As powerful as her love affair with Alfred Stieglitz was, the passion Georgia O’Keeffe felt for the expression of her art was unrivaled. Her interpretation of the creative process was that it was “the natural result of the individual’s effort to create the living thing out of the adventure of his spirit into the unknown.” And venture into the unknown she did, time and again over the course of her life and career.
From the farmlands of Wisconsin to the other-worldly landscape of New Mexico, which Georgia famously dubbed the “faraway,” a story can be woven about one of the most famous artists of the modern world. The trouble is, this tale is fraught with betrayal, manipulation and drama. But that is common among artists. They are often tormented and torn— mostly between those around them and those within them. Husbands and wives, lovers, friends and muses all vie for attention against the artist’s spirit, usually the most commanding force in his or her life. Georgia’s situation was no different.
By the age of 11, she was determined to become an artist. She knew resolutely that art was her calling and luckily, her mother encouraged her to pursue that dream. Perhaps the belief in her from an early age, this empowerment, led her to forge such a brilliant path.
Georgia’s style is most often characterized by her flower paintings, and particularly, the female sexuality depicted in these works. There’s no doubt that the folds and soft curves of the images evoke the female form— specifically, female genitalia in many cases. But it is well known that Georgia herself vehemently denied such an association. Even if physical elements of femininity were her inspiration, she resisted having her paintings categorized so definitively. She pressed the importance of simply looking at something from a different perspective—an often uncomfortably close perspective.
This close-up and highly personal vantage point in her paintings is thought to be the influence of Paul Strand, a photographer whose searing portraits and unique perspective Georgia admired. She had met Strand while spending time at the gallery of Stieglitz, the famed photographer, art promoter, mentor to Strand, and Georgia’s future husband. Perhaps with their medium in mind, she transferred a probing lens to the world of oils on canvas to create telling “portraits” of irises, calla lilies and poppies—enlarged, stylized and tightly cropped.
The photography influence of Stieglitz, however, was the least of his contributions to her artistry and fame. It was his decision to display a series of her charcoal abstractions in his gallery in 1916 that garnered her early buzz, though the exhibit was initially without her knowledge and against her wishes. While it ultimately launched her career, the fact that he insisted on the show, even after her hesitation about it, perfectly encapsulates their relationship. It was also Stieglitz who planted the seed—and then carefully sowed and watered that seed—concerning the sexual nature of her later images. He zealously used the Freudian angle in the promotion of her work. Again, acting deliberately despite her protestations.
Stieglitz himself owed the resurgence of his own notoriety to Georgia. He photographed her obsessively between the years 1918 and 1925, in what was the most prolific, defining and groundbreaking period of his career. He was married at the time, and the inordinate number of sessions spent with Georgia, specifically capturing her in all her naked glory, is what propelled his eventual divorce (and marriage to Georgia in 1924). The subsequent photography exhibitions met with widespread critical acclaim, but only fueled the reading of Georgia’s own creations as sexual in nature.
Georgia’s body of work depicting skyscrapers, produced between the years 1925 and 1929, is thought to have been a direct response to the dogged characterization of her paintings as Freudian, and her desire to shake that label. What could be bolder or more masculine than the burgeoning New York City skyline? She turned her gaze on the monstrous buildings and gritty streetscapes around her in an attempt to distance herself and her artistry from the floral images with which she’d become so intertwined. She pursued this line of thinking against Stieglitz’s wishes and professional advice.
Again, she adopted a kind of photographer’s gaze with these skyscraper depictions. Elements of developed prints—such as flare and sunspots— emerge in this series of paintings capturing her view from the Manhattan apartment she shared with Stieglitz, as well as the perspective perceived from the ground by pedestrians gawking at the behemoths looming above them.
Over the years, the married couple spent more and more time apart. Georgia whiled away the weeks alone with further exploration of her art; Stieglitz did the same. He also took advantage of her absences to turn his attention to another young woman—40 years his junior. (Georgia herself was 23 years younger than he…causing a terrible scandal at the time their affair was made public.) This woman was Dorothy Norman, whom he met in 1927 and remained in the picture until his death in 1946.
Some say the revelation of this straying precipitated Georgia’s nervous breakdown and subsequent retreat to New Mexico. Whatever the catalyst for the trip, it was a turning point in her career and her life. Georgia had visited Santa Fe years earlier with her sister, and had been transfixed by the beauty and color of the place. So when art patron Mabel Dodge in 1929 sent an invitation to visit her artists’ compound in Taos, she eagerly accepted. There, she entered the next phase of her career and, according to some, her most profound.
The famously aloof, reclusive Georgia was deeply smitten with New Mexico. The 1929 visit marked the beginning of her travels there to Ghost Ranch and then back to New York, summer after summer, for the next two decades. She permanently moved to the northern New Mexico village of Abiquiu three years after Stieglitz’s death, in 1949. The loneliness of the desert stirred something in Georgia and spoke to her desire for peace, quiet and solitude.
It was among the red sands, the bleached bones and the smooth, plain structures that she found, and expressed, her true self—far from the steel and glass of Manhattan. She returned to her roots in nature, which perhaps emphasizes the sheer rebellion and impactful statement of her New York series of paintings. They weren’t necessarily reflective of her state of mind or soul at the time, they were merely a physical response to what she saw as a refusal to acknowledge her real state of mind and soul. In the desert, however, she could be free.
Many modernists who study traditional adobe architecture highly regard it for a tendency to appear intimately tied to the land from which it was formed…much like Georgia herself. Georgia died in 1986 at the age of 98. In accordance with her wishes, Georgia’s ashes were scattered atop a narrow mesa in her beloved faraway.