GEORGIA O’KEEFFE (Part II)

‘Jimson Weed/White Flower №1’ [1932] Georgia O’Keeffe

Does visual art speak for the creator, revealing that person’s personality in their paintings? Or does the painting speak about its subject, the landscape as it unfolds on the horizon, for example, at a certain time of day with particular lighting?

Georgia O’Keeffe insisted that her paintings were not about her, but were representations of what she saw and should not be interpreted by the viewer as having deeper meaning. Artists waste time trying to make viewers see something, to please them aesthetically, she said. “I don’t see why we ever think of what others think of what we do — no matter who they are — isn’t it enough just to express yourself,” she said in one letter to a friend.

Her flower paintings, for example, were widely believed to have sexual connotations, but O’Keeffe scoffed, “Well, I made you take time to look at what I saw and when you took time to really notice my flower you hung all your own associations with flowers on my flower and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower — and I don’t,” she said.

A natural process, like pieces of animals fading into dust, was to her shapes and light in the moment. She wanted what she saw, and what she experienced in the seeing of it, remembered: “Sun-bleached bones were most wonderful against the blue — that blue that will always be there as it is now after all man’s destruction is finished,” she said.

Initially O’Keeffe’s works were constructed by the teaching of a craft, and assignment, while she was being educated in art programs. She found that she wanted not to be formed as an artist but for her art to take form as she moved about in her world. “I said to myself, I have things in my head that are not like what anyone has taught me — shapes and ideas so near to me — so natural to my way of being and thinking that it hasn’t occurred to me to put them down,” she is quoted as saying. “I decided to start anew, to strip away what I had been taught.”

When O’Keeffe lived in the city, she produced paintings showing the skyline as architecture and the lines and shadows produced by high rises. She didn’t paint people, only products of people and the places where they are planted. Her work was detailed and specific.

When she moved her view to New Mexico, her landscapes became broad shafts of color with culture in the mix — churches, crosses, native dolls, and adobe. Still detailed and specific, but not abstract, she said, she mixed up background, foreground, past and future. Her thoughts, when shared, seem to flow forward, back and around her subjects.

She once explained one of many famous paintings of white flowers: “The large White Flower with the golden heart is something I have to say about White — quite different from what White has been meaning to me. Whether the flower or the color is the focus I do not know. I do know that this flower is painted large to convey to you my experience of the flower and what is my experience of the flower if it is not color. I know I cannot paint a flower. I cannot paint the sun on the desert on a bright summer morning but maybe in terms of paint color I can convey to you my experience of the flower or the experience that makes the flower of significance to me at that particular time.”

She learned to drive in New Mexico, acquired a vehicle and explored her environment, giving her a broader view of the place where she felt most at home. “You know I never feel at home in the East like I do out here and finally feeling in the right place again I feel like myself and I like it…Out the very large window to rich green alfalfa fields — then the sage brush and beyond–a most perfect mountain — it makes me feel like flying — and I don’t care what becomes of art.”

She began to fly to other countries and painted what she saw in those faraway lands that many people would never view except through her “lens.” O’Keeffe painted until she could no longer see. She rarely did interviews or spoke publicly, but wrote letters and shared her point of view when it mattered to her that she be heard. Ultimately it was her paintings that she wanted to speak for her, she said: “I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way — things I had no words for.”

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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

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Lida Prypchan

Lida Prypchan

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

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