Wednesday, August 10, 2005


By Renée M. Zepeda

For D. Preziosi’s Reading Art
Naropa University
Fall 2004

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 ( 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:

Ghost Ranch
Creosote, lavender, Echinacea
Mt. Pedernal in distance
Chama River
Gorgeous trees changed yellow
Red earth
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.
—C.S. Merrill

Works Cited

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.”

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.
--------------- Narcissa’s Last Orchid, 1941.
--------------- A Sunflower from Maggie, 1937.
--------------- Oriental Poppies, 1928.
--------------- 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.”

Stieglitz, Alfred. Georgia O’Keeffe: A Portrait, 1920.

Friday, April 08, 2005

From H.D.'s NOTES ON THOUGHT AND VISION (City Lights, 1982)

Normal consciousness, pricks of everyday
discomfort, jealousy and despair and various
forms of unhappiness that are the invariable
accompaniment of any true, deep relationship,
all this may be symbolized by a thistle.

There are two ways of escaping the pain
and despair of life, and of the rarest, most
subtle dangerous and ensnaring gift that life
can bring us, relationship with another person--

One way is to kill that love in one's heart.
To kill love--to kill life.

The other way is to accept that love, to accept
the snare, to accept the pricks, the thistle.

To accept life--but that is dangerous.

It is also dangerous not to accept life.

To every man and woman in the world it is given
at some time or another, in some form or another,
to make the choice.

Every man and woman is free to accept or deny
life--to accept or reject this questionable gift--
this thistle.


And in memory of Robert Creeley
who died on March 30, 2005--

Water Music

The words are a beautiful music.
The words bounce like in water.

Water music,
loud in the clearing

off the boats,
birds, leaves.

They look for a place
to sit and eat--

no meaning,
no point.


As I was walking
I came upon
chance walking
the same road upon.

As I sat down
by chance to move
if and as I might,

light the wood was,
light and green,
and what I saw
before I had not seen.

It was a lady
by goat men
leading her.

Her hair held earth.
Her eyes were dark.
A double flute
made her move.

"O love,
where are you
me now?"

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Naropa University
7 February 2005


During the Summer Writing Program of 2001, I had the Great opportunity to study with Joanne Kyger. Her workshop—INVESTIGATIVE POETICS—introduced such fellow writers as Ed Sanders, Jack Spicer, Ed Dorn and Alice Notley. We read from Ed Sanders’ 1968: A History in Verse, The House That Jack Built: The Collected Lectures of Jack Spicer, Ed Dorn’s epic poem “Gunslinger,” and Alice Notley’s Mysteries of Small Houses. Joanne repeated Spicer’s notion that poetry is a form of magic, most potent when spoken aloud. Joanne also told us about Spicer’s Poetry As Magic workshop that included Robert Duncan. She would probably approve of this statement made by Spicer in 1949 :

Live poetry is a kind of singing.
It differs from prose, as song does,
in its complexity of stress and intonation.
Poetry demands a human voice to sing it
and demands an audience to hear it.
Without these it is naked, pure,
and incompletely - a bore.*

Joanne Kyger was born in 1934 & attended Santa Barbara College. One day in January 1957 she drove up to San Francisco with [her] Siamese cat. She arrived at the height of the Howl obscenity trial, and a friend introduced her to The Place, the bar that was headquarters for Jack Spicer and other poets of the San Francisco Renaissance. She attended the Sunday Meetings lead by Spicer and Robert Duncan and gave her first reading at the Bread and Wine Mission in 1959 before moving to Japan with Gary Snyder. Joanne and Gary married in Japan, living there & also travelling to India (with Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlofsky), events that are chronicled in Kyger's Japan and India Journals 1960-64. Kyger returned to San Francisco and published her first book The Tapestry and The Web. She moved to Bolinas in 1968 where she continues to reside, writing poetry, editing the local newspaper, and teaching (here) at Naropa University.[2]

Joanne Kyger’s writings include:

Some Sketches from the Life of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky
All This Everyday
Mexico Blonde
The Japan and India Journals
As Ever
Just Space: Poems 1979-1989
Again: Poems 1989-2000

In my copy of The Japan and India Journals, which Joanne signed, she also inscribed this message: “Write in your journal…




Bhanu Kapil, one of my teachers at Naropa, has allowed me to post
a poem that she wrote with Jack Collom, another teacher at Naropa.



Hand-whipped water buffalo cream
Right down the gullet

A grizzle of whiskey in a cup
Filters through my mustache, heart, toes

I'm strong enough, perhaps, to massage the sky
But only in another country

Describe the coffee, there in the architecture
The coffee outlines the hand-cut tiles, with sensuous precision

Are we in the middle of an orange?
Espresso and tangerines for breakfast on a balcony

Are we near the sea? Is this Kolkata?
Or is this a synapse in the great dirt molecule?

Look, there's something flying overhead--
It's a real live animal - oh my god

Where I lived there were dark green hills
Shuddering in the whirl of the seasons

The animal lands. We speak. It says,
"Can I provide you with a dairy beverage for your tea?"

We clink our cups with our spoons
We smile. Each tooth is intricately carved

Meanwhile Evolution leans this way and that:
Means it's time for the waterbuffaloes to squirt their cream directly
into our coffee


Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Renee M. Zepeda
WRI 723: East Meets West
January 16, 2005

10 Terms Related to Post-Colonial Conditions

New—What is striking about the ‘new’ internationalism is that the move from the specific to the general, from material to metaphoric, is not a smooth passage of transition and transcendence (Locations of Culture, 5). Certain things make me new again: fasting, rosemary baths, beeswax candles, art, oceans, pools, saunas, water, sleep. New is untainted, unadulterated, Museum-quality.

Displacement—shuffling of political elements in order to create a sense of unhomeness. As there is strength in numbers, the system continually tries to pull individuals apart.

Citizenship—As Anne Waldman said In the Room of Never Grieve, “I am an American. I vote. I pay the tax.” Jhumpa Lahiri (Interpreter of Maladies):

“Mr. Sen says that once I receive my license, everything will improve. What do you think, Eliot? Will things improve?
“You could go places,” Eliot suggested. “You could go anywhere.”
“Could I drive all the way to Calcutta? How long would that take, Eliot? Ten thousand miles, at fifty miles per hour?”

Time—Simone Weil (Gravity and Grace):

You could not be born at a better period than the present,
when we have lost everything.

“I don’t know why we have lost everything,” I said to Anne Carson. “It may be an existentialist comment,” she said. “Or Simone Weil means that there is nothing but the present.”

Time, as it flows, wears down and destroys that which is temporal. [The way water wears away the roughness of porous stone, making it smooth, polished.] Accordingly, there is more of eternity in the past than in the present. The value of history properly understood is analogous to that of remembrance in Proust. (Gravity and Grace, 229)

Reminiscent of Rilke, who said that one can always write about childhood.
And what did Walter Benjamin say? Bhabha (Locations of Culture, 4): Unlike the hand of history that tells the beads of sequential time like a rosary, seeking to establish serial, causal connections, we are now confronted with what Walter Benjamin describes as the blasting of a monadic moment from the homogenous course of history, ‘establishing the conception of the present as the “time of the now”’… A surge in the music of Beethoven as I pick up Luce Irigary’s The Way of Love.

Boundaries—“There are boundaries and we cross them always at some peril.”—Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Boundaries I have crossed on a macro-scale: travel to Munich, Berlin, Stuttgart, Strasbourg, Paris, the Dordogne Region, Barcelona, Prague, Rome, Milan, Heathrow Airport, Amsterdam, Stratford, Cozumel, California. Boundaries I have crossed on a micro-scale: human relationships, homes, gardens, bedrooms, offices, churches, synagogues, temples.

Weil: In order that a conception of the human condition should remain constant despite the manifold experiences and vicissitudes of fortune—there must by an inspiration from on high. Thus...

A postcard from the Detroit Institute of Art of Fra Angelico’s Angel
Silk screens of Green Tara
Depiction of a Unicorn from the Cloisters Museum
Giotto’s frescos
Cave paintings in Lascaux
La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona
Macchu Picchu

Gender--I recently had dinner with Jonathan who told me it would be better if I were taller and smiled less. A condition of being the ever-critiqued young woman, or just a woman, I wonder.

Personhood—-Michael Ondaatje (Anil’s Ghost):

We are full of anarchy. In Sri Lanka one is surrounded by family order, most
people know every meeting you have…there is nothing anonymous. But if I meet
a Sri Lankan elsewhere in the world and we have a free afternoon, it doesn’t
necessarily happen, but each of us knows all hell could break loose. What is
that quality in us? That makes us cause our own rain and smoke?

Debt—The modern form of slavery.

Love—“What do you think marriage is about?” My father asked me two summers ago. “Love,” I answered. “Marriage isn’t about love. It’s about property,” he said.
Weil: We should have with each person the relationship of one conception of the universe to another conception of the universe, and not to a part of the universe.

Memory—Lyn Hejinian’s Writing as an aid to memory. Memories of Hawaii. Pineapple fields. White beaches and saltsultry Pacific. Memories of family. Childhood. Cristina Moisa, the Romanian-American philosopher, recently asked me if there are gardens in Colorado. She imagined beautiful, fragile-skinned pale moon-flowers growing on the high desert plateaus, coldly, at night, beneath the moon. I told her where I live there is no garden, but there are, seemingly, many Kindergartens around, where grow not moon-flowers, but children. Maybe I live in such a place now, growing myself, repairing myself, allowing myself to be clipped or weeded around, as if I were a Champion rosebush that relocated in order to find better growing conditions. My roses seem to love the sun and powerful mountains, plenty of water, and chocolate.