Not easy to write about an artist’s work without referring to his/her personality and his/her lifestyle. And impossible to avoid this concerning Georgia O’Keeffe‘s history.
Painting entered into Georgia O’Keeffe’s life as a pre-teenager. She grew-up surrounded by nature from the Wisconsin, infinite landscapes and an environment that will undoubtedly nourish her thirst for independence and freedom. But also for colors.
Still an iconic artist today, Georgia O’Keeffe studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, she explores impressionism and after a first prize, decides to settle in Texas and to become a teacher in an Elementary school in Amarillo. Her career could stagnate there, as it was the case for women artists of her generation. But life had endowed this young artist with an ambition and a taste for risk. New York was her dream and arty newspapers, specialized in Modern Art, pushed her an to has her heart set on Alfred Stieglitz’s gallery. The 291 Gallery is perfectly located on the 5th Avenue in Manhattan. Unable to leave definitively her post as a teacher overnight, without guarantee, it is one of her friends who is commissioned to present her drawings to Alfred Stieglitz, himself, a real superstar considered already as an expert in Modern Art. We are in 1917, women artists have their place in schools and not on the front of the artistic scene. The gallery presents already works by Paul Cézanne or Pablo Picasso. The bet is risky.
But the magic happens right away. The gallery owner falls under the spell of Georgia O’Keeffe’s work, he discovers a new interpretation of the world and above all a vision of innovative and offbeat beauty. The meeting between Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keeffe will turn a few years later into a real love at first sight. She’s only 23, he’s married and double her age but whatever, he wants her by his side and will marry her six years later..
Georgia O’ Keeffe quickly became the muse of the photographer with whom she fell in love, but also the flagship artist of the gallery. She poses naked and without restraint in front of her husband’s camera on several occasions. Even considered as a true feminist icon, member of the Women’s National Party, she will never let go of the reins of her career and the very essence of her personality. The same one who feeds her paintings and whose exhibitions are a hit in New York. Georgia O’Keeffe is also beginning to shine throughout the United States. Caution ! Georgia O’Keeffe repeatedly refuses this feminist status and systematically rejects any labels that society wishes to attribute to her. She devotes herself only to North America, turning her back on appeals made from Europe. She is not interested.
The artist’s work is full of colors, the shapes navigate between abstract generosity and breathtaking precision, close to photography. Nature is everywhere. Through the flowers that have made her so famous for the erotic interpretation, that has been given by many art critics, and for this immersive and feminine vision of these botanical beauties. But also when she takes refuge, far from the hustle and bustle of Manhattan, in the depths of the New Mexico desert. She finds in this desert landscape an another nature, a drought and a form of sobriety and restraint. Between these two eras, Georgia O’Keeffe turns to a realistic and radical painting of New York urbanism with the desire to destroy her too feminine and too erotic image, that she has never wished to trigger. The artist is unwavering and will ensure, during her career, to never be locked into a particular style. But to simply follow her desires and her feelings.
Throughout her life, the Ghost Ranch, her home in New Mexico stayed a true heaven of peace for the artist. A hostile landscape that Georgia O’Keeffe knows how to tame and decrypt in her own way. As she succeeded in conquering Texas and the Wild West lifestyle at the start of her career. A frank and raw painting in the image of his personality.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Georgia O’Keeffe’s mind seems to calm down, she takes a step back. The lines become refined, her paintings are simplified. A river becomes a simple line, on the oil canvas, in the middle of a play of shadow and light so characteristic of the work of this modernist artist.
Until the end of her life, in 1986, Georgia O’Keeffe continued to paint. Her eyesight weakening, she will turn to charcoal and take an assistant. She dies, at 98 years old, in her home in Abiquiu, New Mexico. She had become and will remain THE pioneer of Modern Art in the United States.
The Georgia O’Keeffe exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris is on view until the December 6th, 2021.
Sonya for The Other Sight.