II. Georgia O’Keeffe
B. Contributions to art
C. Attitude to her art
D. Critical views
E. Formal elements
III. Specific works
A. Cow’s Skull–Red, White and Blue (1931)
B. Horse’s Skull with White Rose (1931)
C. From the Faraway Nearby (1937)
D. Ram’s Head-Hollyhock (1932)
IV.Considerations of these four works as they indicate forms and themes
V. Influences on O’Keeffe
VI. Assessment of O’Keeffe
A. Formal elements
B. Unique qualities
C. American indications
The subject of this investigation is the works of Georgia O’Keeffe. We will discuss the use of nature in the works of this artist. There are certain European influences apparent in the works of this artist, and she in turn has had an influence on contemporary painters.
Georgia O’Keeffe was born and raised on a farm in Wisconsin in a family that combined Hungarian and Irish elements. She taught at the University of Virginia and later in another university in Texas. It is from this period that her drawings come (Amon 6). The overall assessment of her art is that it is unique in contemporary America. Her art is individual and expresses personal emotions and perceptions in a style combining strength and crystalline clarity. Her imagery derives from nature, but that nature is interpreted with great freedom. She was a pioneer of native modern art over fifty years ago, and she has continued throughout her career to make major contributions to the art of our time. When she began to study art around 1907, the America art world was completely conservative in outlooks and the revolutionary modern movements growing in importance abroad were still unknown here. The need to make a living pushed O’Keeffe into commercial art first, then into her teaching positions. Her creative career began with a strong sense of self-revelation when she determined to use her work to express feelings and other things that could be said in no other way than with color and shapes. Her subjects were things that she had no words for, and her art had to express them directly and succinctly (Goodrich & Bry 7-9).
Georgia O’Keeffe describes her art thus: “Filling a space in a beautiful way. That is what art means to me” (Kotz 37). It has also been noted that her real power as an artist has been hidden behind a series of popular images which have been propounded to explain her. In her younger days, she was known as Stieglitz’s wife and model, and his composite portrait of her–some five hundred candid shots–influenced the art of photography to a great extent. Journalists with a Freudian mind pictured her as the woman who painted sexy pictures of flowers, but they were writers with little knowledge of art. The moved to New Mexico in the Thirties, and since that time her pictures of deserts and bones have been coupled in the public mind with legends of her ability at killing the local rattlesnakes (Vogue).
Robert Hughes has described her paintings as being like the desert itself, which he sees as a place with no middle ground-everything is either far or near, held in hallucinatory clarity. There is a concentration of desert images in her work that has led some to compare them to Surrealism. However, Hughes says that surrealism is almost by definition fantastic whereas the works of O’Keeffe insist that they are not dreams. The commonest object unfolds itself. Hughes also notes that though there is never a figure in her work–she has only painted one work with a human figure in it–but that her images are a rich and complex statement about female sexuality. Male painters depict what it is like to want a woman, and O’Keeffe paints what it is like to be a woman at a psychic level no man can reach (Time 64-66).
Critical opinion takes strong note of the fact that no matter how abstract the work of Georgia O’Keeffe is on the surface, there remains a strong sense of “the smell and forms of the land” (Newsweek 105). The influence of European forms has also been noted, though from the first O’Keeffe, while showing a strong grasp of what was happening in Europe, never aligned herself with a particular style, be it foreign or American. What she reflected was the advanced art of her time, and this remained true throughout her career. She would later assimilate such formal innovations as abstraction and flattened spaces, but she would reject the radical theories of the avant-garde in her determination to create out of her distinctively American experience. Other American artists of her time adopted certain superficial Cubist devices as a means of modernizing their essentially realist approach, but O’Keeffe remained aloof from this trend (Art News).
Consider two of her works: “Cowl’s Skull–Red, White and Blue” (1931) and “From the Faraway Nearby” (1937). The relics of the dead in the desert are the subjects of both these paintings, with the skulls of the animals featured. In the first, the background is an abstraction in red, whites and blues and in the second the setting is an unreal desert and the blue of the desert sky. Neither of these works illustrates the kind of Cubist devices that were so popular during this same period of time. It is also easy to see the inference that Surrealist tendencies are present, and in a sense they may be, particularly in the second of the two paintings. The American locale of her work is apparent, and the formal elements combine with the subject matter to produce works of unreal beauty. However, there is a strong sense of the real in the depictions of the objects themselves,
”Cowl’s Skull–Red,, White and Blue” shows its American origins very clearly. The abstraction of the background has the look and the texture of a flags and the colors of the American flag are used to enhance this sensation. Of course, those colors and the form of the flag are abstracted but the intent is clearly to draw forth American sentiment and identifications.
During the 1930s and the 1940s, bones found in the desert became a frequent theme for the artist. They were often combined with flower forms to produce a rather mysterious note. In one such work–“Horse’s Skull with White Rose” (1931)–the author treats the subject in a precise manner with these unlike images–the skull and the flower–being sharply delineated against a dark background. The frontal view is shown, and this is characteristic of many of her paintings to create a formal symmetrical design. One may not understand the symbols chosen, but one can see that they show a beautiful purity of tone quality and a clarity of contrast (Kahne 76).
In “Cow’s Skull–Red, White and Blue,” the subject is also shown from the frontal views and the background makes the white of the skull stand out. A slightly different technique is used in the second painting–“From the Faraway Nearby”–and this technique is a reflection on the ambiguities of the title. The skull in this case is topped by antlers that reach to the sky, and the object itself is out of all proportion to the desert hills on which it stands. It is from this sense of unreality that the Surrealist concept derives, but the work in this case is not so fantastic as would be true in Surrealism. The object stands out because of its size, and the dichotomy emphasizes the ambiguities of the title, with the object in the distance being shown in the foreground. The colors here are muted and pale, with pinkish desert sands and a brown, well-shaded skull topped by white antlers reaching into the blue of the sky. The mountains and deserts of New Mexico served as a rich source of material for Georgia O’Keeffe, and in many compositions–as in this one–they were subordinated to the cross and bone forms (Kahne 77).
What influences can be seen in the works of Georgia O’Keeffe? The soft colors and the use of varied formats, as well as the concentration upon one subject, places her work closer in approach to the Chinese and Japanese than to the Europeans, and this is emphasized as well in her two-dimensional design, elimination of brushstrokes, decorative arrangement of forms, and handling of perspective and modeling. It is likely that she retained some of what she learned while a student at the Art Institute in Chicago, however, and her drawing skill and her use of smooth brushwork are results of her academic background.
O’Keeffe’s New York paintings were more in line with Precisionist painting, which was in turn influenced by Cubist concerns. Among the elements indicating this are her controlled arrangement of forms, the use of industrialized America as her subject matters and precise, sharp-edged forms with a smooth, highly finished surfaces. In her New York work, O’Keeffe treats the pictorial planes of the architectural structures with characteristic Cubist economy.
Concerning the charge by some that she is a Surrealist, it is her desert landscapes that have fueled this view, for she has often depicted unrelated floating forms mystically suspended over the deserts. Consider “Ram’s Head-Hollyhock” (1932), in which a purified skull and flower transcend the rich, red hills of New Mexico. There are rolling, gray clouds to add movement to an otherwise static composition, and the forms all seem to demand sculptural tactility because of their sensual modulation. A device which has made critics call her a Surrealist is her use of unexpected combinations in vistas of desolation. However, other critics have found that the bones are nothing more than her symbols for the deserts. Her symbolic interpretation of the beauty of nature is a masterful composition of visual poetry, and unrelated images crystallize into a unified painting (Kahne 49-54).
The works of Georgia O’Keeffe demonstrate a rare ability to create beauty of form and mystery at one and the same time through the juxtaposition of forms and colors. Those critics who find that her work lacks the paranoid approach of the Surrealists are correct, for even in the most bizarre of images there is a serenity and an acceptance of the beauty of the desert and the image. The viewer comes to accept the incongruities as somehow indicative of the locale. There is a strong American feeling in these works without their being narrative or directly representative of American subjects. The desert and the skulls of the animals who have died there are somehow Western American, it is true, but the paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe are not reminiscent of the Western school of painting in any significant degree. Neither are they indicative of European styles on a more than superficial level. Her works do seem to be original in the best senses of the word, and they have a vitality and a life that belies their static and often “dead” subject matter.
The landscape serves as her real subject matters and the human form is noticeable by its absence. O’Keeffe is dealing with the mirror of nature within her own mind, and this is what gives her imagery its seemingly surrealistic quality–the fact that it derives entirely from the perceptions of the artist and not from some outside school or movement. She is original in that she paints what she sees and tries to express her own inner view in the only way she can. In her turn, she influenced other painters. She did not have disciples as such, but her works have been influential on a new generation of artists, including such painters as Ellsworth Kelly, Larry Poons, Kenneth Noland, and Paul Feeley (Kahne 87).