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Georgia O’Keeffe always felt the misfit — in her family, at odds with her mother; at boarding school in Virginia, where she didn’t drawl like her classmates; and in Canyon, Texas, where as a 30-year-old teacher she ran afoul of anti-German extremism during World War I.

O’Keeffe always remained fond of her years in Texas. She spent 1912 to 1914 as Supervisor of Drawing and Penmanship for the Amarillo City Public Schools, and she returned to Canyon in 1916 for a year and a half, as head of the Department of Drawing (and its sole faculty member) at the West Texas State Normal College (now West Texas A&M University). She enjoyed the farmers’ and ranchers’ kids. They were hard workers, and weren’t looking to become professional artists. She loved the empty plains, vast like the ocean, endless and sublime. She loved the big sky, and the evening star. She loved walking miles and miles to make the precarious hike down into Palo Duro Canyon, what she envisioned as a “slit in nothingness.” The horizon line, the blue sky, and that slit into nothingness remained the lifelong touchstones of her art, as shapes and metaphors.

But at the same time that O’Keeffe was exulting in the harsh beauty of the Texas Panhandle and painting some of her earliest masterpieces, she was also confronting the darker side of American patriotism. It’s this wartime experience that Amy Von Lintel wants to foreground in Georgia O’Keeffe’s Wartime Texas Letters,” her second book on the pioneering modern artist.

"Georgia O’Keeffe’s Wartime Texas Letters," By Amy Von Lintel. Texas A&M University Press, 248 pp., illustrations, 2020
“Georgia O’Keeffe’s Wartime Texas Letters,” By Amy Von Lintel. Texas A&M University Press, 248 pp., illustrations, 2020

Von Lintel began researching O’Keeffe when she found herself teaching art history in the very department where the artist had been on faculty a century earlier. Von Lintel remains there now, as Associate Professor of Art History, Doris Alexander Endowed Distinguished Professor of Fine Arts, and Director of the Gender Studies Program. Following on “Georgia O’Keeffe: Watercolors, 1916-1918″ (2016) as well as a remarkable 59-page annotated timeline of O’Keeffe in Texas (2014), “Georgia O’Keeffe’s Wartime Texas Letters” claims for von Lintel an unparalleled authority on the artist’s most significant formative years.

The only thing near as good as looking at O’Keeffe’s paintings is reading her correspondence. Touring her homes or admiring her clothing, they’re not even close to the experience of literally reading the artist’s mind. And we have letters aplenty — thousands upon thousands of them. Collections include “My Faraway One” (edited by Sarah Greenough), the first of two projected volumes of correspondence with husband Alfred Stieglitz, as well as “Maria Chabot – Georgia O’Keeffe” (edited by Barbara Buhler Lynes and Ann Paden), an extended correspondence with Maria Chabot, who worked at Ghost Ranch and managed the renovation of the Abiquiu home during the 1940s. My personal favorite is “Lovingly, Georgia” (edited by Clive Giboire), O’Keeffe’s correspondence with art school BFF Anita Pollitzer, which captures like nothing else just how O’Keeffe transformed herself into a modern artist. Also of note are the letters included in “Georgia O’Keeffe: Art and Letters” (letters selected and annotated by Sarah Greenough), the source for most of the artist’s most quotable quotes. And these are only the published letters. I’ve read dozens of sets in archival and private collections across the country, most notably the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum and the Library of Congress, which acquired a fresh cache of long-lost letters just last year.

Von Lintel makes the effective choice to publish only O’Keeffe’s side of the correspondence, primarily with photographer Alfred Stieglitz (at the time, the most important modern art gallerist in New York, and later, her husband) as well as with Pollitzer and Paul Strand, the pioneering modern photographer whom she had met through Stieglitz. Though we may lose the relational intimacy that comes with hearing both sides of the conversation, the rarity that we gain is a complete immersion into O’Keeffe’s experience and thought process. And, as a bonus, Von Lintel includes previously unpublished letters to Stieglitz that were not included in My Faraway One. She also provides chapter commentaries as well as a substantial introduction to set the scene.

These more than one hundred pages of letters give us a remarkable close-up of the artist, from the inside. She’s not a joiner (never was, never will be), she’s opinionated, and she’s often judgmental. Sometimes aggressively so: “I’d like to scalp that fat old Latin creature [a colleague] if he had any hair on his scalp to make a respectable showing.” She knows she is a contrarian (“I hate doing things by the clock — have always hated to do things at any stated time”), and she takes pride in the fierce independence she developed in childhood, which explains why she can’t stop chafing against local proprieties: “I can’t be human here. I can’t even wear the kind of clothes I want to. Why I feel as though I can’t even think what I want to.”

O’Keeffe is full of mixed emotions, which become so erratic that they border on hysteria. One day she is “snorting mad at the educators,” and a few days later “I’d rather live here than any place I know.” But she understands exactly what she’s made of, and likens herself to the wind. “The wind is careless — uncertain — I like the wind — it seems more like me than anything else — I like the way it blows things around roughly — even meanly — then the next minute seems to love everything.”

She appears to have arrived in Canyon primed for a fight, after having recently endured a similarly small-town life teaching in Columbia, South Carolina. Right off the bat she decries the town’s “ugly little frame houses” and in her rented room the “hideously ugly” wallpaper and the equally offensive pink roses on the rug — “three pink roses in a square with another rose on top of it.”

The letters also give us a vivid picture of O’Keeffe’s life in Canyon. She takes long car rides with married men, picnics in Palo Duro Canyon, gardens (“hoeing and planting and watering and scratching around”), and goes out shooting with her youngest sister, Claudia. She walks briskly down main street with hands pushed deep into her brand-new coat pockets, a staple of suffragist dress reform, but a curiosity for the locals. She considers marrying one of her students, but decides against it. And she’s quite fond of reading. “The Divine Comedy,” “Faust,” “Why Men Fight,” “The Age of Reason,” the letters of Van Gogh, and Nietzsche (“He’s a wonder”), as well as cutting-edge magazines like Camera Work, The Seven Arts, The New Republic, and The Masses.

Georgia O'Keeffe, Light Coming on the Plains No. II, watercolor, 1917, Carter Museum of American Art
Georgia O’Keeffe, “Light Coming on the Plains No. II,” watercolor, 1917, Carter Museum of American Art.

It wasn’t a tough decision for O’Keeffe to return to the Panhandle — she loved those wide open spaces. In fact, she can barely contain her exuberance when she’s describing them. A tearing northern wind, terrific thunderstorms, a starlight night. Soon after arriving, she writes to Stieglitz:

After mailing my last letter to you I wanted to grab it out of the box and tell you more – I wanted to tell you of the way the outdoors just gets me – Some way I felt as if I hadn’t told you at all  — how big and fine and wonderful it all was – It seems so funny that a week ago it was the mountains I thought the most wonderful – and today it’s the plains – I guess it’s the feeling of bigness in both that just carries me away.

Considering how little O’Keeffe would ever say about her art, these letters are crucial to understanding what a porous sensibility she had, and how susceptible she was to the sublime. “I was very small and very puny and helpless,” she described a hike in the canyon, “and all around was so big and impossible.” For her, the sublime would never be lush green, or easily accessible. It had to be harsh and indomitable and demanding, and she would make it her home, years later, in New Mexico.

And this time in the Panhandle, unlike her earlier tenure in Amarillo, she is making lots of art out of those wide open spaces, even writing about the “far away” for the first time. “I usually worked in the evening — between supper and dark — on a west porch — no chair even — always on the floor — I never seem to get on with water color except on the floor.” These earliest watercolors are now a familiar part of the O’Keeffe canon: “Light Coming on the Plains,” for example, the “Evening Star” series, and “Starlight Night,” one of her earliest, most breathtaking masterpieces. The letters show us her struggle to make sense of the radical images that everyone else thinks crazy, and at times she herself is downright incredulous. “Why should a person want to put down marks like that.” When a reviewer labels her a “Futurist” (the first in a long succession of silly critical responses), she bristles against the entire art world. “I’m not trying to do Art,” she insists. “I’m digging stars.”

Faculty life was not as exciting, although the faculty meetings were so annoying that O’Keeffe managed to find them amusing. She didn’t want to push out cookie-cutter students, and she didn’t have the requisite “flat feet and pop eyes and a Sunday school disposition.” She bridled against the traditional course of study and the seemingly endless rules: “I can’t go barefooted tomorrow if I want to – I might lose my job if I cut off my hair – They pay you to be such a fool sort of pattern.”

Georgia O'Keeffe's faculty portrait in the 1917 yearbook of West Texas Normal College, now West Texas A&M University.
Georgia O’Keeffe’s faculty portrait in the 1917 yearbook of West Texas State Normal College, now West Texas A&M University. Image: The Prairie News, West Texas A&M University.

Eventually O’Keeffe lets loose, “slinging bats,” as she writes, at her fellow faculty, insisting that education should be about making meaning rather than making money, and that it should be about “livingness” rather than deadly convention. Far from being entirely dismissed, her outburst is a hit (“They laughed and they clapped and they looked at one another in amazed wonder”), and so is a faculty lecture she gives on “The Cubist in Art.” Even as she becomes something of a hero to fellow faculty and students for speaking her mind at chapel, O’Keeffe finds herself the subject of town gossip. She takes on both town and gown with Nietzschean fervor. (“Nietzsche would say everyone I know in Canyon is sick.”)

O’Keeffe was completely committed to her classes, but on occasion she did play hooky from mandatory chapel. O’Keeffe preferred to spend her Sundays outdoors, or working, rather than at church, and as a non-religious person she was automatically suspect by the Canyon community. In turn, she called out the hypocrisy of war-mongering Christians. Even before war was declared in April 1917, Texans were inflamed by the news that Germany had promised Mexico the annexation of Texas in return for a military alliance against the United States, and West Texas supported students who abandoned their studies to enlist. O’Keeffe thought the abrupt departures misguided, and lamented the boys being sent to war “like sending the cattle to market.” Already feeling embattled, O’Keeffe is further disquieted by the war. She admits to her “queer over-sensitiveness toward everyone” and feeling so internally chaotic that “I wouldn’t mind dying when I feel like this.”

As the war progresses, she bounces between extremes: “I wish there were another country to go to – I’d like to leave this one for a country where there isn’t war – or else I’d like to go to Europe and see what it’s really like.” She says she’s not a flag-waver and then paints a flag, after visiting her brother Alexis in an officer training camp in Waco. It’s a flag with a difference: “It’s the flag as I see it floating — A dark red flag — trembling in the wind like my lips when I’m about to cry — There is a strong firm line in it too — teeth set — under the lips.” By October she is feeling unmoored by the war, “being soaked with it second hand — it is everywhere.” At Christmastime she objects to the holiday cards in the drugstore featuring the Statue of Liberty with a verse ending “Wipe Germany off the map!” (not very Christian, she observes to Stieglitz, and rather lacking in Christmas spirit). She is accused of being unpatriotic and pro-German.

By January 1918, O’Keeffe says she feels sick inside. “I wish someone would shoot me,” she writes to Stieglitz. “I don’t know – I don’t want to live anymore. That is a stupid thing to say.” And a few paragraphs later, “I wish you would carry me away – up into the snow — dark soft quiet night — and let me sleep. And I don’t ever want to wake up.” O’Keeffe suffers a chronic sore throat and painful cough that leaves her voiceless and lifeless. Unable to teach, she soon heads south to San Antonio for warmer weather on the advice of her doctor. For more than a year, O’Keeffe has been seductively sharing with Stieglitz her intimacies with gentlemen callers. She has told him about the man across the street who peers at her “in all stages of undress,” and about the men she lets explore her skirt pockets. She is, she writes, a “little girl wanting to be close to you.” Stieglitz finally takes the hint (“I’m getting to want to see you so bad I’m afraid I’ll have to be moving up that way”), and in May 1918 he dispatches Strand to fetch her back to New York.

O’Keeffe had arrived in Canyon as a flourishing artist with an emergent vocabulary and subjectivity, and she leaves with a profound connection to the sublime as well as a more finely wrought politics and the beginnings of a public persona. Here, in these letters, we see O’Keeffe processing her outsider relationship to mainstream America. It’s a fluid process, bold and rather messy. She can get flustered, and she contradicts herself. Her ideas, as the West Texas college president tells her, are still “in a liquid state.” O’Keeffe chooses to suffer her difference, vehemently insisting on it, even acting out on it, but remains unsure of exactly how to express and claim it. She deeply disapproves of anything ordinary, like those pink roses, but she finds herself over-reacting, not yet in full command of her iconoclasm. Provoked by the conservatism and militarism surrounding her, O’Keeffe is torn between speaking her mind and remaining silent. The Irish in her is exhilarated by the fight, but it wears her out, literally, and she has to wonder, is it worth the energy, when she needs that energy for painting?

In the end, ensconced in New York, making her way as a professional artist, O’Keeffe will decide that personal power isn’t about the fight. For the rest of her life she will famously go her own way – and get her own way – by resolutely standing her ground, looking on but remaining well above the fray.

Originally published on Sightlines on August 10, 2020.

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