When asked once what the inspiration for her deeply moving abstract canvases was, Georgia O'Keeffe [1887-1986] replied (this is not a precise quote, but close enough): "The only thing I can say is that I paint things that I don't know about. If you know about something, it's of no interest, artistically speaking. If you don't know about something, it's a mystery, and you can make art out of that."
This principle, which amounts almost to a kind of simple poetics, is one I took to heart when I first heard it. The mysterious, in art--that which intrigues us beyond our initial comprehension--is the basis for much of what we appreciate and crave. We are drawn into it, it sustains our attention, and feeds something, perhaps blind curiosity, in us that nourishes our expectation, luring us forward into the continual seduction of experience.
Much has been written about O'Keeffe's work, and there are many books of images of her work. It's almost become a commonplace of 20th Century American art, and of art by women. Her biography is also well-known. Her affair with Stieglitz (and the daring portraits by him), her early influences, her self-exile in New Mexico, the long life of dedication to her work, the monkish purity of her compound, the struggle over the rights to her precious work.
Her paintings and drawings present a clear record of the progression of a journey, from uncertainty and inquiry, through struggle and triumph, towards a condition of almost religious calm and a perfect stasis--a settled relationship between an artist and her milieu (environment) which enabled her to speak through a strict set of ikonic images and symbols through which she was able to express a specific range of emotional and intellectual statements.
Much has been written about O'Keeffe's originality--her early influences which included Gauguin, Stella, Hartley, and especially Dove, for instance--but there is no question that her mature work sets her apart from all others, creating a legacy that is unmatched in American painting. Taking abstraction as far as it could be taken, without completely abandoning representation, she triumphed over it, while others in the post-war generations saw their careers diluted and distracted by the descent into mindless blurring, stippling, splattering and shapelessness.
Though her work is well-known, previously suppressed or unknown images keep coming to light. With each new monograph, it seems, a few new images are added to the public oeuvre, incrementally adding to and slightly altering and refining our sense of what she was capable of, and of how her sense of the possibilities of certain techniques and approaches to subject matter grew over time.
This week, looking over a recent new monograph on her work, Georgia O'Keeffe Museum Collections, with text by Barbara Buhler Lynes [New York: Abrams, in association with Georgeia O'Keeffe Museum], commemorating the tenth year of the Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico, I was struck by the inclusion of a number of "new" canvases (new to me, in any case), from both the earliest years of her work, and among the very late years. Their powerful, simple, visionary quality, which which comprise a kind of set of keys to many of the larger, more ambitious works (ambitious in scale, as well as elaboration). The book is divided into sections by theme, for instance Abstraction, Sculpture, Architecture, Animal and Human Forms, etc. There is, in addition, a number of photographs of O'Keeffe, including many from the Stieglitz documentation.
A number of fairly obvious conclusions can be drawn from even a casual perusal of these images. O'Keeffe was exploring primitive composition in an attempt to build an overall structural control, to set up tensions and interlocking/interpenetrating masses which could express the emotional and psychological conundrums and dilemmas she felt as an independent woman striving to define her art, in a world dominated by men. Much of the imagery is frankly sexual--both female and male--and the centrifugal power of these images puts them among the most persuasive of her works.
Many of the most ambitious of the larger canvases--especially the flower studies, and some of the later abstract New Mexico landscapes--derive their force and command from the preliminary studies she did, in preparation for, leading up to, fuller, richer canvases. She will take a thematic element--say, a winding ribbon of road through a dry, flat landscape--and elaborate its visual potential through a series of different versions. In this way, it's used to express different moods and aspects of the same scene, seen in each instance, either as a defining shape of its own, or as a divisive lineation between competing masses.
Many of these primitivistic studies carry this "mysterious" or sly seductive revelation--that aspect of not knowing about which O'Keeffe set such store by--balls or sharp dagger-points emerge from behind cloak-like panels or capes of color, suggesting sexual intrigue or titillating dalliance. Others are frankly anatomical, thrusting up before the viewer with a forthright declaration.
The myth of the sexual O'Keeffe, the subject of Stieglitz's amorous, obsessive photographic portraits, has lent credence to the impression of O'Keeffe as a liberated personality, at ease with her own body, her own sexuality, and with a satiation of physically pleasured solitudes or meditative acceptance--the solitary woman wandering among stark landscapes, sufficient unto herself, engaged with the elemental forces of land, light, heat, death, and mysterious, intriguing shapes and phenomena: Bones, storms, dramatic sunsets, empty courtyards, trees, clouds, shadows, etc.
Her canvases are the dramatic evidence of this engagement, of the record of her journey, away from a conjugal relationship with Stieglitz, toward a metaphysical realization of an ultimate, transcendent illumination, beyond love, beyond motherhood, beyond even the sustenance of bodily comfort and securities. The vision she imagined as a young art instructor in Texas near the beginning of her career, began to be realized two decades later, after she had left New York to live in New Mexico, at first seasonally, then permanently (from 1949), when she devoted the remainder of her life to exploring and portraying the area around her home north of Santa Fe.
As the dates of these crude studies show, she used drawings or simple watercolors throughout her career, to define a figure or relationship of shapes, at a primitive level, in a process of leading up to the performance of a fully worked-out canvas. These simple studies are the most revealing evidence of the process of her thought and meditation about form--they are the germination of her ideas and speculations. They are like notes towards to the essays which the paintings are.
The level of finish or completion which the late works show, is partly attributable to the breakdown of O'Keeffe's aging physical and perceptual powers, yet their quality is roughly synonymous with the simplicity and incomplete sketchiness or attractive crudity of many of the studies.
The power which is most apparent in her landscapes, flower studies and abstractions results from the intrusion of insistent vital forces, or elemental aspects of nature. The vaunting stems and petals and stamens, the harsh imposition of sun on forsaken dry earth, bone, wood, the insistent concentration upon extruded, spun, fractured, molten, scarred surfaces, and the monochromatic vacancies of raw energetic light--attest to a close study of the dream-like engagement with nature, at both the microscopic and macroscopic levels. And often it is both simultaneously.
The same formal designs we see at the minute level, are revealed at large scale. The interpenetration of the great and small, the ephemeral and eternal, the modest with the heroic, gives her work a quality that is concurrently domestic, private while at the same time being impersonal and intellectually honed. She is a woman who moved beyond her own powerful sexuality to achieve a vision that is transcendent and fully realized. Things are more than they are, but never so much as when we see them, first, for what they are in their essence. Seeing at this level is an achievement beyond ordinary means, but it is attained through a discipline that combines openness to experience with a determination to master it. Will power and service. Training and relaxation. Tension and calm.
"If we both listen, something may happen." --Brett Weston
Images in order from above:
1 O'Keeffe in her studio.
2 O'Keeffe with Stieglitz.
3 O'Keeffe with a canvas outdoors at Abiquiu.
4 Watercolor painting Black Lines, 1916.
5 Painting Anything, 1916.
6 Drawing Black Diagonal, 1919.
7 Drawing No. 17--Special, 1919.
8 Painting Series No.1--From the Plains, 1919.
9 Painting Blue Line, 1919.
10 Pastel Abstraction Seaweed and Water--Maine, 1920.
11 Painting A Piece of Wood I, 1042.
12 Painting Blue II, 1958.
13 Watercolor painting Untitled (Abstraction Green Line and Red Circle), 1979.
14 Watercolor painting Untitled (Abstraction Red Wave with Circle), 1979.
15 Painting In the Patio VIII, 1950.
16 Painting Untitled (Skunk Cabbage), 1927.