The Landscape of the Self in Georgia O’Keeffe

The other day I had the urge to look up some of Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings, and, as I admired her unmistakable work, I wondered if anyone had written her biography. And, of course, there were a few, but I decided to check out “Portrait of an Artist: A Biography of Georgia O’Keeffe” by journalist and writer Laurie Lisle, originally published in 1980 and recently re-released.

That O’Keeffe was a pioneer in the realm of visual arts is incontestable — one need look no further than her striking, sensual flowers, her stark bones against the vast desert sky and her impressionistic adobe rust and brown landscapes.

But after reading her biography it becomes clear that this is more than a label to be applied to her achievement in the visual arts. For O’Keeffe was the embodiment of a pioneer, both in deed and in temperament, throughout her long and singular life.

In spite of her fame, O’Keeffe is perhaps not the easiest choice for a biographer. She was rarely interviewed, her thoughts — by her own admission — were not easily translatable into words, and, in spite of her long life (she lived into her late 90s), she was not well known by many people.

Another complication is that O’Keeffe was dismissive of biographers. Though she was still alive as it was being written, she did not cooperate with the writer — though she did say she was welcome to what she found.

In spite of these hurdles, what Lisle found was a lot. This book is a thoroughly researched and engrossing account of one of the most self-directed and masterful artists of the twentieth century.

Evidence of O’Keeffe’s highly individualistic nature seems to have emerged in early childhood:

“One day she and her older brother quarreled about the gender of God. Georgia stated that God was a woman, and, when Francis scorned the idea, she went to their mother for support. When Mama’s answer disappointed her, Georgia stubbornly refused to change her mind. She calmly restated her conviction to both her brother and her mother that God was a woman.”

Far from waning as she aged, O’Keeffe’s certainty in her own convictions only seemed to grow more pervasive and pronounced. Some of the most evocative, almost comic scenes in this book are descriptions of O’Keeffe as a young art teacher in Texas, long before she had any success as an artist, where she dressed in iconic black and white clothes she made herself, lived by herself, walked long distances alone, and quickly became an object of curiosity and mystery.

This may have been how the the outside world perceived her. But it was her intimate and personal connection with the Texas landscape that she herself recalled.

“Georgia later observed that the sparsely populated land contained the same raw power and sudden terrifying violence as the sea, and she noted at dusk that a mirage effect sometimes made it ripple like surf. The unleashed forces of nature seemed to meet, and free, some similar emotional energy in Georgia, and, instead of intimidating her, their wildness and unpredictability made her euphoric and repeatedly she enthusiastically described them as ‘beautiful’.”

Even for an artist possessed of such an strong personal vision and independent will, it also is interesting to note how much the guidance and support of one man at the crucial beginning of her career affected the trajectory of her life. Alfred Stieglitz, the much older man who eventually became her husband, owner of an influential New York gallery and a well-respected photographer in his own right, was the first to exhibit both her own paintings and also the nude photos that he took of her. He set the prices for her paintings, only allowed certain people to buy them, and was instrumental in creating around her a sense of almost otherworldly mystique.

Stieglitz was a gregarious, social man with a powerfully personal agenda for advancing what he felt to be purely American art. It was not always easy and he was, in some instances, a martyr for the cause. O’Keeffe, on the other hand, did not have the patience for, or interest in, causes or politics. Though she was ambitious, it is almost impossible to imagine her pandering or politicking to advance her career.

The O’Keeffe-Stieglitz bond was founded on a deep, mutual fascination.

“Their professional respect for one another was a firm cornerstone of their love. When Georgia sized up their relationship in old age, she said it was “really very good” because, despite their differences, each was keenly interested in the other’s work.”

In spite of this rare connection, and their long-standing life of routine in Manhattan and upstate New York, O’Keeffe was eventually pulled toward the stark, dramatic landscape of New Mexico, where Stieglitz would not join her.

For her, New Mexico was both a culmination and a revelation.

“During her first days in Taos, Georgia seemed dazed, perhaps because of the intense desert light or the conflicting states of light-headness and fatigue induced by the high altitude. Soon, however, she was exultant — laughing, vigorous, and brown. She discovered that New Mexico abounded with even more wonders than the canyons and plains of Texas. Within New Mexico the altitude varied from a few thousand to fourteen thousand feet, and vegetation ranged from Sonoran cacti to alpine wildflowers. And within a few miles in any direction there was an incredible variety of geological formations — from hot springs to snowcovered peaks. Taos itself was surrounded by a vast sweep of semiarid desert, revealing the contours of the bald earth. Its dryness reduced plant and animal life to essential forms, suggestive of the way Georgia instinctively simplified her images. The place fitted her aesthetic temperament perfectly, and she was later to say that ‘half your work is done for you’ in New Mexico.”

It was a landscape that, in spite of its many inconveniences and dangers, she could not escape, though she did not move there permanently until after Stieglitz’s death. By then she was a famous artist, sought out and celebrated by many, and could have no doubt moved wherever she liked.

But, in the end, and in spite of her history and connection with many places, there was only one home for O’Keeffe. For when she looked at the rough, honest, vivid, utterly unique New Mexico landscape, she saw herself.