Yale University Press/ Metropolitan Museum of Art, 350 pp., $65.00
By the end of her long life, Georgia Totto O’Keeffe, who died in 1986 at the age of ninety-eight, had become one of the most recognized of all American artists, eclipsing even such crowd-pleasing favorites as Norman Rockwell and Andrew Wyeth. During her final years, when macular degeneration had partially blinded her and she painted with the help of an assistant guiding her hand, her popularity was equaled perhaps only by Andy Warhol, who admired her, interviewed her, and borrowed some of her favorite motifs, such as skulls and flowers. Just as Warhol’s varied achievement has coalesced around a few frequently reproduced images—Marilyn, Mao, and cans of Campbell’s Soup—O’Keeffe is best known today for her up-close vaginal flower petals and her austere evocations of a primeval New Mexico.
O’Keeffe achieved a strong personal presence as well through the proliferation of photographs of her hard-bitten, heroic face, which seemed to evoke the early pioneers. A cover article in Life magazine in 1968 referred to the “stark visions of a pioneer painter.” Pilgrims visited the remote American Indian village of Abiquiu in northern New Mexico where she had her redoubt, like some desert priestess in voluntary seclusion. During the 1960s and 1970s, she came to stand for a hard-earned and austere integrity. Joni Mitchell, composing the songs of her Ladies of the Canyon album, came to pay her respects, and it was said that Dennis Hopper wrote the script for Easy Rider in the compound in Taos where she had once lived. O’Keeffe seemed as intensely American as Peter Fonda’s Captain America in that film, with Old Glory emblazoned on his leather motorcycle jacket.
O’Keeffe had playfully worked the national colors into her amazing Cow’s Skull—Red, White and Blue of 1931, reproduced on the Life cover in 1968. The white skull hovers in the foreground, horns outstretched like a crucifix over a pale blue ground, with vertical red stripes on each margin. The blue background seems to be some sort of fabric, perhaps an Indian blanket, painstakingly painted to show the creases—those “shallow, pleated spaces” that the critic Bruce Robertson (in the excellent volume Georgia O’Keeffe: Abstraction) notes are “uniquely hers.” The red stripes by contrast are applied like house paint, with no illusion of depth; O’Keeffe used a special brush to feather away the ridges of applied paint. She was determined to “make it an American painting,” she said. “They will not think it great with the red stripes down the sides—Red, White and Blue—but they will notice it.”
Knowing how to be noticed was one of O’Keeffe’s most valuable skills as an artist; she knew that mystery was part of her allure. The aloofness she cultivated extended to her personal life, about which biographers have long speculated. At the time of her death in…
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