O’Keeffe’s Trail

Georgia O'Keeffe

by Georgia O'Keeffe
Viking, 224 pp., $75.00

Georgia O'Keeffe
Georgia O'Keeffe; drawing by David Levine

Georgia O’Keeffe is one of America’s most popular painters, yet very little of interest has been written about her. As if to fill this void, O’Keeffe has published a book about her work that suggests why so many writers who have made the long trek to Abiquiu, the remote village where she lives in New Mexico, have returned with empty notebooks and blank cassettes. As she declares with her by now familiar terseness, “Where I was born and where and how I have lived is unimportant. It is what I have done with where I have been that should be of interest.” Such resistance has bolstered the myth that O’Keeffe is an enigma; but it has also discouraged any serious study that would look deeply into O’Keeffe’s art, since it is difficult to write art history without at least some sense of an artist’s life.

O’Keeffe’s text is ostensibly autobiographical, with notes on the literal sources of her familiar images of houses, barns, flowers, skyscrapers, bones, crosses, and rugged New Mexico cliffs, mesas, and mountains. She discusses the inspiration of specific paintings like the celebrated Jack-in-the-Pulpit series—a high school teacher had once insisted her class study a flower in detail—but her images remain as strange and ineffable as ever. After a while, readable and entertaining as her text is, we begin to suspect that O’Keeffe intends to remain as opaque as she was to the Time magazine interviewer who inquired recently about the meaning of her work. She replied, “If you don’t get it, that’s too bad.”

Nevertheless, because of the poverty of the critical writing about her art, which tends to repeat what O’Keeffe herself has cared to say, her own commentary on her work is provocative. It establishes at least a few critical facts, such as when she came into contact with Kandinsky’s ideas about a “new art” that should aspire to the condition of music, and how, beginning in 1914, these ideas inspired her to work abstractly, sometimes while listening to music and attempting to capture its mood in visual equivalents. As for her other sources, O’Keeffe does not give away any secrets, about either her life or her work. What she has chosen to exclude is as striking as what she has included; the omissions in her text can be compared to the suppression of anecdotal detail in her broadly generalized, reductionist landscapes and still lifes.

For example, she describes her life without mentioning that she married Alfred Stieglitz; yet it seems likely that the association between O’Keeffe and Stieglitz had a strong influence not only on their own work but on the entire development of modern American art. From the writings of Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove, and John Marin, as well as from Stieglitz’s own notes, we see that there were certain shared attitudes toward modernism among the artists and photographers who exhibited at Stieglitz’s gallery…

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