Sunday, 8 January 2012


“I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn't say any other way - things I had no words for.” - Georgia O'Keeffe
 For Art Sunday today a great American artist of the 20th-century, Georgia O’Keeffe. Georgia O’Keeffe was born in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin in 1887. The second of seven children, O’Keeffe longed to be an artist from an early age. In 1905 she attended the Art Institute of Chicago and a year later went to study art in New York. Though her student work was well received she found it unfulfilling, and for a short time abandoned the fine arts. She worked briefly as a commercial artist in Chicago before moving to Texas to teach. During the summer of 1915, O’Keeffe took classes at the Teachers College of Columbia University in South Carolina, and there began her re-entry into the world of painting.

In South Carolina O’Keeffe met Arthur Dow, a specialist in Oriental Art. Dow’s interest in non-European art helped O’Keeffe move away from the forms she had found so stifling in her previous studies. Soon after O’Keeffe’s return to Texas, she made a handful of charcoal drawings, which she sent to Anna Pollitzer, a friend in New York. Pollitzer showed them to Alfred Stieglitz, a photographer and gallery owner. He was enthused with the vibrant energy of the work, and asked to show them. So, without her knowledge, Georgia O’Keeffe had her first exhibition in 1916 at Steiglitz’s “291 Gallery”.

Within two years, Steiglitz had convinced O’Keeffe to move to New York and devote all of her time to painting. His regular presentations of her work had begun to cause a buzz, and create for her a small following. Six years later the two were married, beginning one of the most fruitful and well-known collaborations of the modernist era. For the next twenty years the two would live and work together, Steiglitz creating an incredible body of photographic portraits of O’Keeffe, while O’Keeffe showed new drawings and paintings nearly every year at the gallery. Living in Lake George, New York, and in New York City, O’Keeffe painted some of her most famous work. During the 1920s, her large canvasses of lush overpowering flowers filled the still lives with dynamic energy and erotic tension, while her cityscapes were testaments to subtle beauty within the most industrial circumstances.

In 1929 O’Keeffe took a vacation with her friend Beck Strand to Taos, New Mexico. The trip would forever alter the course of her life. In love with the open skies and sun-drenched landscape, O’Keeffe returned every summer to travel and to paint. When Steiglitz in 1946 died, O’Keeffe took up permanent residence in New Mexico. More than almost any of her other works, these early New Mexico landscapes and still lifes have come to represent her unique gifts. The rich texture of the clouds and sky were similar to her earlier, more sensuous representations of flowers. But beneath these clouds one found the bleached bones of animals long gone.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, O’Keeffe’s renown continued to grow. She travelled around the world and had a number of major retrospective exhibitions in the U.S. The most important came in 1970 at the Whitney Museum of American Art, establishing her as one of the most important and influential American painters. The next year O’Keeffe’s vision deteriorated dramatically, and she withdrew from artistic life. It was not until 1973, after meeting Juan Hamilton, a young ceramic artist, that she returned to working. With his encouragement and assistance, she resumed painting and sculpting. In 1976 her illustrated autobiography, was a best seller, and the next year she received the Medal of Freedom from President Gerald Ford.

In 1985 she received the Medal of the Arts from President Ronald Reagan. In March of the next year, at the age of 98, O’Keeffe passed away at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Georgia O’Keeffe’s work remains a prominent part of major national and international museums. For many, her paintings represent the beginnings of a new American art divorced from the blasé “-isms” of the late 20th century.

The painting above is her “Jimson Weed” of 1936. The large scale of the work exemplifies O’Keeffe’s philosophy: “I decided that if I could paint that flower in a huge scale, you could not ignore its beauty.”

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