Georgia O’Keeffe: The Founder of American Modernism & Abstract Master

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I begin this piece with what feels like the accepted wisdom, that Georgia O’Keeffe is undoubtedly one of the most influential artists of the 2oth century (1887-1986). The truth is, she is far, far more than that. Not only was she undeniably talented, but never once bowed to the fancy of the rest of the modern art world. She did exactly as she pleased, using nature as the canvas for her dreamlike surrealism with colours that yawn and swirl. Her eyes were as much of a boon to her work as her brush was and it is her observations that give her work the transcendental quality that it enjoys to this day. Her appreciation for her surroundings was uncanny, and her application of colour to seemingly ubiquitous scenes brought to life landscapes that even in their vagueness demanded attention.

Born in 1887 in Wisconsin she studied at numerous schools including The Art Institute of Chicago and the Art Students League of New York. She became an art teacher and taught in both Texas and South Carolina in her formative years. It was during this time that O’ Keeffe was to truly harness her raw ability. Somewhere between 1915-1916, she produced a series of charcoal drawings that were to change the trajectory of her life and her career forever. Line work was given great form, and the two combined to give an abstract quality to the work that with no sense of irony depicted growth and movement in nature.

It was these drawings that would put her in the gaze of one Alfred Stieglitz, a gallery owner and photographer in New York who insisted on showing them to the public. So taken was he by her work, he enthused: “At last! A woman on paper!” and subsequently showed them at his 291 gallery, synonymous with the introduction more avant-garde fare to the American public. It was at Stieglitz’ great behest (and no small wealth) that O’Keeffe moved to New York in 1918. He supported her in all her works and their bond eventually saw the pair married in 1924.

Her ability to perceive and absorb the word around her culminated, unsurprisingly, in a series of works that displayed the New York skyline in all its glory. But her love for nature was incurable and she mostly concerned herself with botany and landscapes when she had the opportunity to escape to the Stieglitz summer home in upstate New York. Perhaps it was her amongst the concrete and metal that ignited her deep longing for nature. Whatever the cause she began to paint close-ups of flower petals at such magnification that they appeared abstract. Some years later, though, she became disenchanted with her life in the big city, her emotional and physical wellbeing drained by boredom and her failing marriage to Stieglitz.

In a search for sanctuary, she made numerous trips to New Mexico, a place that would leave an indelible mark on both herself and her work. It would become her spiritual home over the next twenty years only returning to New York to exhibit. The sweeping, lethargic landscapes and the bones of animals that lay untouched in the burning sun were the inspiration for a great many of her later works like her ‘Cow Skull’ series. She would become engrossed in the region for forty years, the light, the ruggedness, the colours and the foliage all lending their voice to the crescendo of her work. Magnification was to be a theme that accompanied her even here as she focused on rocks and the relationships between the plummeting cliffs and mountains of the region.

She again sought to gain inspiration from dramatic scenery and moved to Santa Fe where she would settle eventually under a 700ft cliff at a retreat named the Ghost Ranch. For fifteen years she feasted on the delights of the plateaus and endless horizons.

With her time in New Mexico running its natural course, it was time for a new adventure, and from 1950 to sometime in the 1970’s she undertook an expedition that would take her across all of Asia and Europe. On this voyage, she spent a great deal of time in airplanes and garnered a new perspective on space and vastness. This new appreciation of scope is possibly what lead to her using almost mural-sized canvases for what were to be her last major works. (it was blue and green & sky above clouds iv) Her ‘Above the Clouds’ series included seven pieces are possibly the most expressive of her later years. One of these was that of a motif projected onto a 24ft canvas, a herculean effort for a woman of nearly 80 years of age.

In her later years, she was ravaged by illness and blindness, but the sheer spectrum and excellence of her near 900 piece life’s work will live on forever in galleries and homes the world over. Not only that, but she has cut a path for countless artists to follow and will continue to be a booming voice for women in the arts for many years to come. She died in 1986 at the age of ninety-eight, her ashes scattered on the plains of  New Mexico she had adored for so many years.