GEORGIA O’KEEFFE (Part I)

Georgia O’Keeffe is best known for her representations of the southwest, particularly the color and texture of the landscape and the way of life in New Mexico. More controversial are her paintings of flowers that are interpreted by some as being reflections of women’s sexuality, although O’Keeffe herself denied that she had any intention of painting more than her observation of the blooms themselves.

O’Keeffe was exposed to the art world initially as a result of her association with a well-known photographer, Alfred Stieglitz, whose gallery displayed her early works — initially just charcoal drawings one of her friends sent on to him. In 1917, he did his first exhibition of her work and she made her first trip to New Mexico, which became her true love throughout her life. Stieglitz and O’Keeffe married in 1924 after five years during which they wrote to one another. She was 36, well educated, fiercely independent and opinionated, and he was 59, recently divorced, with a special needs daughter. He is documented as being fascinated with O’Keeffe’s persona, making her a public figure despite the fact she made few public appearances. He displayed her art continually in his galleries, making her a pillar of his success in the modern art world.

In 1932 at the age of 45, O’Keeffe was hospitalized and sent to Bermuda for what was in those days characterized as a “nervous breakdown” or more formally, “psychoneuroses.” After hospitalization and not painting for more than a year, she resumed her career but with a greater emphasis on the images she was gathering on her increasingly frequent and extended trips to New Mexico. There is speculation about O’Keeffe’s suffering and resulting mental health treatment but the two primary explanations are: she missed a deadline for completion of a mural that was to grace Radio City Music Hall in New York City, a costly failure, and Stieglitz remained married to her but began an affair with a much younger woman that lasted more than a decade and ended only when he died.

Many of the photos Stieglitz took were nudes and caused a sensation in the art world when shown at a retrospective of his work in 1921. “He photographed me until I was crazy,” O’Keeffe is quoted as saying. Dorothy Norman was married, barely an adult and 18 years younger than O’Keeffe when she became Stieglitz’ new fascination. He saw little of O’Keeffe between 1932 and 1935. He was aware that his chronically mentally ill daughter, Kitty, just seven years older than Norman, and O’Keeffe could compare their experiences with him since he left his wife and daughter for O’Keeffe. ”At times I feel like a murderer,” Stieglitz said in an interview. ”There is Kitty, and now there is Georgia.”

O’Keeffe and Stieglitz exchanged 25,000 pieces of paper between 1915 and 1946. After his death, O’Keeffe’s managed Stieglitz’ estate, moved to New Mexico permanently and began to do her own exhibitions of her art work, contributing commentary to two biographies and becoming more personally visible as she aged. In 1949, O’Keeffe was the subject of a Vogue feature story with photographs taken by Cecil Beaton. Ansel Adams, Todd Webb and Arnold Newman also photographed her, creating a much bigger picture of O’Keeffe than the one presented initially exclusively by Stieglitz.

In 1971, O’Keeffe lost most of her vision but continued to work, with and without assistance, until 1984 with different mediums. O’Keeffe died at the age of 98, after receiving a Medal of Arts from President Ronald Reagan and a Medal of Freedom from President Gerald Ford.

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Lida Prypchan

Lida Prypchan

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Psychiatrist & Writer — Writing and meditating at the intersection of psychiatry, philosophy, Buddhism and the arts. More information at www.lidaprypchan.com