Georgia O’Keeffe, the early years
December 30, 2013
By Mary Eloise H. Leake
Any checklist of outstanding American artist couples would begin with Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz. Each had a significant influence on 20th-century American modernism — she as a sketch artist and painter, and he as a photographer, writer, gallery owner and champion of contemporary art.
The unlikely duo came from totally different backgrounds. She was born in 1887 on a dairy farm in Wisconsin, and he was born in Hoboken, N.J., in 1864. O’Keeffe studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, New York’s Art Students League, the University of Virginia and New York’s Teachers College, Columbia University. Stieglitz’s education in Germany as a mechanical engineer exposed him to photography, which became his lifelong passion.
Before they met, O’Keeffe experienced what many consider her first major artistic epiphany far from her birthplace and even farther from the American Southwest that was to become integral to her work. The year was 1915, and she became the art instructor at Columbia College, a small Methodist school for women in Columbia, S.C.
“It’s clear that when she was there, she decided to chart a new path,” says Barbara Buhler Lynes, the former curator of the O’Keeffe Museum and co-author of “Georgia O’Keeffe: Catalogue Raisonne.” Though O’Keeffe taught there only about six months, Lynes characterizes the period as her most “self-defining.”
In her 1976 autobiography, O’Keeffe noted the significance of her brief time in the deep South.
“It was in the fall of 1915 that I first had the idea that what I had been taught was of little value to me except for the use of my materials as a language — charcoal, pencil, pen and ink, watercolor, pastel and oil,” she wrote. “But what to say with them? I had been taught to work like others and after careful thinking I decided that I wasn’t going to spend my life doing what had already been done.”
So she stacked all the canvases, brushes and paints in her dorm closet and shut the door on conventional art. Then — using only charcoal on sketch paper — she began to draw the things she saw in her head.
After class, O’Keeffe’s lifelong love of nature propelled her frequent walks through the pine woods nearby. Perhaps with emerging visual clarity, the artist saw shapes, lines and shadows — abstractions — where her students, who often accompanied her, simply saw leaves and trees. The process of paring away excessive details is one O’Keeffe would nurture and hone the rest of her life.
By the end of December 1915, the 28-year-old artist wanted feedback, and what happened next would lead her to the man she would eventually marry.
It began when she mailed some of these breakthrough abstractions to her former classmate in New York, Charlestonian Anita Pollitzer. Against O’Keeffe’s instructions to show them to no one, Pollitzer took them to Stieglitz, the owner of their favorite avant-garde gallery 291. His legendary response: “At last, a woman on paper!”
Stieglitz was a respected pioneer of contemporary photography in New York and played a vital role in its advancement as an art form. Hosting the first U.S. one-man exhibitions of Henri Matisse, Paul Cezanne and Pablo Picasso at 291, he opened American eyes to modern art.
After seeing O’Keeffe’s abstractions, Stieglitz believed that O’Keeffe represented the modernist ideal of the expressive woman-child. Without her knowledge, he included some of these highly innovative works in a 1916 exhibit. When she heard, she marched quickly to his gallery to remove them. The impresario convinced her of their expressive power; they stayed.
Letters flew back and forth. Coming from Texas to see her first one-person show at 291 in 1917, O’Keeffe did not reappear in New York until the following June, when she moved into Stieglitz’s niece’s empty studio apartment. Soon he, at age 54, left his wife and moved in with this 30-year-old intoxicating muse.
Stieglitz obsessively photographed her through 1925 and those approximately 350 portraits — some dramatic headshots with her hands and others with her posed interacting with her works — have become so prized that in 2006 Sotheby sold “Georgia O’Keeffe (Hands)” for $1.47 million.
At his own retrospective exhibit in 1921, he included some graphic O’Keeffe nudes, drawing scandalized crowds. By 1923 when he debuted O’Keeffe’s 100-work exhibition, he had transformed the former penniless art instructor into a sexually liberated modern woman with titillating name recognition. They married before Christmas 1924.
Along with drawings, her vibrant palette illuminated her paintings and packed the gallery. Critics fawned over the sensuality displayed in her works — which Stieglitz encouraged.
Though outraged, she realized her beloved mentor had given her priceless public exposure in a field dominated by men. To Stieglitz’s credit, he held annual shows of her works until his death.
Even before their affair, she understood the magical power of camera lenses to enlarge objects and had learned the value of cropping photos to focus on certain elements. Those techniques enhanced her large vibrant flower paintings and her “if you blow it up they will look at it” technique drew raves.
Two intense, passionate artists living together often made for a sandpaper marriage. As controlling as Stieglitz was, O’Keeffe did win one battle — she kept her own name, quite an accomplishment at the time.
Living with a photographer added to O’Keeffe’s visual acuity. She influenced his photography, opening his eyes to nature, and he influenced her painting, instilling an appreciation of skyscrapers. Some critics today insist that her Manhattan cityscapes are her most important works.
Though attuned to European modernism, by 1925 Stieglitz felt the need to champion only young American modernists. He mounted a show, “The Seven Americans,” with works by Marsden Hartley, Paul Strand, John Marin, Charles Demuth, Arthur Dove, O’Keeffe and himself. Continuous dialogue with these — and other — articulate and gifted people provided O’Keeffe with a fertile environment.
Engaged in abstraction, representational work and a synthesis of both, she began to develop the persona that people know today. Her growing artistic stature and bank account made her more independent.
At the end of the ’20s Stieglitz began an affair with another ingenue, Dorothy Norman, devastating O’Keeffe. She took a trip out West, spending her time in Santa Fe and Taos, New Mexico. This reprieve renewed O’Keeffe’s strong adventurous spirit and creativity. When she returned to New York, crosses, adobe churches and Western landscapes peppered her canvases. Although he did not like her leaving, Stieglitz recognized the new excitement in her work. These summers away became a pattern. In later years she would bring home sacks of bleached bones.
Though it is thought that over the ensuing years both had affairs, the Stieglitz/O’Keeffe marriage mended to an extent. But Stieglitz’s health deteriorated and he died —  with O’Keeffe at his side — in 1946.
Eleven years after her own death, the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, the only American museum featuring the iconic works of a single woman artist of international stature, opened in Santa Fe in 1997.
Mary Eloise H. Leake is Longleaf’s perpetual information source about artists and their fascinating exhibits.
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