Georgia O’Keeffe was notoriously private about her artmaking. “I can never bear to have people around me when I’m working,” she told The New Yorker, “or to let anybody see what I’m doing or say anything about it until it’s finished.” She was never eager to say much about her aesthetic ideas, either.
So the opportunity to consider the form and technique of O’Keeffe’s art — rather than its postcard-perfect content or manufactured meanings — was an opportunity I couldn’t refuse. Two back-to-back museum exhibits in Santa Fe, overlapping for one weekend.
Together, “Georgia O’Keeffe in Process” at the New Mexico Museum of Art and “Georgia O’Keeffe: Line, Color, Composition” at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum gathered more than 90 of her works, ranging from her earliest family portraits to her last, lustrous watercolors.
When she was a young girl, not even a teenager, O’Keeffe declared that she would grow up to be an artist. Today, she has become such a fixture of American popular culture — as self-made woman and New Mexico icon — that it’s easy to forget: first and foremost, Georgia O’Keeffe was an artist.
“If one could only reproduce nature, and always with less beauty than the original, why paint at all?”-Georgia O’Keeffe
Besides the fact that she was a woman, nothing caused more confusion about O’Keeffe’s art than the early modernist anxiety around “abstraction.” The endless wrangling over the status of her images — whether they were abstract or realist — distracted from what she was really doing: experimenting with the status of her canvases: How can the space of the canvas be divided in interesting ways that relate primarily to its own shape and edges rather than to a pictorial scene?
“In Process” curator Carmen Vendelin lays to rest any lingering misconceptions that O’Keeffe’s work is descriptive, even when it renders recognizable images. In the show’s last gallery, hung next to each other, are a painting by O’Keeffe and a photo by Todd Webb. The painting is From the River — Pale (1959), and the photo shows the artist’s Ghost Ranch, New Mexico, studio in 1963.
From the River — Pale is one of a series of remarkably colored images of what appears to be a highly branched river rendered flat against the canvas, like an aerial map. In this version, a stunning chartreuse follows along the meandering curves, and a lovely pink clings to the lowest tributary. O’Keeffe recalled that, when she flew around the world in 1959, “I was surprised that there were so many desert areas with large riverbeds running through them. I made many drawings about one and a half inches square of the rivers seen from the air. At home I made larger charcoal drawings from the little pencil drawings. Later I made paintings from the charcoal drawings. The color used for the paintings had little to do with what I had seen — the color grew as I painted.”
But Webb’s photograph tells a different story. In it, From the River — Pale is hanging to the immediate right of a blank canvas set on an easel. And to the immediate left of that easel is a length of tree branch propped flat up against the wall. It is an exact replica of — and apparent model for — the painting.
Whether river or tree (or later, road), it’s only the expressive line that matters. “[W]e can not escape a language of line,” O’Keeffe wrote, “that has been growing in meaning since the beginning of lines.”
“She paints apples, and the texture of their skins is reproduced so perfectly that one is almost tempted to take a bite.”-New York Sun (1922)
At a time when modern artists were eager to deploy the freedom of expressive brushstrokes, O’Keeffe chose not to follow the trend. Instead, she preferred to exploit the material properties of paint itself: how, depending upon its mixture with binding media and amendments, paint could be opaque or transparent, glossy or matte, smooth or chalky, juicy or dry: what Max Doerner, author of a painting manual that O’Keeffe owned and heavily annotated, called the “body” of the paint.
The relative discretion of her surfaces, along with the graphic reproducibility of her images (most notably the flowers), belie the visual and textural depth of O’Keeffe’s oil paintings. It’s subtle. Even subliminal. That’s what drew me (reluctantly) to O’Keeffe’s work. I could sense something happening beneath the surface, something woven through the surface, but I couldn’t quite see it.
I hunted for it during that one weekend in Santa Fe. Underneath the arresting colors and bold shapes, O’Keeffe’s works possess a tactile presence, like the rhythmic line that energizes a melody.
Early on, an untitled charcoal drawing circa 1915/1916 suggests the “hand” of fabric — wool, its drape a bit rough against your skin. It’s akin to the folds of a blanket — a contour that reemerges in later years as the folds of soft, receding New Mexico hills. The pastels have a dramatic effect, given the way that O’Keeffe variously blends and smooths the powder or builds an edge-like ridge. In the “Nude Series” of 1917, the wash of color is so evanescent, it’s barely a sigh. With oil, her options expanded. The depth and richness of “Black Hollyhock Blue Larkspur” (1930) resembles velvet. “In the Patio II” (1948, on view in a separate exhibition at the New Mexico Museum of Art) looks like it’s made of shiny silk threads strung across the canvas. The glossy black rocks look as smooth as they feel in the palm of your hand. In “The Beyond,” (1972) the feathery blue sky in the distance offers respite from the impenetrable black abyss below.
O’Keeffe didn’t just observe the world. She inhabited it, pressing the visual through the haptic. “Water is a living thing,” she wrote, “hence its form is deep and quiet, or soft and smooth, or broad and ocean-like, or thick like flesh.” She gave her paintings a living topography.
“O’Keeffe dedicated a great deal of time to developing precise qualities in her paints,” O’Keeffe Museum conservator Dale Kronkright wrote, “experimenting with resin media, slow- and fast-drying oils, waxes, and thinners, and repeatedly hand-mulling pigments to increase their translucency and achieve the desired body.”
For O’Keeffe, this connection between eye and hand was primal. One of her earliest memories was of “pleasure in something seen with my eye and touched with my hand.” She remembered walking across the lawn around her childhood home outside of Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, down the entrance drive to the road. “The color of the dust was bright in the sunlight. It looked so soft I wanted to get down into it quickly. It was warm, full of smooth little ridges made by buggy wheels. I was sitting in it, enjoying it very much — probably eating it.”
This was, O’Keeffe concluded, the same feeling she had later, as an artist, when she felt the urge to “eat a fine pile of paint just squeezed out of the tube.”
Here’s how O’Keeffe described her studio in Abiquiu, New Mexico, to a friend in 1951:
[It] looks like an attic — it always does when I work — it would undoubtedly distress you – one ten foot table is full of canvas and stretchers and hammers and tacks — then there is a small table full of little pieces of canvas covered cards painted tones of all the colors I have — every day — or I should say night — I stretch a little canvas. It hurts my hand so I do it a little at a time — My palette is very clean — my brushes too — The palette is on a table I can wheel about — another one is on the window sill — the easel is over there by the window — another easel is on the window sill.
O’Keeffe loved the stuff of artmaking, and she loved the ritual. She was a consummate craftsperson, her skills no doubt enhanced by Max Doerner’s The Materials of the Artist & their Use in Painting. O’Keeffe acquired this classic painting manual in 1934, a gift from her husband, the photographer Alfred Stieglitz. Doerner, the father of scientific art conservation, was a professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich. He had taught William Merritt Chase, who went on to teach O’Keeffe.
Like Doerner, O’Keeffe believed in the mastery of materials as the foundation for expression and style. She created a library of color cards (those “little pieces of canvas covered cards painted tones of all the colors I have”), just as Doerner suggested in his book. And she never stopped pursuing the precise and correct painting techniques that would ensure her paintings a long and stable life.
Even though she permitted no one, not even Stieglitz, to see her paint, we do glimpse something of her process from John D. Poling. He was a young man doing casual work at Ghost Ranch when he was enlisted to help the near-blind O’Keeffe make her last oil paintings (a series entitled “From a Day with Juan”) in the summer of 1976.
Before they even got to the paints on one particular day, O’Keeffe asked Polin to retrieve her well-worn painting manual. She wanted to check something about that day’s color, yellow ocher. What would she have learned from Doerner? In part, that: “The ochers have medium covering power, require about 60% oil (they vary much in this respect!), are very permanent when free from impurities, dry fairly well, and can be used in all techniques.”
“O’Keeffe often came up to the canvas,” Poling wrote, “one hand gently touching the surface as if her touch showed her what her eyes could not.” And when she painted, she painted quickly. “She pushed paint into the canvas as much as brushed it across the surface.”
After paint had been applied, O’Keeffe used a brush (she had an extensive inventory with varying sizes and tip shapes, some of which she had trimmed herself) to produce the desired surface and transitions: “she demonstrated how to gently brush the surface of the canvas to smooth out the ridges and rough texture of brush marks in the paint. This technique could also be used to soften transitions from one color to another. … Ever so gently she brushed the area I had painted, her arm moving from left to right, covering a three- to four-inch area each pass. It was as if she dusted the paint with air.”
More about transitions: “This was done by placing the two colors to be blended side by side, one painted to the border of the other. Then a clean brush was used to roughly paint back and forth along the line, mixing the two. Finally, the large brush — what I called the ‘finishing’ brush — gracefully accomplished a variety of gentle transformations in texture and shade, from one color, to an intermediate shade, to the second color.”
In order to achieve all these effects, Polin described, “One’s touch had to be deft and light, softly stroking the paint.”
“The men didn’t like my color. My color was hopeless. My color was too bright. I liked colors.”— Georgia O’Keeffe
For O’Keeffe, it was color that brought a painting to life — that made it “talk” and “sing.” What looks like a white rose is tinged with blue and green. Contrasting hues vibrate against each other. Unlikely combinations became inevitable. Georgia Engelhard, Stieglitz’s niece, a rare witness to O’Keeffe’s practice, remarked that the artist “knew how to make white and green in such a way to make the white whiter and the green greener.”
O’Keeffe had learned to like colors while studying with William Merritt Chase at the Art Students League in 1907/08. “His love of style — color—paint as paint,” she recalled years later, “was lively. I loved the color in the brass and copper pots and pans, peppers, onions and other things we painted for him.”
She certainly learned something about color interactions from Doerner’s manual, which counseled artists to develop a select few personally expressive color combinations “which are his own and which have not been seen and felt by others.” About the color cards, he advised: “For purposes of observation and testing it is a good practice to apply samples of pigments, painting media, etc., in oil, tempera, and other techniques to a canvas or painting ground and also to glass, and carefully date and label them. Later on they often give very valuable pointers.”
After O’Keeffe died, an inventory of 330 color cards were found among her studio materials, documenting how meticulous she was about mixing her dry pigments, resins, solvents, and drying media before she began to paint. She created her paints on the palette, with clarity of forethought and imagination, rather than building it up spontaneously on the canvas.
The color cards are paint mixtures on small cut-up rectangles of primed, canvas-covered paperboard, according to conservator Kronkright. They were organized into seven color groups, with one color per card. Some of them are dated, and about 30 are annotated with the amendments (poppy seed oil, walnut oil, Venice turpentine resin, mastic resin, dammar, bees wax) that she was adding and grinding into the paints.
The color cards are testament to the control O’Keeffe intended over the appearance of her paint. According to Kronkright:
“Besides mixing exact proportions of hues from tubes of oil paint to create a particular color, O’Keeffe also selected a precise value (the degree of lightness or darkness), saturation (the degree to which a hue stands by itself or is muddied or obscured by other hues), opacity (the degree to which the paint reflects light like a solid object or transmits it like a translucent film), and gloss (the degree to which paint has a smooth, glass-like surface or a matte, dull, grainy surface).”
For O’Keeffe, color was “one of the great things in the world that makes life worth living.” I suspect that her favorite color was blue, likely cerulean blue: “that Blue,” she wrote, “that will always be there as it is now after all man’s destruction is finished.”
I used to walk right past the flowers. I considered them trite, and wanted to ignore the distortion they had wrought upon O’Keeffe’s reputation as a “woman painter.”
But it was impossible to walk past “Black Hollyhock Blue Larkspur” (1930) at the O’Keeffe Museum. There’s nothing shy or sentimental or feminine about these blooms, which the artist chose to capture at their peak, practically aching with life and vitality. They’re bursting the edges of the picture frame, with an intensity and audacity that justify their iconic status. They are insistent — literally in your face, refusing to be ignored.
In what world, I wonder, do these floating flowers, unmoored from any ground, exist? They’ve been extracted well beyond their natural habitat. They live conspicuously in the aesthetic world, where flowers are archetypal specimens of beauty displayed for human consumption. Is this what O’Keeffe’s flowers insist upon — to be acknowledged for their role in our visual pleasure? Might they be stand-ins for O’Keeffe’s position as Stieglitz’s photographic muse, and a way of reclaiming her own artistic power?
As a child and young artist, O’Keeffe did her share of conventionally pretty, well-behaved flower pictures. She started painting her trademark flowers in the mid-1920s. The subject matter was no doubt opportunistic, given her love for nature and the summers she spent at Stieglitz’s family home in Lake George, New York. But the way she looked at those flowers, so intimately, she had learned back in high school.
In her sophomore year, O’Keeffe’s art teacher held up a jack-in-the-pulpit flower:
[S]he pointed out the strange shapes and variations in color — from the deep, almost black earthy violet through all the greens, from the pale whitish green in the flower through the heavy green of the leaves. She held up the purplish hood and showed us the Jack inside. I had seen many Jacks before, but this was the first time I remember examining a flower. … I didn’t like anything about her, not even the interest she aroused in me. But maybe she started me looking at things — looking very carefully at details. It was certainly the first time my attention was called to the outline and color of any growing thing with the idea of drawing or painting it.
“There are a few shapes I have repeated a number of times during my life and I haven’t known I was repeating it until after I’d done it.”— Georgia O’Keeffe
O’Keeffe was at her best with the simplest compositions comprised of elemental shapes. Over the years she refined a recognizable vocabulary, including ovals, curls, branches, rectangles, and V’s. The V shape seems to have held the most persistent, expressive power for her:
A little way out beyond my kitchen window at the Ranch is a V shape in the red hills. I passed the V many times — sometimes stopping to look as it spoke to me quietly. I one day carried my canvas out and made a drawing of it. The shapes of the drawing were so simple that it scarcely seemed worth while to bother with it any further. But I did a painting — just the arms of two red hills reaching out to the sky and holding it.
O’Keeffe’s V is a passageway. It’s an invitation to look beyond — an intimation of distance and longing. It took a range of forms. At its narrowest, you see a slit in the vein of a flower, a fissure up the center of a mountain range, and endless variations on folds, creases, cracks, and crevices. At its widest, you see canyons. Not just in New Mexico’s cliffs, but in New York’s skyscrapers as well. They are, every one, a portal to “the faraway,” which was her shorthand for the world beyond — beautiful, pristine, and tinged with loneliness.
I trace O’Keeffe’s archetypal V back to 1916, when she sketched and painted her tent door at night on a camping trip in Virginia. (Around this time, O’Keeffe would write to a friend that “I get the shapes in my head [ — I] can never make them exactly like I want to — but there is a fascination about trying.” ) O’Keeffe is directly facing the tent door, which takes center stage. What we see are the tent panels pulled back to either side, creating an inverted V doorway. Beyond this threshold, there’s a rich, mysterious blue darkness. The scene resembles a proscenium, and we’re waiting to see what will be revealed. We’re led to wonder: What’s out there?
The O’Keeffe Museum exhibition included an entire gallery documenting the V shape as realized in her Glen Canyon paintings. The artist, at 77, accompanied photographers Todd Webb and Eliot Porter and their families for a rafting tour of the Colorado River in May 1965. The four paintings in the resulting series (two of them on view) are variations on how she experienced the clefts between those soaring cliffs. Webb’s marvelous photos capture the artist walking the canyon floor, exploring the ribbons of sunshine thrown down through those tall, narrow slits, like light through a cathedral window. To prepare for the paintings, O’Keeffe made Polaroid photographs, playing with how differing contrast affected detail, shape, and composition. And she made drawings that experimented with contour, shape, and the division of space. “On the River I” (1965) gives us the most extreme perspective. It’s as if we’re lying on our backs (a position in which O’Keeffe sketches during the trip, according to Webb’s accompanying photos), so the V becomes a triangle, all the cliff tops forming a rough ring — an aperture through which to view the sky.
The shapes are what drove O’Keeffe’s vision. It’s too simplistic to think, for example, that she began with those red hills behind Ghost Ranch and then found a way to paint them. Rather, she began with the V shape in her imagination and found an expression of it in those hills. “I have shapes,” she wrote, “that I want to say something with.”
O’Keeffe saw the world as shapes, through shapes. She literally referred to them as being in her head, and they were how she formulated her compositions, a process she described as “that memory or dream thing I do.” (One longtime friend suggested that the artist had experienced “dream projections or eidetic dreams on the wall” since her teens.) When O’Keeffe recalled the making of her “Shell and Old Shingle” (1926) series, she described how the objects were transformed, until “[t]hey fascinated me so that I forgot what they were except that they were shapes together — singing shapes.”
To see a World in a Grain of Sand— William Blake, from “Auguries of Innocence”
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour…
O’Keeffe once replied to an interviewer, when asked why she painted flowers so large, “You don’t ask me why I make the river so small.”
I think she delighted in confounding the usual relationship between near and far, between the viewer and the viewed. She didn’t paint a mountain, or river, or flower, as if it were “out there,” with proper perspective and point of view. She painted everything, no matter it’s actual distance, as if she could reach out and touch it — and hold it in her hand, as she did her collection of rocks.
As a viewer, I take the artist’s place in front of the painting. And like her, I can hold infinity in the palm of my hand. “In the presence of such obvious immensity,” wrote philosopher Gaston Bachelard, “a poet can point the way to intimate depth.”
O’Keeffe gave the 19th-century American sublime a modernist update, capturing the same sense of grandeur and awe (O’Keeffe: “the feeling of infinity on the horizon line”) and expanding the category to include the mundane as well as the majestic: “You know how you walk along a country road and notice a little tuft of grass,” she explained to the New York Sun in 1922, “and the next time you pass that way you stop to see how it is getting along and how much it has grown? Often I remember little things like that and put them into my pictures.”
The final gallery of the O’Keeffe Museum exhibition was as perfect a room of art as I’ve ever stepped into. And there wasn’t a flower, mountain, or bone in sight.
It was a room of shimmering beauty, chapel-like, about a dozen watercolors surrounding the visitor with elemental shape and color. In these, her final paintings, O’Keeffe returned to her original ideas and themes, her favorite shapes and colors, and rendered them more purely than ever.
The blues and greens and reds spread, sometimes in a gentle wash, sometimes with more muscle, through the thick, fleshy paper. The circles and lines, the familiar fern-like curves, the triple bands of a landscape, the layered colors — they’re all brushstroke. All gesture. O’Keeffe achieves what she first admired five decades earlier in Chinese and Japanese painting: color so alive that it appears to breathe.
These minimal gestures bring O’Keeffe’s lifelong rigor to its logical conclusion. She still means to “fill a space in a beautiful way,” as she first learned from art educator Alon Bement more than a half century earlier. And she is fully released from the burden of reality. Verticals are held in tension with horizontals, and circles with lines. Green and orange blaze in each other’s reflection. And the blues, the blues… My favorite was “Untitled (Abstraction Blue Lines)” (1970s), a loosely layered stack of blue tones laid down in wavy, trailing strokes across the paper, drops of paint left raw.
The complete series of 45 watercolors was executed between 1976 and 1979. By then, O’Keeffe was in her nineties, and had been diagnosed with macular degeneration. It blinded her central eyesight but left her with some peripheral vision. She was able to make the watercolor paintings with the assistance of Belarmino (“Mino”) Lopez, a full-time personal assistant whose grandfather was O’Keeffe’s gardener and mother her cook/housekeeper. He remains on staff at O’Keeffe’s historic home in Abiquiú.
Together O’Keeffe and Lopez would go into her Abiquiú studio, where she sat at a corner of the long plywood table. She sat on her Eero Saarinen tulip chair, positioned sideways to the table, to best use her peripheral vision. Lopez set out the blotting paper atop some waxed paper; diluted the tube watercolor paints in small tin and plastic trays, at the artist’s instruction; and laid out the brushes, which she selected by feel.
Working one color at a time, he placed the brush in O’Keeffe’s hand and helped her dip the brush in the bowl of paint. He helped position her hand on the paper where she wanted, and she proceeded to make the thick curves, lines, and circles with smooth strokes. Sometimes she was strong enough to make the shapes just as she imagined. Sometimes she asked Lopez to make the circles: “Put the paintbrush there, just turn the paintbrush, and you’ll get a circle.” As always, she destroyed anything deemed unsatisfactory.
“I couldnt [sic] help seeing with my own eye — ”— Georgia O’Keeffe
There is a photograph of O’Keeffe, taken in 1960 by Tony Vaccaro for Look magazine, included in the New Mexico Museum of Art exhibition. She’s sitting in the back seat of a car, looking straight at us, through something that she’s holding up to one eye. At first you think it might be one of the pelvis bones she famously used to frame the sky. But, according to the wall label, it’s a piece of cheese.
Of all the portraits taken of O’Keeffe, from the first Stieglitz nudes to the final celebrity myth-makers, this is my favorite. Partly because of those fine, tendril-like fingers. Partly because of how uncharacteristically playful it is — a wink at the pelvis paintings she posed with during her two weeks with the photographer. And mostly because it reminds us: the artist is her eye. The eye as a mechanical viewfinder, framing an image. But more importantly, the mind’s eye as an imaginative view-maker, composing the faraway.
Originally published by The Smart Set, January 4, 2016.