Torn between figuration and abstraction, Georgia O’Keeffe is famous for her huge but also notoriously ambiguous flowers. Today she is viewed as a founding figure of modernism in 20th-century American painting.
With Irish origins on her father’s side and Hungarian on her mother’s, Georgia O’Keeffe was born on November 15, 1887 on a farm in Wisconsin. When she was just twelve years old she had already decided to become a painter. Following this conviction, she started her training at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1905 then, after winning a scholarship, went on to the Art Students League in New York, overseen by William Merritt Chase who was known for Impressionist tendencies.
In the Big Apple, she met Alfred Stieglitz, a photographer and owner of the avant-garde Gallery 291 on Fifth Avenue, who became her partner ten years later, and then her spouse in 1924. In the meantime, O’Keeffe inclined towards academic teaching. Allergic to the smell of turpentine, she contemplated giving up painting until Arthur Wesley Dow, whose teaching was based on the principles of Japanese art, restored her taste for it at a summer school in Virginia. This encounter, along with Wassily Kandinsky’s theories on abstraction, set the foundations of her career.
Willfully solitary and a voyager by nature, O’Keeffe stayed for some time in Texas, where she gave drawing lessons. With the help of a photographer friend she met at Columbia University, she held her first exhibition at Gallery 291 in 1917, and from this time onwards, her relationship with Stieglitz began to intensify – and did so for the next fifteen years.
O'Keeffe became the photographer’s muse, and he introduced her to several modernist artists in his circle of friends: Charles Demuth, Arthur Dove, Edward Steichen. Through this contact, her works – including urban landscapes, close-ups of flowers and depictions of Lake George – became more distinctive, shifting from watercolors to oils, and moving towards abstraction. In the 1920s O’Keeffe stated, “I made up my mind to forget all that I had been taught, and to paint exactly as I felt”. Her distinct style made her increasingly popular and she featured in a string of exhibitions in New York, where she became a frontline artist and commissions soon followed.
At the start of the 1930s, she visited New Mexico on a regular basis to find new sources of inspiration. She presented the emotional states and sensations that desert landscapes awoke in her on canvas.
After going through a depression, which prevented her from finishing a mural for the Radio City Music Hall in New York, she moved permanently to the Ghost Ranch region, near the village of Abiquiu, in 1940. At that point, her work tended towards the fantastic, and two retrospectives were devoted to her in the middle of the decade, at the Art Institute of Chicago, then the MoMA in New York, where she became the first female artist to be given this 'honor'.
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Stieglitz, died in July 1946 of a heart attack, and although their relationship had become more distant, O’Keeffe spent three years looking after his estate, making an inventory of over 4,000 works and tens of thousands of letters.
She returned to her New Mexico estate in 1949 and, in spite of herself, cultivated her hermit image there, even if she was showered with honorary distinctions: she was appointed as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and was presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom as well as the National Medal of Arts.
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The 1960s, with its host of artistic movements and trends, compounded by her voluntary isolation in the desert, somewhat relegated O’Keeffe to the background of the American art scene, but her work was nevertheless presented in a new retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in Manhattan in 1970.
As of 1972, suffering from blindness, O’Keeffe could no longer paint, but continued to draw until the early 1980s. She relied on the services of a potter friend to assist her in her work and to write her autobiography.
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On March 6, 1986, O’Keeffe, 98 years old, died in Santa Fe, the capital of New Mexico where, around ten years later, a museum dedicated to her would open. Her painting Jimson Weed / White Flower No.1, which belonged to the museum’s collection, went on sale in November 2014 at Sotheby’s, New York, for a staggering $44.4 million. In 2016, the Tate Modern in London held the first major posthumous European retrospective on the American artist.
Jimson Weed / White Flower No.1 was created in 1932 and is a great example of her most enduring motifs – the innovative and unique rendering of the flower. O’Keeffe started to explore the flower motif early on. She once said it was easy to overlook the beauty in the details of a flower, so she decided to paint them in a large scale, so that even busy New Yorkers would have to stop and look at them.
O’Keeffe created highly detailed yet abstract work and didn’t particularly follow any form of movement. Her works created a breaking point between abstraction and realism, emphasizing the primary forms of nature – some detailed others stripped of parts she didn’t see as essential in the focus on shape and color.
The artist’s late work, created between 1940 and 1960, remained grounded in representation, while many of her contemporaries moved towards non-representative imagery. Her ability to capture that fine line between representation and abstraction is central to her singular language of modernism – a language that remains just as strong today.