As a journalist and historian, I bring a perhaps too-healthy skepticism to documentaries and memoirs about O’Keeffe. They suffer, most of them, from nostalgia, or romanticism, or psychological projection. This one manages to be different.
Christine Taylor Patten, interviewed by the BBC for a documentary marking the O’Keeffe retrospective at the Tate Modern last year, stays close to her experience as a companion to the artist when she was 96 years old. Patten, with her feet firmly planted on the ground, does not overreach her direct observation of and experience of O’Keeffe, as so many others do. (Patten is co-author of Miss O’Keeffe, a memoir whose intercoluted structure makes for a disappointingly dubious read.)
I am especially careful about using accounts of the elderly O’Keeffe to reconstruct a younger one. But something about Patten’s testimony rings true: “She was a very kind, intelligent, generous, clear woman.” Yes, O’Keeffe knew who she was (and that was hard-won knowledge). She was an independent woman with a strong personality.
What really gets to me, though, is Patten’s description of the artist’s acute consciousness, what I would call presence. She describes in the woman exactly what drew me to the paintings: the sense of touch and vision coming together like flesh. The apprehension of the world through a moving body. Those walks of hers, they are fundamental to understanding how O’Keeffe perceived and painted the landscape.
The visuals, too, capture something that languishes in cliche in most other documentaries about O’Keeffe in New Mexico. We can literally see how the artist lived inside/outside, and how she served as a devoted witness to the natural world, always reaching toward it, spiritually and aesthetically.
Patten and the camera manage to suggest the power of O’Keeffe’s presence. As Patten describes it, the artist possessed a kind of “wholeness” that, having refused all distractions, dwells fully, like a cat: still, awake, and content to remain sitting with herself. I like how Patten talks about O’Keeffe’s simplicity not as a lifestyle or fashion choice but as an accomplishment.
But, alas, the historian remains ever-vigilant to corroboration and fact-checking. O’Keeffe loved a description of the butterfly as a flower with wings, but it comes from another of her formative favorites, The Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakura (1906). “The only flower known to have wings is the butterfly; all others stand helpless before the destroyer.”
[If you cannot see the embedded video below, click here to view it.]