seen briefly in 1917. As her work continued to sell and as her reputation solidified into one of undeniable importance within Twentieth Century American painting, O’Keeffe felt less inclined to position herself geographically in the emerging centre of the art world, New York City. She did travel widely in later life, but despite this, O’Keeffe’s association with the landscape of New Mexico, especially from the time she moved there permanently in 1949 following Stieglitz’s death in 1946, came to be the association which defines her to this day.
“As I was working I thought of the city men I had been seeing in the East. They talked so often of writing the Great American Novel…I knew that at that time almost any of those great minds would have been in Europe if it had been possible for them. They didn’t even want to live in New York – how was the Great American Thing going to happen?” – Georgia O’Keeffe
O’Keeffe spoke with no small degree of irony of her predominantly male peers’ struggle to create what she called ‘The Great American Thing’, whether it was a novel or a painting, which was once and for all free of the debt to the Europeans. With her deeper immersion into the landscape of New Mexico she herself risked stumbling unintentionally upon a very singular expression of the American landscape which might easily have been seen as an attempt to create this defining Great American work of art herself. What is far more likely is that O’Keeffe was walking away from this vain ambition as she had at an earlier stage walked away from the expectation to be a ‘woman’ painter as opposed to being simply a painter. In shifting the creative focus of her work from New York to New Mexico she was thinking of her painting and her painting alone. She wanted to push herself artistically, “…to carry the thing I do further so that people are surprised again.”.
Black Cross with Stars and Blue, 1929, Oil paint on canvas 1016 x 762 mm, Private collection © 2016 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum/ DACS, London.
The Black Place
It is possible to discuss Georgia O’Keeffe’s work in relation to the emergence of Abstract Expressionism. There are some ways in which it can be seen as a precursor to AB-EX, in particular in those paintings in which the subject has been enlarged to such an extent that it becomes less about image making and more about the materiality of paint. If we take her work on its own terms however, some elements emerge which are important to a fuller appreciation of O’Keeffe’s approach to painting . Firstly, there is the paintwork itself. O’Keeffe’s treatment of the surface of her canvases did not change to any notable degree from the New York cityscapes of the late 20s to the ‘Black Place’ paintings of the mid 40s and beyond. Her painted surfaces are shallow, with the weave of the canvas emerging in many places from under a thin veil of paint. Surprisingly opaque light tones seem to work in cooperation with the more translucent washes which here and there make up the darker regions of her canvases. The effect of this technique in her landscapes and flower paintings is one of artificiality. Indeed, many of her New Mexico landscapes were executed from memory back in the cooler climate of New York.
The second element which needs to be mentioned is the oscillating shift between two or three types of composition. Whilst she was prone to produce occasional canvases which verged on the illustrational, such as renderings of Taos Pueblo for example, it was when the focus on the subject shifted to close-up, aerial view, or full-frontal viewpoint that O’Keeffe’s painting achieved a significance which was both uniquely the artist’s own and which, as mentioned above, created a conduit from her work to Abstract Expressionism. When her floral paintings of Poppies, Irises and Amaryllis occupy the entire canvas they cease to be representations of flowers. They maximise the area that the subject can occupy in the canvas, and in turn command all of the paintwork. The marked oscillations between picture composition and close-up in her paintings demonstrates the artist observing her subject as though through a camera. This was something O’Keeffe had likely absorbed from her time with Stieglitz and her experience of photography since the moment in 1922 when she wrote of being ‘…prejudiced in favour of photography.’. This compositional extravagance informs some of her best landscape painting too. One location to which O’Keeffe returned, often pitching camp no matter what the weather, was an area called Bisti Badlands. The artist renamed this remote region of dark grey hills ‘The Black Place’. Of the series of fourteen paintings she made of this location, the most powerful are arguably the ones which resemble aerial views, in which the rolling shapes of the hills have had all perspective flattened out of them.
From the River – Pale, 1959, Oil paint on canvas 1054 x 797 mm, Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. Gift of The Burnett Foundation and Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation © 2016 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum/ DACS, London.
The third and final component in O’Keeffe’s painting which I would like to mention is her choice of subject matter. In as much as O’Keeffe could have engaged seriously with Abstract Expressionism had she wished, she had also come from a tradition of American painting which emulated late 19th century Europe in that it privileged subject matter above all. Hans Hofmann (1880 – 1966), who was only slightly older than O’Keeffe, had a difficult relationship with Abstract Expressionism proper, despite nowadays being considered a key figure in the movement. Coming from Europe to the US as an established artist and teacher, he could never quite shake the impulse to ascribe imagistic references and themes to his paintings. Whilst they were very different painters, both Hofmann and O’Keeffe may have suffered from an element of neglect by an art scene which thought of traditional themes as reactionary and unsophisticated.
Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings are rooted in specific locations like New York and New Mexico, despite her assertion that these places were simply the backdrop against which she moved. Her involvement with the ancient vistas of New Mexico was more personal in nature than it was in any way a search for an American subject, for ‘the Great American Thing’. She walked, camped in, and explored the landscape with a sense of fascination. It changed only when it was observed closely, and at all other times remained frozen in memory. As with Cezanne’s Mont St. Victoire, the landscape stays the same while the painter, ever so slowly, changes.
Ansel Adams 1902-1984. Georgia O’Keeffe in the Southwest 1937, Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper 297 x 187 mm Collection Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona: Ansel Adams Archive © The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust.
*References for the quotations included in this article can be found in the catalogue which accompanies the Georgia O’Keeffe exhibition at Tate Modern.
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