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 “291”; but the nature of this aesthetic and the way it emerged have hardly been investigated. The contribution of O’Keeffe, who has not been as talkative as her colleagues (referred to in her text collectively as “the men”), may have been central. We need to know a lot more about this formative period in American cultural history, but for the time being O’Keeffe has kept sealed the extensive archives of documents pertaining to her life with Stieglitz. Because it breaks a long silence, the brief text accompanying this book of excellent reproductions of her paintings takes on a special significance.

What is most unexpected about O’Keeffe’s book is that she writes so skillfully and wittily. What she writes tends to be directly connected with her paintings. Her prose is hardly spectacular, in fact it is deliberately modest and lacking in rhetorical conventions, but her style itself is often unintentionally revealing. One notices, for example, a certain affinity with the unornamented “American” English of Gertrude Stein, although O’Keeffe’s writing is never as self-conscious as that of her expatriate contemporary.

It is virtually certain that O’Keeffe knew Stein’s writing, since Stieglitz was Stein’s first publisher. In a collection of reminiscences compiled by Dorothy Norman, Stieglitz recalled the extraordinary arrival of Miss Stein at “291,” led by an aggressive bulldog. She handed Stieglitz a sheaf of manuscripts which she had been assured only he was crazy enough to publish. Stein tried to force the lot on him, but Stieglitz took only two essays—one on Picasso, the other on Matisse—which he published in a special issue of Camera Work in 1912. A year later, Stein’s “Portrait of Mabel Dodge at the Villa Curonia” appeared in Camera Work. “The days are wonderful and the nights are wonderful and life is pleasant,” she wrote, describing a visit with Mabel Dodge, who eventually invited Georgia O’Keeffe to join her in New Mexico in 1929.


Like Stein, O’Keeffe chooses to restrict herself to simple declarative sentences, avoiding simile, metaphor, and symbol, the staples of literary allusion. I could not, for example, find the word “like” once in her text. Commas are rare. Typical of her lean prose, as sparse and direct as the clean, simple shapes in her paintings, is O’Keeffe’s description of what was apparently her first encounter with Alfred Stieglitz in 1908, during a visit to “291” with a group of fellow students from the Art Students League:

It was a day with snow on everything. I remember brushing snow off a little tree by the railing as we walked up the steps of the brownstone at 291 Fifth Avenue, where Alfred Stieglitz had his gallery. The boys had heard that Stieglitz was a great talker and wanted to get him going. We went up in the little elevator and entered a small room. Stieglitz came out carrying some photographic equipment in his right hand and glared at us from behind his pince-nez glasses. Yes, we wanted to see the Rodin drawings.

Although she disclaims their influence on her work, those drawings must have been a revelation to O’Keeffe, who at the time was studying classical figure painting with the conservative artist Kenyon Cox and academic still life with William Merritt Chase, who had introduced the “new” free brushwork of Chardin and Manet to the Art Students League. O’Keeffe recalls that the Rodin drawings were nothing but “curved lines and scratches with a few watercolor washes and didn’t look like anything I had been taught about drawing.” Although she was already quite sure she never wanted to paint figures (male nudes in the anatomy class frightened her), she must have been impressed with the reductive economy of Rodin’s ink, pencil, and watercolor studies.

O’Keeffe’s rejection of metaphor and allusion in her writing has a parallel in the concrete imagery of her paintings, which, when they are not entirely abstract, always depict familiar and recognizable subjects—even if these subjects are magnified or combined in odd ways. Following the procedure established by Matisse and Brancusi in the series of sculptures of the same subject which become increasingly abstract in each subsequent version, O’Keeffe painted several series of works (the best known are probably the Jack-in-the-Pulpit and the Patio), in which the last of the series is completely abstract, whereas the first is relatively realistic. No matter how abstract the ultimate distillation of a form, however, her images, with the exception of some early drawings and watercolors done before 1920—and inspired by Kandinsky’s theories of pure abstraction—are always initially based on things seen.

O’Keeffe’s rejection of metaphor and allusion in her writing is a literary equivalent of her rejection of exotic symbolism in art. In place of allusion, O’Keeffe intensifies details in her descriptions much in the manner that she may isolate and enlarge a detail until it covers the whole canvas. Often her keen sense of observation of a color, an image, or a quality of light that has stayed with her as a memory from her long life sums up a mood she communicates with minimal, condensed phrases. In few words, she conveys the depression and frustration her academic art training caused her. Of the atmosphere at the Art Institute in Chicago, which she entered in 1905 as a precocious but fiercely independent eighteen-year-old student, she writes: “I have never understood why we had such dark olive green rooms for art schools. The Anatomy Class was in one of those dark-colored half-lighted dismal rooms.” Drab green here expresses the feeling of the dreary academic routine against which she rebelled so strongly that she stopped painting for four years.

Between 1908 and 1912, O’Keefe did not paint because she felt she had nothing new to say. In the summer of 1912, her sister persuaded her to take a course at the University of Virginia with Alon Bement, who introduced her to the ideas of Kandinsky and the teaching methods of Arthur Wesley Dow. In autumn, 1914, O’Keeffe returned to New York to enroll as Dow’s student at Teachers College, Columbia University. Through Dow, she came into contact with a new method of composition developed by Dow and his mentor, the brilliant scholar and Orientalist, Ernest Fenollosa, who did more than anyone else to introduce Japanese art to America.

According to the Fenollosa-Dow approach, filling space beautifully, rather than being true to nature in the academic sense, was the basic concern of art. Balancing out tonal contrasts—as in the light-dark opposition the Japanese referred to as notan—as well as creating strong surface patterns on paper or canvas were the fundamental objectives of this new method of design, which rejected the sculptural illusionism of Western naturalistic painting in favor of the flattened, highly stylized art of China and Japan. We know from class lists that Dow assigned Fenollosa’s Epochs of Chinese and Japanese Art as well as his review of Gonse’s L’Art Japonais.


Probably these texts introduced O’Keeffe to Far Eastern art, which she came to see as an alternative to academic art that was preferable to Cubism, which she considered European and derivative, not original or American. Although “the men” might go to Europe, she had other ambitions. She had traveled throughout the Southwest, and she preferred to stay home. “I was quite excited over our country,” she recalls in this book, “and I knew that at that time almost any one of those great minds would have been living in Europe if it had been possible for them. They didn’t even want to live in New York—how was the Great American Thing going to happen?” It was nothing less than the Great American Thing she was after.

To understand the setting within which O’Keeffe’s art was formulated, one must remember that Fenollosa was a major intellectual force in America during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when O’Keeffe was growing up. Although Fenollosa’s influence on Ezra Pound has been examined to some extent, his influence on other aspects of American modernism remains to be fully understood. Through Dow, if not directly, O’Keeffe was aware of Fenollosa’s approach; it is possible that she transmitted his ideas to the Stieglitz circle. (Fenollosa’s notions concerning art education as fundamental to the democratization of American culture certainly had an impact on Dewey’s theories as well.)

When O’Keeffe was growing up in Wisconsin, Fenollosa was lecturing widely in the Midwest, spreading the doctrine that the American people should be taught fundamental aesthetic principles in public schools, so that art could be made equally available to all. This utopian ideal was conceived while he was teaching in Japan, where he had become impressed by the extent to which art had been integrated into Far Eastern cultures, as opposed to its relative alienation from the life of the common man in the West. Fenollosa had studied ancient Chinese and Japanese painting manuals; he was particularly struck by the accessibility of traditional art to all social classes in Japan. He wished to develop a similarly organic relationship between art and society in America.

Fenollosa’s aspirations for a democratic art available to all must, I think, be seen as central to the thinking of the entire Stieglitz circle, all of whom rejected hermetic imagery for subjects familiar to everyone. O’Keeffe was particularly vehement in her rejection of French aesthetic theory. Her dislike for the jargon that helped to alienate the general public from modern art is summed up in her remarks upon visiting Mont Sainte-Victoire on her first trip to Europe in 1956: “How could they attach all those analytical remarks to anything [Cézanne] did with that little mountain? All those words piled on top of that poor little mountain seemed too much.”

It is likely that Fenollosa’s demands for a democratic art figured in O’Keeffe’s decision to limit the range of her subject matter, except in her abstractions, to familiar images that eliminate the need for commentary, criticism, or interpretation. The Stieglitz circle was generally hostile to criticism; and O’Keeffe was particularly unhappy with interpretations, particularly symbolic interpretations, of her work. In a preface to her 1939 exhibition at An American Place, the gallery Stieglitz ran after closing “291,” she caustically admonishes her critics for hanging “all your own associations with flowers on my flower…. You write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower—and I don’t.” As she says elsewhere, the only criticism that ever counted for her was what Stieglitz had to say.

Often enough, O’Keeffe’s dismissal of her critics was reciprocated by critical rejection of her work, particularly her more representational paintings, which were especially popular with the public. Those who believed modernism derived from a main current of French art left O’Keeffe’s art outside that current. Her work has been found lacking in complexity by some critics who appreciate Matisse and find an absence of Parisian sophistication in O’Keeffe’s ordinary flowers and trees. Indeed the experiences O’Keeffe describes as being memorable to her might strike the reader as being banal—after all, who has not camped out under the stars, gone sight-seeing, or inspected a leaf or flower?

O’Keeffe’s effort to find meaning in the commonplace seems to derive less from a narrowness of imagination than from a wish to communicate with a broad public. She was, moreover, again influenced by Fenollosa, who was instrumental in reviving the interest in Oriental concepts that the transcendentalists had begun to explore during the mid-nineteenth century, drawing on European Romanticism and Eastern religions in conceiving their emotional this-worldly nature religion as an alternative to conventional New England Protestantism. Fenollosa himself preached a curious mixture of notions derived from Emerson and Thoreau together with Buddhist quietism and detachment.

This synthesis had much appeal for American intellectuals at the turn of the century, and it seems to me likely that Fenollosa is a missing link between the artists of the Stieglitz circle and the transcendentalist writers. O’Keeffe herself began reading Emerson and Thoreau when she was young, and there are so many correspondences between her subjects and specific texts by Emerson and especially by Thoreau that we are safe in assuming she was greatly influenced by their writings. Indeed her works so clearly convey the spirit of their loosely defined nature religion that they may be seen, in a sense, as transcendentalist icons.

If we think of O’Keeffe reading Emerson’s 1841 essay “The Method of Nature,” her enlargements of flowers, leaves, shells, etc. take on new meaning as spiritual exercises. Emerson maintained (before the invention of photographic enlargement) that “man never sees the same object twice; with his own enlargement the object acquires new aspects.”* O’Keeffe also appears to have had in mind Thoreau’s admonition that “Nature will bear the closest inspection. She invites us to lay our eyes level with her smallest leaf, and take an insect view of its plan,” when she isolated a single natural form in a close-up view that filled a whole canvas.

O’Keeffe’s dry bones have received as much attention as death symbols as her flowers have received as sex symbols. But this is an image that I believe has less to do with the surrealists than with her reading of Thoreau. Describing her first summer in New Mexico, from which she returned East with a barrel of bones, O’Keeffe writes, “There was no rain so the flowers didn’t come. Bones were easy to find so I began collecting bones.” She has since kept a collection of animal bones with her which became the subjects for her celebrated skull and pelvis paintings of the Thirties and Forties. In his essay on “Death” Thoreau describes how he often went searching for animal carcasses and skeletons, which for him were evidence of the natural cycle of regeneration. O’Keeffe seems to share this attitude, seeing bones as part of eternal nature rather than as the traditional memento mori, the skull images that fill Western painting from medieval times until at least Picasso. “…An old bone in the woods covered with lichens,” Thoreau writes, “was quite too ancient to suggest disagreeable associations. It survives like the memory of a man. With time all that was personal and offensive wears off.” O’Keeffe’s bones, too, lack morbid associations, for they are always as dry as the desert where she picks them up.

A view that she seems to have absorbed from her reading of these writers also helps to explain her conviction that there is no real progress, because human nature remains basically unchanged. And indeed there is hardly anything one could call stylistic evolution in her work. She has oscillated throughout her career between abstraction and representation, and her earliest surviving works are stark abstractions. When she explains why she liked to paint bones silhouetted against the blue sky, “They were most wonderful against the Blue—that Blue that will always be there as it is now after all man’s destruction is finished,” her remarks recall Thoreau.

Some of O’Keeffe’s texts, too, show remarkable affinities with Emerson’s. In “Nature,” Emerson describes how, “Standing on the bare ground—my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space—all mean egotism vanishes.” O’Keeffe speaks of trying to capture “the unexplainable thing in nature that makes me feel the world is far beyond my understanding—to understand maybe by trying to put it into form. To find the feeling of the infinity on the horizon line or just over the next hill.” And infinity is the theme of O’Keeffe’s many paintings of roads disappearing from view and horizons receding into the limitless distance.

Other passages in her writing reveal a reverence for the badlands of New Mexico because they are—by virtue of their very badness and inaccessibility—innocent of human destructiveness. And of course, this love of untouched nature calls to mind Thoreau’s dismissal of “the most wonderful inventions of modern times” as an insult to nature, not improvements but merely intrusions.

O’Keeffe’s debt to the transcendentalist writers also provides some clue to the way she has combined reticence about her own life with the aim of painting images that are familiar and knowable. “That which properly constitutes the life of every man is a profound secret,” Thoreau wrote. It was the artist’s duty to reveal nothing personal, and remain detached. “You behold a perfect work,” he wrote, “but you do not behold the worker.” Because she aspires to such a condition of artlessness, O’Keeffe does not sign her works. Her surfaces are clean and smooth; she leaves no mark of her brush to remind us of the artist who made such a picture. We can detect traces of Emerson and Thoreau in other of her ideas; for example, that true originality can be found by staying home in America; and more important, that there is a unity in nature that can be expressed in concepts of wholeness and oneness.

Although she saw analytic Cubist works by Picasso and Braque exhibited at “291” in 1914 (she was not in New York for the Armory Show in 1913), and read early books on post-Impressionism and Cubism, O’Keeffe had no use for either the Impressionists’ analysis of light or the Cubists’ analysis of form. So imbued was she with the need to depict images whole, she could not accept the idea of atomizing color or splintering form. Her works, even her abstractions, stand apart from those of her contemporaries because she consistently and consciously opposed any idea of fragmentation. Unlike the early Cubists and their American imitators, she did not permit her compositions to fade out toward the corners, but painted to the edges of the canvas, so that the entire surface was covered. She started, not where the Cubists began, with the analysis of form, but with the same sources Degas had used to explore fresh ideas of space and design—the cropping of photographs and the explicit flatness and frontality of Japanese prints. Both of these sources produced images with crisp contours. Inspired by Dow’s compositional theories, and by Japanese prints, by photographs, and a desire to create whole images that remained visibly intact, O’Keeffe began painting hard-edged, indivisible images that fill the entire canvas field long before the art of the Sixties imposed the taste for such simplified flattened shapes and “holistic” images.

Despite a surprising number of formal connections (including flatness, frontality, sharp contours, and simplified single images) between O’Keeffe’s work and recent American art, O’Keeffe’s art, with its metaphysical overtones, is very different from recent American art. For one thing, although O’Keeffe’s big, generalized shapes and clearly delineated contours point forward to the Sixties’ taste for legible shapes and hard edges, O’Keeffe is fundamentally a painter not of the industrial landscape, but of nature. Unlike such thoroughly urban New York artists as Don Judd, Ellsworth Kelly, and Frank Stella who did much to revive interest in her work during the Sixties, O’Keeffe always disdained machine imagery and mechanical geometry even in her pictures of city skyscrapers and views from skyscrapers. This in itself set her apart from her Precisionist contemporaries such as Morton Schamberg, Charles Sheeler, and Charles Demuth, whose paintings have a linear, graphic, and mechanically precise quality altogether different from the obviously hand-drawn contours of O’Keeffe’s shapes, which are softly defined, filled in with color, rather than harshly silhouetted with hard black outline in the typical Precisionist manner.

Moreover, no matter how literal a painting by O’Keeffe may be, such as her 1929 painting of the Lake George Window—whose rectangular shape is identical with the rectangle it fills—she never aspires to the extreme literalism of the artists of the Sixties, who reduced art to the idea that, as one of them put it, “What you see is what you see.” What she sees certainly impresses her, but she is also a poet transforming the reality she sees. Often that transformation has merely meant simplifying and streamlining real shapes, paring down architecturally derived forms inspired by barn roofs, farmhouse windows, skyscraper silhouettes, patio doors, and adobe walls—the motifs she has painted throughout her career—to their essential lines. O’Keeffe was too much a painter to insist, as her friend Marcel Duchamp did, that the door or the window itself was a work of art; but it was in large measure through the eyes of younger artists influenced by Duchamp’s literalism that O’Keeffe’s work came to be appreciated for its concreteness, directness, and lofty impersonality—another quality much admired in the Sixties.

Today O’Keeffe’s fame extends well beyond the art world, and she is fast becoming a legendary figure. The simplicity of the way she dresses, lives, eats, and paints made it all the more likely that she would be canonized by the Sixties as a patron saint of the “counter-culture.” Didn’t she grow her own food and live in an adobe house surrounded by the mystical American Indians? Hadn’t she somehow reconciled art and nature? That she was a woman as well, who had survived all “the men,” made it just as likely that once feminists began looking for heroines Georgia O’Keeffe would become the woman artist they most admired, to the extent that one of them painted her as Christ in a feminist parody of The Last Supper, in which women artists occupy the places of the Apostles.

Despite the feminists’ adulation, O’Keeffe has had little to say about the idea that her images are feminine ones. (In a recent exhibition of paintings by women at the Los Angeles County Museum, she deliberately showed only abstractions.) Her flowers, seized on by some feminists as symbols of female sexuality, have a long history in Oriental art, and they are among the major subjects of nineteenth-century American painting. Indeed, O’Keeffe’s irises, poppies, and lilies can be seen as abstracted versions of the close-ups of magnolias and orchids that evoked the generative power of nature for the nineteenth-century Luminist painter Martin Johnson Heade.

O’Keeffe keeps a letter from Dr. Barnes in which he mocks the simple-minded sexual interpretations made by critics of her paintings, claiming that if he were Stieglitz, he would feel compelled to defend his wife’s honor. One suspects that both O’Keeffe’s early detractors as well as her recent feminist admirers are ignorant of a long art historical tradition. Mondrian, Van Gogh, Redon, and others all painted flowers as peculiarly charged symbols of vitality without being analyzed for the sexual implications of their paintings. It is as if a rose is a rose if a man paints it, but it must be something else in a painting by a woman. One also suspects that if O’Keeffe’s curving and undulating forms suggest analogies between the human body and landscape, these analogies are better explained by her sense of the unity of nature and the correspondences between all natural forms than they are by Freudian or surrealist symbolism.

When O’Keeffe turned her back on New York to make her home in a primitive Indian village in New Mexico, she fulfilled an American fantasy, going to live in what remained of the original natural paradise. In that vast uninhabited desert whose majestic cliffs and bleached bones precede historical consciousness and where man has not set foot, the light is mysteriously clear and pure. O’Keeffe has chosen to live in the perfect setting for painting what she conceives of as her transcendental vision.

As O’Keeffe became more and more taken up and admired in the 1960s, the press and television began to feature her as a kind of rattlesnake-killing cowgirl in sombrero and boots; she became the female counterpart to the “macho” cowboy image of Jackson Pollock, and the reality of her art began to be over-shadowed by her personal myth. Before Christmas, the lavish first edition of Georgia O’Keeffe was selling better than the latest book on Andrew Wyeth, not withstanding the fuss over the huge Wyeth exhibition at the Metropolitan. No doubt this interest in O’Keeffe is more of an indication that she has arrived as an artistic superstar than of any serious resurgence of interest in the ideas that inspired her. But it is with her affinities for transcendentalist thought and Far Eastern art that a serious consideration of her work must begin.

This Issue

March 31, 1977