CR Muse: Georgia O’Keeffe, the Modern American

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This is CR Muse, a series dedicated to the remembrance of important artists and idea-makers from our past who have shaped culture as we know it today. From traditional creators to those of conceptual thought, we celebrate these women known not only for their work but their confident, eccentric style as well.

Without question, Georgia O’Keeffe was one of the greatest artists of the 20th century. Her paintings are instantly recognizable and were at the forefront of the American modernist movement. In her lifetime, she was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the National Medal of Arts, and was photographed by Ansel Adams, Andy Warhol, and Irving Penn, among others, and she was immortalized in Judy Chicago’s seminal art installation, The Dinner Party. In death, she set the record for highest amount sold for a painting by a female artist (coming in over million). But O’Keeffe’s rise to the top of American art wasn’t instantaneous.

Born in Wisconsin on November 15, 1887, O’Keeffe’s early career was fraught with financial issues, forcing the painter to teach art classes in order to fund her own education. During this time she had been trained as a realist, but her style was forever changed in 1912 when she studied under Arthur Wesley Dow, who taught her to favor stylistic interpretations over literal ones. She immediately began to pursue abstraction, making her one of the first American artists to embrace the style.

In 1915, at the age of 28, she had a fateful career breakthrough: She mailed some of her new abstract charcoal works to a friend in New York, who showed them to the revolutionary photographer Alfred Stieglitz. He was so taken with them that a year later, Stieglitz organized a solo show for O’Keeffe, and by 1918, she accepted his invitation to move to New York and pursue her career full time.

It was during this time that began what would be the body of work for which she was most remembered: her flowers. Oversized and close-cropped (so as to draw attention to such small, delicate details), the paintings reshaped ideas of what a still life could be. Notably, many critics and fans have drawn comparisons between some of her flowers (specifically paintings such as Black Iris III and Series I White and Blue Flower Shapes) and female genitalia. Though she has denied that there was any sexual symbolism in her paintings, the idea endures today. “When people read erotic symbols into my paintings they’re really talking about their own affairs,” she has said of the works.

For a time, Stieglitz and O’Keeffe were partners both creatively and romantically (they were married in 1924): she played muse and appeared nude in many of Stieglitz’s photographs (which was a bit scandalous at the time), while he used his influence to support her art. Through her images of flowers and the New York City skyline she became one of America’s most prominent living painters. By 1927, she had her first career retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum, the first of many in major museums across the country.

In 1929, O’Keeffe made a trip to New Mexico that would be the first step in a new direction. Leaving New York (and her deteriorating personal relationship with Stieglitz) behind, she took inspiration from her new surroundings, pairing landscapes with the skulls of long-dead animals to create famous works such as Cow Skull: Red White and Blue, and Ram’s Head White Hollyhock and Little Hills (both from the 1930s). Blending still life and landscapes, this new creative path showcased symbols of the Southwest in an arguably feminine way. Her light brush applications, and the occasional instance of flowers added to the animal skulls and softened what were once emblems of the harsh nature of the desert. By 1949, she moved to New Mexico permanently, splitting her time between two properties, both of which are now owned by the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.

Though she is often lauded as a feminist artist, O’Keeffe actually rejected the title. In fact, she rejected any title that denoted her gender, wanting simply to be referred to as an “artist” (which, in a roundabout way, was a feminist statement in and of itself). Regardless of this discrepancy, O’Keeffe’s legacy is that she has become the definitive example of the Modern American Woman. More so than just the work she created, O’Keeffe crafted a public image that felt wholly new for the times. She had a presence that commanded attention in a way that no photographer—not even Stieglitz—could alter. She was always herself, a theme that persisted throughout her life. O’Keeffe made no declarations about who she wanted to be, or what she wanted to accomplish—she simply was. Somehow, that act of being herself remains a modern idea to this day.

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