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What if Georgia O’Keeffe attended Harvard?

I often wonder what young people think of Georgia O’Keeffe’s art. Now more than a century since her breakout solo exhibition in 1923, how are her paintings seen? What fresh contexts are they given? Interpretations?

What new life, if any, will Gen Z offer O’Keeffe?

Arielle C. Frommer, for one, has transformed the artist into a Harvard undergrad.

Arielle C. Frommer. Courtesy of Alisa Regassa and Joey Huang.

In “Arts Vanity: My Art History Obsession Has Gone Too Far(Harvard Crimson, December 24, 2023), Frommer delivered fan fiction for the likes of O’Keeffe, van Gogh, and da Vinci. Fan fiction is a popular genre, when fans embroider on their favorite characters, novels, even artists, with their own imaginative writing. In this case, Frommer was asking the question: If famous artists were students at Harvard, who would they be, and why?

Here’s what Frommer had to say about O’Keeffe:

Concentration: Art, Film, and Visual Studies and Environmental Science and Public Policy

Georgia O’Keeffe was an American modernist painter often known for her evocative paintings of natural forms, particularly flowers. With her combined interest in art and nature, she would probably pursue a joint degree in AFVS and ESPP and write the coolest thesis ever. She would also successfully comp the Advocate and the Signet (sorry Van Gogh). O’Keeffe painted beautiful advertisements for a silk manufacturing company, so she would be sure to get involved with anything fashion-forward on campus. O’Keeffe would be a proud designer for FIG magazine and have her boyfriend (famous photographer Alfred Stieglitz) photograph all their shoots!

How fabulous, right?!

I was curious to hear more from Frommer, and she agreed to answer several followup questions.

BTW, Frommer is a Crimson staff writer (and former arts columnist), co-president of the Harvard Undergraduate Art History Society, and a tour guide at the Harvard Art Museums. In her formal studies, she is concentrating in Astrophysics and Physics.

Continuing on with your fan fiction: If you were in a class with O’Keeffe, what would she be like?

I imagine that she would be well-spoken, sensitive, and humble. O’Keeffe had strong ideas about what her art represented, so I imagine that as a classmate she would always defend her opinions and stand up for what she believed in. She experimented with abstraction in radical ways, so I imagine she would have lots of creative and innovative ideas — basically, someone I’d love to work with on a group project!

Some young people might consider O’Keeffe’s art old-fashioned. What makes her paintings fresh for you?

I’ve never considered her old-fashioned! I think she was always innovating and trying new things. She was also interested in the intersection between art and nature, which is a crossover that, yes, people have done for a millennia, but are also still continuing to reinvent in interesting and compelling ways. I think her art can speak to the average person too — I feel that many people feel off-put by modern art, finding its simplicity pretentious, the abstraction hard to grasp. I find O’Keeffe to be a bit more accessible since she often painted flowers and nature — something people know and love.

“Red and Pink,” 1925. Georgia O’Keeffe. © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.

For those of us who haven’t seen “Red and Pink” (1925) in Harvard’s collection, tell us what it’s like.

It’s marvelous. The painting is rather small in person, but it draws the eye immediately. Placed in a unique silver frame, the canvas is filled with lush, sensual curves of red and pink. It’s immediately recognizable as an O’Keeffe, if you know her work. I often get the impression, looking at it, of something either really big or really small — a macrocosm or a microcosm of some heterogeneous, continuous entity. As I mentioned in the article, I’m a tour guide for the Harvard Art Museums, and I’ve attended one of the other guides’ stops with this painting. She always asks viewers what it reminds them of, and I’ve heard all sorts of creative responses, from the interior chambers of a blood vessel or rivulets of fabric to the insides of flower petals (the technically correct answer). 

I’ve always found that there is almost something slightly unsettling or off-putting about the colors. The painting is composed of such rich hues, but the anatomical sense of the scene and those bright, angry reds gives it an eerie, violent feeling, like you’re looking at something’s insides. And yet, with the soft plums of color, the gentle lobes and undulating ribbons of rosy hues, it also feels romantic, sensual, delicate. It draws an interesting dichotomy.

The painting was created for a silk advertisement, and I’ve always wondered how the company actually advertised with it. I suppose the color and the curves are reminiscent of fabric… did they slap their name on it and place it on a billboard somewhere? Was the painting reproduced in their catalogs, or their silks? An oil on canvas work seems to defy commercialism in its one-of-a-kind nature, so I’ve always found this quite curious.

If you could ask GOK one question, what would it be?

I hate to be this person and bring up a question of gender to O’Keeffe, but I would love to ask her about her thoughts of her work being used in female empowerment movements. Her work is so heavily associated with feminism, that in my original draft of my article, I described her as a Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality major — then revised it when I imagined (to my horror) how academics, or O’Keeffe herself, would feel if they read that. O’Keeffe insisted that her art was not feminine art and that she was not a female artist but simply an artist, and wanted to be recognized as a successful painter in her own right. I would be curious to hear her reaction to her work used in feminist empowerment movements throughout the 20th century.

If I were allowed a second question, and assuming this is set today, I’d also love to know how she felt about advances in photography that allow people to capture images with incredible detail and resolution. Would she be interested in high-resolution photography of flora, or would she feel that such a precise, realistic, and concrete portrait of her subject lacked artistic merit? Does she believe that the beauty of her work stems (pun intended) from the mere act of carefully deconstructing and examining the flowers themselves, or that it must be abstracted and reinterpreted on the canvas?

Well, If I had any doubts about the strength and vibrance and sustainability of O’Keeffe’s legacy, Frommer has laid them to rest.

PS: If you’re near the Harvard Art Museums, 32 Quincy Street, Cambridge, MA, on February 17, 2024, Frommer will be giving a spotlight tour called “Out of This World,” which explores how an understanding of astronomy can enhance one’s perspective on art.)

“Out of This World” Spotlight Tour with Arielle C. Frommer at the Harvard Art Museums.

My Georgia O'Keeffe

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Ann Daly PhD is an essayist specializing in women and women's history. She is working on a book about Georgia O'Keeffe.

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