By Renée M. Zepeda
For D. Preziosi’s Reading Art
As a young painter, Georgia O’Keeffe preferred to visit galleries of living artists rather than museums that contained whatever America seemed to be finished with. This is revelatory of a painter who valued the vitality that she found in the phenomenal world.
It is fascinating to think about O’Keeffe’s legacy (particularly her house in Abiquiu) in relation to the work of nostalgia on landmarks. It is also illuminating to inquire as to how her secrecy added to the enrichment of her legacy. O'Keeffe preferred to distance herself from critics, biographers, art historians, or others who probed. She resolved to withstand critics like Clement Greenberg (who stated in a 1946 review), ". . . the greatest part of her work adds up to little more than tinted photography. The lapidarian patience she has expended in trimming, breathing upon, and polishing these bits of cellophane betrays a concern that has less to do with art than with private worship.”
Private worship or not, Georgia O’Keeffe created an oeuvre that in turn left a legacy that continues to enrich the American nation. The intention of this paper is to explore the secrecy behind Georgia O’Keeffe in order to understand the artist.
Georgia O’Keeffe was influenced by the teachings and writing of Alon Bement and Arthur Dow. She observed that the highest goal of art was to fill space in a beautiful way. “My feeling was that it was her habit to constantly arrange things, to adjust them to the right balance. In her studio there was a row of tiny pebbles with a glass object. She spent a great deal of time lining up those pebbles,” said filmmaker Victor Lobl in The Art and Life of Georgia O’Keeffe. She alternated and blended abstraction and representation in her art, to arrive at a synthesis, calling it "that memory or dream thing I do that for me comes nearer reality than my objective kind of work" (letter to Dorothy Brett, 15 February 1932).
O’Keeffe was attuned to the sounds of the natural world. In her letters she describes the wild, blowing wind, the deep stillness, the animal sounds, the rustling of trees. These formed a kind of natural music, made up of the life and rhythms of the earth. She made art that alludes to sounds. She accomplished this through the form and dynamics of her composition and the pitch of her colors. But why did she choose the landscape of New Mexico? Part of her answer may come from a letter she wrote to Henry McBride from Taos in 1929:
You know I never feel at home in the East like I do out here--and finally
feeling in the right place again--I feel like myself--and I like it-- . . . Out the
very large window to rich green alfalfa fields--then the sage brush and
beyond--a most perfect mountain--it makes me feel like flying--and I don't
care what becomes of art.
I suspect that O'Keeffe knew instinctively what Donald Preziosi writes in his essay “Art History and Museology: Rendering the Visible Legible:”
Museology and art history came to maturity in the age of the European Enlightenment, whose central tenets were that transformation of character could be effected by transformations in the material environment. The idea that character and spirit would be molded by molding space and material circumstance is at the core of the modern idea of the museum, and indeed of art as such (Preziosi 7).
O'Keeffe's art experienced freedom largely in response to the open spaces of the Southwest. This was a time when the roads of New Mexico were treacherous, and electricity, telephones, or other utility services were years away. She would test her physical and psychological independence by living beyond the fringe of civilization. This almost biblical exile was her fundamental path to sustained revelation (Cowart).
In the Southwest O'Keeffe pursued the fantastic effects of nature, the forces of the elements, and the geological history evident in canyons and stratified hills. She could travel for miles without human contact or traces of development. She could also experience the contradictory overlapping of the rituals of the Native Americans and those of the colonial Spanish.
Of interest, and rarely mentioned, and never closely examined, is Wassily Kandinsky’s influence on O'Keeffe. The book Concerning the Spiritual in Art, is one that O’Keeffe supposedly read during the summer of 1915 (Peters). Kandinsky’s most important theoretical writing, Concerning the Spiritual in Art was ready for the opening of the exhibition of the “Blaue Reiter”. The Arnold Schoenberg Center in Vienna provides a summary of the book (http://www.schoenberg.at/). In the Introduction, “inner necessity,” is presented. In the first chapter, Bewegung (Movement), Kandinsky draws a triangular picture of spiritual life: a triangle with a single figure standing at its point.
In the following chapter, Geistige Wendung (Spiritual Change), Kandinsky speaks of art itself, mentioning the Theosophical Society as a great spiritual movement. His appeal to literature leads him to Maurice Maeterlinck and Kubin, and he sees Claude Debussy and Arnold Schönberg leading toward a new kingdom of spiritual experiences in music. In painting he emphasizes Picasso and Matisse.
In the main part of CTSIA, in the chapter Malerei (Painting), Kandinsky investigates the effect of colors (as “vibrations of the soul”). According to Kandinsky colors are basically arranged warm-cold / light-dark. Each color is assigned a spiritually expressive quality, which he illustrates with musical examples. He takes the idea of “monumental art” and designs a new form, the “stage composition,” whereby dance joins color and music as a third element. In her great book on O’Keeffe, Sarah Whitaker Peters asks, “Was Kandinsky the prime catalyst for the musical elements in O’Keeffe’s art?” (Becoming O’Keeffe 102)
O'Keeffe's willingness to borrow from photography may have been encouraged by Kandinsky’s belief that “the various arts of today learn from each other and often resemble each other. They are finding Music the best teacher.” She knew exactly how “to borrow from the angry swan the rhythmic line and not the swan” (Peters 102).
In October of 2004, I was fortunate enough to visit O’Keeffe’s house and the Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu, New Mexico. Though I was disappointed not to tour the inside of the house (I saw only the high and thick adobe wall surrounding it), I was thrilled to see the landscape she inhabited and painted. I wonder about the tight grasp that the proprietors of the O’Keeffe properties maintain, and whether this has anything to do with America’s pride in its history and landmarks, as well as the advantages of secrecy. After the plethora of galleries in Santa Fe, I found myself in Abiquiu, where I jotted notes in my journal:
Creosote, lavender, Echinacea
Mt. Pedernal in distance
Gorgeous trees changed yellow
Amazing rock formations
Prairies & mountains
O’Keeffe once wrote that it was her intention to resist the intellect almost entirely in her paintings. Heidegger suggests, “In order to discover the nature of the art that really prevails in the work, let us go to the actual work and ask the work what and how it is” (The Origin of the Work of Art). And what of the creation of her legend? Jed Perl provides insight in a 2004 New York Times book review:
Somewhere deep down, she may have understood that the size of her legend had little to do with the quality of her painting, and that in the end what she achieved was something true (“Full Bloom: A Major Minor Artist”).
The fact that O'Keeffe became one of America’s top-earning artists in her own lifetime could not have hindered her image. With these thoughts in mind, I’ve chosen to include collages of her paintings with poems selected from O’Keeffe: Days in a Life and The Burial of the Count of Orgaz and Other Poems: new translations of Picasso’s poetry. The combination of two artistic masters from the 20th century creates a juxtaposition that, hopefully, amuses and delights.
South porch of Ghost Ranch house
Allen Ginsberg sits with O’Keeffe
Shows her how he meditates,
Crossed legs, straightened back, closed eyes—
Breathe slowly, other instructions
But she doesn’t mimic him.
He asked, “What do you believe?”
She outstretched her arm
Palm up in a semi-circle
In front of her toward Pedernal,
“It’s hard to say.”
Fragrant sage, clouds, blue sky
Rocks she had gathered
Beauty around her everywhere.
Later driving Allen & Peter to Santa Fe.
Allen said he was surprised
How little money she had.
I explained simple surroundings did not
Show her wealth. No need.
Cowart, Jack and Juan Hamilton. Georgia O’Keeffe: Art and Letters. New York: New York Graphic Society, 1990.
Castro, Jan. The Art and Life of Georgia O’Keeffe. Crown Publishing Group, 1995.
Harden’s Artchive. “Georgia O’Keeffe.” www.artchive.com
Kandinsky, Wassily. Concerning the Spiritual in Art. New York: Dover Publications, 1977.
Merrill, C.S. O’Keeffe: Days in a Life. New Mexico: La Alameda Press, 1997.
O'Keeffe, Georgia. Music—Pink and Blue II, 1919. http://www.whitney.org/
--------------- Narcissa’s Last Orchid, 1941. www.princetonartmuseum.org
--------------- A Sunflower from Maggie, 1937. http://www.mfa.org/
--------------- Oriental Poppies, 1928.http://hudson.acad.umn.edu/OKeeffe.html
--------------- Lawrence Tree, 1929.
Perl, Jed. “Full Bloom: A Major Minor Artist.” The New York Times,
September 26, 2004.
Peters, Sarah Whitaker. Becoming O’Keeffe. New York: Abbeville Press, 1991.
Picasso, Pablo. Edited by Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris. Afterword by Michel Leiris. Translations by Anne Waldman, Anselm Hollo, Cole Swenson, Paul Blackburn, etc. The Burial of the Count of Orgaz and Other Poems. Exact Change, 2004.
Preziosi, Donald. “Art History and Museology: Rendering the Visible Legible.” Oxford University, 2004.
Schoenberg Center. “Concerning the Spiritual in Art.” www.schoenberg.at
Stieglitz, Alfred. Georgia O’Keeffe: A Portrait, 1920.http://www.okeeffemuseum.org/