50. O’Keeffe the Artist

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“I had been taught to work like others and after careful thinking I decided that I wasn’t going to spend my life doing what had already been done.”
Georgia O’Keeffe

Sartre’s invention of himself as a philosopher who based his thoughts and actions upon a belief in freedom rather than his philosophical training, in phenomenology and ontology, is a perfect example of his own idea that we are free to invent ourselves. To see ourselves as projects, to be able to sow, shape and steer according to our own ambitions, rather than dutifully following someone else’s indoctrination, is daunting, but also liberating and empowering. The endeavour of self is one that should be as unique as each and every one of us. To conform to a mould of prescribed behaviour and pattern for living betrays the infinite capacity that each of us has within our genetic code, abilities and potential interests. Why shouldn’t you enter a marathon, start a dog-grooming business, become an expert in survival techniques, or research particle physics? The beauty of being part of the human race is the infinite capacity for achievement, creativity and determination. All of which can give example to others, to contra the many regimes throughout history, and the present, that prevent such example by their desire for power and their insistence upon uniform thinking, dress, and activity from their comrades, civilians or congregation. To blast through, and embrace freedom, as put forth by Sartre, is liberating, but also essential if we as fully functioning members of society are not to contribute to the stagnation of that society.

Let us not forget that the ability to question, think freely and think for oneself as opposed to thinking what one is told is also ensconced in Article 19 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

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More than this, though, should be the case.

Normally, one would argue that where there is a right, there, de facto, needs to be a duty held by someone or some organisation to uphold that that right. However, my thought on this, if we follow Sartre, is that then rather than seeing that we have a right to the freedom of opinion and expression and that someone else has the duty to protect it, we should see that we have the duty to achieve our freedom of opinion and expression and not to allow ourselves to become sheep in the hands of ‘shepherds’ who would dictate the acceptable opinions and forms expression. To think for ourselves, so the argument goes, is ethically essential. But, maybe I’m digressing too much into the area of the general and should be more specific?

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In Some Memories of Drawings, first published in 1974, Doris Bry, a friend, dealer and curator of Georgia O’Keeffe’s, set the artist the task of recalling her break-through moment some fifty years previously:

“The first seven drawings are from a group that I made in 1915-16 when I had the idea that what I had been taught was of little value to me except for the use of my materials as a language – charcoal, pencil, pen and ink, watercolour, pastel and oil. The use of my materials wasn’t a problem for me. But what to say with them? I had been taught to work like others and after careful thinking I decided that I wasn’t going to spend my life doing what had already been done.”

As a statement of artistic integrity, it doesn’t get much clearer than that. For us, though, there is an added bonus because O’Keeffe saw herself as a project, a project that had to be developed outside of the received and prescribed practice for how one should be an artist.

Violette de Mazia and Georgia O'Keeffe looking at Cezanne's The Card Players
Violette de Mazia and Georgia O’Keeffe looking at Cezanne’s The Card Players

Born in 1887, from Irish, Dutch and Hungarian stock that had found its way Midwest to farm in Sun Prairie, near Madison, Wisconsin, Georgia O’Keeffe was the second of seven children. Being the first daughter of five girls, she was the classic Victorian trailblazer for her female siblings. Led by a strong and determined mother who wanted all her children to be educated, piano, violin and drawing instruction was given to all the girls from a relatively early age; Georgia was eleven when the drawing classes were introduced. Ida Totto O’Keeffe also encouraged all her children to know their own minds and, as Roxana Robinson’s definitive biography, Georgia O’Keeffe, records, at the age of fourteen Ida’s eldest daughter announced: “I’m going to be an artist.” From then onwards, O’Keeffe continued education in art, first at the Sacred Heart convent school in Madison, where her parents paid the additional annual fee of twenty dollars for her “instruction in art”, then at the “big public high school” in Milwaukee, where at the age of fifteen she was “decidedly disparaging about the art teacher: a gaunt maiden lady, with an over-eager manner, who wore an anxious spray of violets on her hat.”

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In 1903, when Georgia was sixteen, the whole family moved one thousand miles back east to Williamsburg, Virginia, to try and escape the family curse of early death by tuberculosis. Georgia and the three elder sisters were enrolled at the Chatham Episcopal Institute and, although accustomed to rules set by her mother and the convent, Georgia found herself rebelling against Chatham’s charter for appropriate behaviour. She spoke differently, “I knew door was door. I knew it wasn’t doe”, and she dressed differently as noted by classmate, Christine McRae Cocke:

“She wore a tan coat suit, short, severe, and loose, into this room filled with girls with small waists and tight-fitting dresses bedecked with ruffles and bows.”

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McRae Cocke offers another interesting insight that highlights O’Keeffe’s sense of self and confidence:

“Nearly every girl in that study hall planned just how she was going to dress Georgia up, but her plans came to naught, for this strong-minded girl knew what suited her, and would not be changed.”

At Chatham, despite the potential for otherwise, O’Keeffe flourished. As Robinson writes, she divided her time between studying the piano, violin and art, and even became the art editor of the yearbook in 1904. Her sense of purpose, articulated a few years earlier, was still fierce and present, as another friend, Anita Pollitzer records in an unpublished biography of O’Keeffe:

“I’m going to live a different life from the rest of you girls… I am going to give up everything for my art.”

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Her sense of purpose, enrolled her into the Art Institute of Chicago, where, even though finding herself “a very junior member of a large, illustrious group, in a formal, intimidating atmosphere… she was fifth in her class in December, seventh in January, and in February she was first.” In 1907, at the age of 20, O’Keeffe next went to study at the Art Students League in New York City, under William Merritt Chase, where Robinson notes individuality was encouraged as well as that the students “must make the world take them seriously”. Robinson draws out a particularly important realisation for O’Keeffe at this time, when she acquiesced and posed for an older student. The realisation being that by posing, and effectively being someone else’s “pet”, she wasn’t painting. Another point of self-understanding also occurred; when she went dancing she couldn’t paint for three days afterwards. Combined together, these discoveries concerning the effective use of time crystallised within her: “she could, dance, pose and be petted, or she could paint.” And, as Robinson continues, “the choice was not a difficult one. From then on, the essential question was always about painting.”

The next few years did provide challenges, however, and after a period of being a commercial artist, to try and help her family financially, and even becoming despondent and ‘giving-up’ art altogether for a few months, O’Keeffe found resolve and entered Columbia’s Teachers College in 1914. This was the year after the all important Armory Show that had sent shockwaves across New York City with the highly visible new works of European modernism; works from artists that O’Keeffe had already admired at Alfred Stieglitz’s gallery ‘291’.

291 Gallery
291 Gallery

Immersing herself in the world of art O’Keeffe read Wassily Kandinsky’s 1912 work, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, and honed her abilities to a “virtuoso” pitch in terms of technique, although, as Robinson remarks, content “had not yet declared itself in her work.” At the end of 1915, this was to change as she cut herself off from distractions and stayed in her room at Columbia over the Christmas holiday to begin “the laborious task of attempting to work purely from her own consciousness, seeking to eliminate everything from her work except herself.” These sessions produced the “Special” series recalled by O’Keeffe in the Doris Bry publication.

These works were wrapped in a bundle and sent to Chatham chum Anita Pollitzer who, at the time, was O’Keeffe’s artistic confidante. Pollitzer then did something unexpected. She showed O’Keeffe’s new works to Stieglitz at his ‘291’ gallery. His response, Pollitzer writes to O’Keeffe was as follows:

“They’re the purest, finest sincerest things that have entered 291 in a long while… I wouldn’t mind showing them in one of these rooms one bit.”

Special No.12 by Georgia O'Keeffe, 1916.
Special No.12 by Georgia O’Keeffe, 1916.

Later on Stieglitz wrote in his own hand to O’Keeffe:

“What am I to say? It is impossible to put into words what I saw and felt in your drawings… 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.”

The start of their relationship and life together (which only ended with his death) and her career as an artist began at this time. She also went to a small town called Canyon, near Amarillo, Texas to teach, but became enraptured by the wide open spaces: “Anita you have never seen SKY – it is wonderful.” Despite being buoyed up by her environment, and the feedback from Stieglitz and others, however, she managed to keep her feet firmly on the ground:

“I’ve never thought of myself as having a great gift… It isn’t just talent. You have to have someone else. You have to have a kind of nerve. It’s mostly a lot of nerve, and a lot of very, very hard work.”

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On 3rd April, 1917, Stieglitz presented Gallery 291’s last exhibition before it closed due to the building on Fifth Avenue being scheduled for demolition, but it was the first solo exhibition by a woman: Recent work by Georgia O’Keeffe. The following year, as put forward by Robinson, “Happily and deliberately, Georgia cast in her lot with an impecunious and impetuous older man.” She had fallen in love with Stieglitz and moved in with him, when she was thirty and he was fifty-three. She was an emerging artist and he was the man who had legitimised photography as an art-form, promoted the careers of several household names across all forms of visual art, was published, a patron, a collector and well-respected champion of modern art. Consequently, it would have been all so easy to succumb to Stieglitz’s artistic authority and will. However, to her testament, O’Keeffe very much held own in their relationship and in her professional aspirations. She was her own person and her own artist. She and cared about her work and she, not anyone else, directed how it should be carried out and developed. How other people thought about her work was always secondary and to a great extent to be avoided wherever and whenever possible, no matter who they were:

“By now O’Keeffe was beyond intimidation or advice, even from so eminent a personage as Alfred Stieglitz. In a spirit of peaceful coexistence, she painted what she needed to paint and let people say about it what they needed to say. ‘If I stop to think of what others – authorities – would say… I’d not be able to do anything’.”

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Robinson continues:

“Distancing herself from critics and the public was a process that would become crucial for O’Keeffe, one increasingly integral to her character.”

To become a project for oneself means not being the project/s that others, individually or collectively want us to be. This is Sartrean because it recognises the freedom we have to make ourselves ourselves and not to succumb meekly to what others try and make us. O’Keeffe wanted to be an artist and she knew that meant that only she could, and should, determine how to shape herself as an artist. The lessons learned throughout her formative years and the art-school training in Chicago and New Year had equipped her with the tools of her craft, but it was up to her to find her art and the artist within her. Being someone else’s project, puppet or pet was by now a dead-end and anathema to her. To be an artist meant that she alone could control the choices that needed to be made. Robinson, throughout her biography, explicitly understands this vital aspect to O’Keeffe:

“The artist must pursue a solitary and revisionist vision, maintaining her own interior silence. Once she listens to the voice of the public, the artist has lost her own.”

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For O’Keeffe, this sense of self-preservation and focus, so as not to become subsumed into the whims of others meant taking choices outside of societies norms, such as deciding to keep her surname when she and Stieglitz finally married in 1924, when she was thirty-seven. Her name was synonymous, of course, with her art, but to become Mrs Stiglitz, with everything that entailed from a feminist perspective, as to being placed immediately in a secondary role, was not at all how O’Keeffe regarded herself. Let alone the professional sleight and damage that could be wrought by changing her name just as she was becoming established in the art-world and to also be forever ‘Alfred Stieglitz’s wife’ rather than ‘Georgia O’Keeffe, artist’. Being one’s own project sometimes means making difficult choices and O’Keeffe knew this all to well. It also means that one has to be self-reliant in finding one’s own way. O’Keeffe displayed an almost intuitive awareness to this and demonstrated great integrity and understanding by actively shying away from bestowing advice to her sisters Catherine and Ida when they came to her with their own ambitions of following her footsteps and becoming artists; encouragement, yes, but direction, no. As far as O’Keeffe was concerned each artist, whether her, one of her sisters, or anyone else, has to find their own path and not be led astray by the ‘advice’ of others, no matter how well-intentioned. Perhaps the greatest way that O’Keeffe demonstrated her adherence to seriously taking such responsibility for herself in order to become the artist she wanted to be was in allowing herself to follow her desire and passion for the landscapes she discovered in Texas and then New Mexico.

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From the 1920s onwards she periodically left the ‘city’ to immerse and nourish herself in the spaces that spoke to her. Not once in their time together did Alfred ever join her in these ever increasing sojourns that would keep them apart for months on end. Her love and need for the horizon, red earth and vast skies of the desert fed her artistic creativity and allowed her to fulfil her vision in a manner that never could have happened in New York City or by being part of a wider movement:

“She never became a member of other groups that formed around her: Precisionists, Regionalists, or Surrealists. Stieglitz always worked with groups and liked the idea of communal effort, but O’Keeffe felt that her work was a private endeavour. ‘Stieglitz liked the idea of a group,’ she said ‘I didn’t’.”

O’Keeffe, the artist, was the project and quite obviously history has recorded the success that followed. As Robinson recognises, to become that artist though meant O’Keeffe had to be incredibly single-minded at times and walk a lonely path:

“In the subtle and continual conflict between work and the world, again and again Georgia chose work… Georgia took pleasure in her friends, enjoyed their company, and acknowledged some of the demands of society. Work, however, was an imperative. Solitude was the constant, society the deviation.”

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These are my personal views on ethics and they are not intended to represent the views of Conway Hall Ethical Society.
Dr. Jim Walsh

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