Georgia O'KeeffeIn 1912, a 25-year-old Wisconsin farm girl, fresh out of the Art Institute of Chicago, heading off to west Texas to teach art in the public schools would seem to be an unlikely candidate to become one of the key figures in 20th-century American art. An accomplished artist since the age of 17, it was in the hard-scrabble west where she began to develop a distinctive style that would make her the most celebrated female artist in this century, perhaps in all of American art. Her style of teaching raised eyebrows from time to time. She once installed a horse atop a table in her classroom for the students to draw.
Just before WW I she went to New York to attend Columbia Teachers College. There a friend showed some of her work to an art gallery owner specialising in unconventional artists. He was impressed and included some of her paintings in an exhibit. She was outraged, but soon they became friends. They were married in 1924. She was 37, he was 60. Her name was Georgia O'Keeffe; his, Alfred Stieglitz. In 1929, she began spending summers in New Mexico and winters in New York, bringing to the big city Southwestern images painted on an immense scale. As her work developed, her hot New Mexico landscapes, animal sculls, and enormous florals began to abstract into a female iconography that brought her fame both in New York and New Mexico. Having a top New York gallery owner/husband to promote her work didn't hurt either.
After Stieglitz died in 1946, Georgia O'Keeffe chose New Mexico as her permanent home, gravitating to the "back to nature" philosophy long before it became a 1970s fad. With the advent of the women's movement also in the 70's, O'Keeffe's work was recognised for its latent sexual content though she never acknowledged such elements in her paintings of massive, increasingly abstract open blossoms. She flirted with abstraction quite often, but even her most non-representational work always remained grounded in some reference to reality. Her juxtaposition of positive and negative spaces was a recurring theme in much of the painting done late in her life. Working well into her eighties, she aspired to passing the century mark. She died in 1986. She was 98.
Contributed by Lane, Jim
12 March 1998