NEW YORK – Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986), known as the “Mother of American Modernism,” maintained creative independence through seven decades of shifting artistic trends. Following studies at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Art Students League of New York and Columbia University’s Teachers College, she taught in South Carolina, Texas and Virginia schools. Concurrently, she also created a series of daring charcoal abstractions.
When presented to Alfred Stieglitz, a trendsetting photographer and New York City gallery owner, he featured a selection in group art shows. Soon after, he organized O’Keeffe’s first solo exhibition. After relocating to New York, O’Keeffe moved in with Stieglitz, becoming his model and muse. Numerous solo events, showcasing her oils, watercolors, drawings and pastels, followed.
The couple married in 1924. Throughout their relationship, Stieglitz not only promoted her work, but also photographed her incessantly, producing over 500 intimate, sensuously explicit images. They created a sensation.
In the meantime, O’Keeffe depicted New York City architecture and, inspired by summer trips to Lake George, New York, created ground-breaking, magnified images of flowers in bloom. “Nobody sees a flower, really, it is so small,” she explained in a Life magazine interview (1968), “… So I said to myself – I’ll paint what I see – what the flower is to me but I’ll paint it big and … I will make even busy New Yorkers take time to see what I see of flowers.”
They did indeed. Scores found pieces like Light Iris (1924), Flower of Life II (1925) and Oriental Poppies (1928) irresistible. Whether considered natural depictions, swirling abstractions or evocations of female anatomy (which O’Keeffe denied), they consistently commanded enviable prices. In 1928, for example, a set of six calla lily paintings fetched $25,000.
Though Stieglitz and O’Keeffe inspired one other, the latter often sought solitude and distance, which fostered artistic independence. Traveling through eastern Canada, “a grand place to paint,” she depicted narrow white crosses, sea scenes and green mountains. She also painted a series of austere, strangely appealing barn paintings, like White Canadian Barn II (1932).
O’Keeffe’s trips to New Mexico, however, irrevocably changed her life. From 1929 on, she annually left New York, the heart of the American art world, for the vast skies and vistas of the high New Mexican desert. Inspired by its intense sunlight, varicolored views and timeless beauty, she sometimes stayed for months on end.
After Stieglitz’ death in 1946, O’Keeffe moved into a simple adobe house at Ghost Ranch, near Abiquiu, New Mexico. She remained there for the rest of her life.
Freed from traditional artistic restraints, O’Keeffe often depicted isolated images using a free sense of scale. Large objects appear small, small ones appear large. Emptiness also forms part of her palette.
Unlike her more conventional Canadian crosses, O’Keeffe’s massive New Mexican models tower over ragged ridges and raging red skies. Her stark, sun-bleached cow and curly-horn ram skulls reflect her harsh environment as well. “To me,” she explained, “they are as beautiful as anything I know. … The bones seem to cut sharply to the center of something that is keenly alive on the desert even though it is vast and empty and untouchable—and knows no kindness with all its beauty.”
Yet O’Keeffe softens select works, like Cow’s Skull with Calico Rose (1931) and Ram’s Head, Blue Morning Glory (1938), with solitary, whimsical blooms – as unlikely as a world-renown artist thriving in a New Mexico desert.
Georgia O’Keeffe’s works, which bridge the boundary between accuracy and abstraction, were highly unconventional for her time and gender. Yet they retain authentic, universal appeal. In 2014, her exquisite Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1 (1932) realized $44.4 million at auction, shattering previous records for a female artist.