If there is beauty in simplicity, renown American painter Georgia O’Keeffe is surely one of the most beautiful women to grace this good earth.

If there is beauty in simplicity, renown American painter Georgia O’Keeffe is surely one of the most beautiful women to grace this good earth.

Photo credit: CBS News, Red With Yellow (1960)

Most art-appreciators identify her with abstract and oversized, floral works, city skyscrapers and animal bones set against a dramatic sky of blues, yellows or black.  While all of these are certainly true hallmarks of the subjects and styles featured, they merely scratch at the larger tenets of Georgia’s creative passions and process.

To know Georgia is to understand her.  Her work pleases no one more than herself.  It sounds rather selfish when I put it this way but let’s think about that for a moment.  In the context of our modern world, how many of us are attention-seekers or depend on the approval of others? It’s tough to be an individual. Fear of judgment or worse, rebuke, are real. Practicing self-love is a relatively new concept for most of us.

Whether or not you agree with the choices that Georgia made in her life, it is impossible not to respect the truth she shared so fearlessly in her work and her life.

We see this in plainly expressed in the simple lines, shapes, and colors of her work like the Red Cannis (1924). If Georgia was ever tentative, it wasn’t for long.  She grew into her confidence with age and left behind the doubt that originally drove her into the world of commercial art after she graduated from art school.

When Georgia settled in New York in 1916, she had already started experimenting with abstract compositions and bright, bold colors with unusual perspectives.  Blue Line, pictured here, was painted in 1919.

By this time, Georgia had completed her studies at the Art Institute of Chicago (1905/06) and Columbia College (1914) in South Carolina.  The subsequent move to New York City changed her life when a friend sent her work to a photographer and gallerist named Alfred Stieglitzher.

When they met,  Stieglitzher showed her work and offered to support Georgia so she could dive deeper into her ideas.  They soon married (1924) and while Georgia depended on Stieglitz’s help, she paid a price for it.  Moving in with a man who was already married might be excused by financial need, but marrying and then posing naked for photographs made Georgia’s art the subject of much conjecture.

Abstract, White Rose (1927)

Critics suggested it was highly sexualized but this may be explained by Freud’s popular and very influential new ideas presented in his newly published book.

Regardless, Georgia dismissed the interpretation by pointing to earlier work and her innovative style. For her, it was neither feminine or lacking a powerful message that rested not in sexuality but in mother nature. Georgia said she never worried about these interpretations that were outside of her concern.

Still, the condemnation and social scrutiny must have been difficult, especially when Stieglitz had an affair with Dorothy Norman not long after his marriage to Georgia.  The culmination of these stresses landed Georgia in the hospital in 1929.  The nervous breakdown underscored Georgia’s heightened emotional commitment and fragility.

It had always existed, as illustrated in works like Georgia’s 1918 painting, The Flag.  It was Georgia’s reaction to the loss of her brother Alexius, who left Texas to serve in WWII.  He later died from the effects of poisonous gas used during combat in France.

Georgia’s American flag is without stars, and anything patriotic bleeds red into the blue background.  In a note to a friend, she wrote about the painting saying;

I should think going to war would be a great relief from this everlasting reading about it—thinking about it—hearing talk about it—whether one believed in it or not—it is a state that exists and experiencing it in reality seems preferable to the way we are all being soaked with it second hand—it is everywhere… it’s all like a bad dream.

Georgia’s ability to translate powerful messages and emotional insight into her work fueled the success of her first Brooklyn Museum show (1927) and later,  exhibits in the 1940s at the Modern Museum of Art and the Whitney Art Gallery both in New York.

In 1929,  Georgia began the first of many visits to New Mexico.  Months spent exploring the red hills and desert hills turned into longer periods of time there as the demand for her artwork grew.  When Stieglitz passed away in 1946, Georgia moved there permanently.

Last winter, I traveled to New Mexico hoping to retrace this time of Georgia’s new life.  I understood her inspirational love-affair with these expansive vistas and the simple life.  The visual scenery profoundly affected Georgia and was unlike anything she had ever experienced.  It’s difficult, even now, to put the landscape into words. Georgia’s paintings of wildflowers, rocks, and bones in the desert area of Ghost Ranch and her home at Abiquiu seemed embued with restorative energies.

Photo by Rose in 2018 at Abiquiu House in New Mexico

I toured Georgia’s home and stood where she stood, the heat from the sun beating down on the dusty, southern sand and rock.  There’s a new road now with the occasional car or truck that drives by.  It’s a reminder time marches on.  For Georgia, this meant her eyesight starting to fade in the early 1970s.

Georgia worked with the help of an assistant and wrote her autobiography.  Frail and failing in health, she left the remote area of Abiquiu and moved to Santa Fe in 1984.  She died two years later at the age of 98.  The slew of awards, the Presidential Medal of Honor and the National Medal of the Arts faded to dust like her ashes scattered across Ghost Ranch.

But the spirit of Georgia lives in her paintings, her words and the life she made for herself. They take shape in me now as I remember the power I have to shape the art of who I am.

To learn more about Georgia, read Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern. Did you say you’re looking for great summer BBQ hostess gifts?

Surprise your guests with this great book Dinner with Georgia O’Keeffe Cookbook or a fantastic floral pillow by WS photojournalist, Denise Benson: White Rose Pillow.

Rose McInerney

Author Rose McInerney

Rose combines her love of all things artfully-designed to connect women to a shared community of learning and a richer, more fulfilled self. As a passionate storyteller, published writer, and international traveler, Rose believes women can build a better world through powerful storytelling.

More posts by Rose McInerney

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