The young Georgia O’Keeffe, working relentlessly to find her voice as an artist, was ambivalent about viewer reception. She longed for people to understand her art, but she resisted that desire at the same time. Modern art was for art’s sake, and the meaning was hers to know and not necessarily for her viewer to find out. Where does meaning lie, and who owns it? She was struggling with the fundamental questions of art.
When she found out that avant-garde photographer and gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz responded so positively to her drawings, she couldn’t help herself. She wanted to know what they meant to him.
He responded in a letter, typed and dated January 20, 1916. “My dear Miss O’Keffe,” he began, misspelling her name.
What am I to say? It is impossible for me to put into words what I saw and felt in your drawings. As a matter of fact I would not make any attempt to do so. I might give you what I received from them if you and I were to meet and talk about life. Possibly then through such a conversation I might make you feel what your drawings gave me.
I do want to tell you that they gave me much joy. They were a real surprise and above all I felt that they were a genuine expression of yourself. I do not know what you had in you mind while doing them.
Alas, there is no unbroken line between the artist’s intention (if there is one) and the viewer’s interpretation (if there is one). And yet there is a connection.
This paradox plagued O’Keeffe her entire career. In the 1920s, when men insisted on reducing her art to a “female” expression emanating from “the womb” (Stieglitz lost his reluctance to describe the meaning of her paintings as soon as he began to exhibit and sell them), she resolved to never comment her work, or on other people’s responses. Instead, she spent that energy on things that mattered most to her. Like painting.