I remember when I first saw Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings. They struck me as the product of a vivid imagination: the skulls set against the bleached landscapes, the gigantic, intensely furled blossoms, and above all the surreal shapes and hues of her New Mexican landscapes could surely only be the result of artistic license. Only later did I realize that, with allowances for distortion of perspective, she had cut to the very heart of her subjects: the desert framed through the aperture of a cow''s pelvic bone really did take on that alien aspect; a flower could be a small universe unto itself; and, however improbable it seemed, the New Mexican hills and valleys do exhibit the forms and colors she painted.
O’Keeffe first saw New Mexico while passing through on during a trip to California in 1917. She was instantly smitten with the pellucid quality of the light and the transforming effect it had upon the landscape. She reveled in the vast horizon, the promise of limitless expanses, and the absence of limitations that is the allure of the West.
And yet her artistic life at that point was firmly tethered to the East. An even stronger tie was formed when she met and eventually married Arthur Stieglitz, a confirmed urbanite fond of observing there was nothing west of the Mississippi worth seeing (having never actually been there himself, however). Much older than O’Keeffe and initially her mentor before becoming her lover, Stieglitz was a gregarious man who was continually surrounded by people. O’Keeffe, whose fierce independence was near legendary, felt increasingly cramped by the constant stream of visitors and the predictable yearly schedule that Stieglitz insisted upon, with winters spent in New York and summers spent upstate at his family’s house at Lake George. The world was closing in on her.
For years O''Keeffe hoarded the dream of someday returning to New Mexico. In 1925, some seven years after her initial trip, she chanced on a magazine article on New Mexico by Mabel Dodge Luhan, doyenne of the Taos artist colony. Although she was scarcely acquainted with her, O’Keeffe penned Luhan a heartfelt letter, closing with the words, "Kiss the sky for me – You laugh – but I loved the sky out there."
In 1929, O''Keeffe''s life came to a personal crisis expressed in the form of illness. Emotionally and physically exhausted, she completely stopped painting. It was while she was recuperating that O’Keeffe turned to her dusty but unbroken dream of returning to New Mexico, hoping to restore both her health and her artistic vision. "I am West again."
O''Keeffe decided to accept the longstanding invitation that Mabel Dodge Luhan had extended to stay at her artist colony in Taos. The moment she was back West, her heart soared. It was an almost transformational experience. She wrote to Catherine her sister, "I am West again and it is as fine as I remembered it – maybe finer – There is nothing to say about it except the fact that for me it is the only place."
The vigorous outdoor lifestyle of the Taos colony restored O’Keeffe’s health and spirits. She especially revelled in the great expanse of the intensely blue sky. Most tellingly, she felt a renewed urge to paint; and paint she did, tentatively at first but with increasing confidence. Her idyll ended in the fall when she returned to New York and Stieglitz. It was no surprise to either of them when she returned to New Mexico the following spring, establishing what became the pattern of her life: spring and summer in New Mexico, fall and winter in New York.
"But it is not for me."
From the first year onward, her return East each autumn became a duty rather than something she would have willingly chosen for herself. Increasingly, she found she could not work back East. There was the constant presence of Stieglitz’ coterie, of course, but she also felt out of tune with the eastern landscape. It had an inhibiting effect on her. The sky seemed claustrophobically low; the dense greenery and above all the sense of enclosure restricted her. After some years shuttling between New Mexico and New York, she began to withdraw emotionally from the East : "It is a lovely country with many trees but it is not for me," she wrote.
In contrast, both her pen and her paintbrush sang the praises of New Mexico, which she dubbed The Faraway. "Lake George is not really painting country," she wrote. Whereas "out here [New Mexico], half your work is done for you." She loved "the sun that burns you to your bones" and the shapes of the hills.
O’Keeffe’s approach to art was somewhat revolutionary for its time. She realized early on that the power of a painting arose not simply from the skill of its technical rendition of a subject but in its emotional rendering of it as well. In her view, the visual perception of the world was secondary to the artist’s emotional perception of it. This intensity of her emotional response is reflected in her painting.
"New Mexico is an artist’s dream."
It was almost inevitable, given her philosophy, that O’Keeffe would settle in the place that held the greatest emotional resonance for her. "A red hill doesn''t touch everyone''s heart as it touches mine and I suppose there is no reason why it should," she wrote. She considered New Mexico, with its vivid colors and intense light, "an artist''s dream" and was fascinated with what she called "the unexplainable thing in nature," which may have been equivalent to the unexplainable thing in herself.
Trying to get to the heart of this "unexplainable thing," she painted certain objects and scenes repeatedly, never tiring of them. It was as though these inanimate objects - a skull, a river, a mountain - were talismans. The line between self, emotion, and object became blurred. Of things in the natural world she noted, "we have shared their cause."
"Would you give me your arm?"
After Stieglitz’ death in 1946, O’Keeffe severed her ties back East and moved to a small house on Ghost Ranch. Her life became much simpler, stripped down to basics. This is reflected in her fascination with bones, which are almost emblematic of her painting. At the same time, she began to cultivate and carefully control her public image. She was more than an artist; she had become an icon. It is sometimes observed that O’Keeffe''s greatest work of art was her own life, and in some ways this was true. But this shallow assessment ignores her greater achievement, the struggle for a completely independent and intensely personal artistic vision.
In one of the savage ironies that fate delivers, O’Keeffe began losing her sight beginning in the 1970s. Of the slow progress of her macular degeneration, she wrote, "If you didn’t come to it gradually, I guess you’d just kill yourself when you couldn’t see."
Still, she stubbornly persisted in setting her own agenda and was reluctant to recognize her limitations. A turning point came one winter day when she was out walking with a companion along an icy arroyo. He solicitously offered her his arm, but O’Keeffe disdained it. "That offends me," she pronounced. The two continued onward. As the light faded, O''Keeffe had even greater difficulty keeping her footing on the icy path. Finally, acknowledging defeat but still holding her head high, she loftily asked, "David, would you give me your arm?"
Georgia O’Keeffe died in 1986 at the age of 99 in Santa Fe. Her last years were difficult, but she never complained. She once said, "When I think of death, I only regret that I will not be able to see this beautiful country anymore...unless the Indians are right and my spirit will walk here after I''m gone."
~~~~~~ Postscript ~~~~~~
On the plane trip home from New Mexico, I gazed out the window, recalling O’Keeffe''s fondness for clouds. Her delight with the view from airplane windows expressed itself in a series of "Above the Clouds" paintings done in her later years, immense canvases much larger than any she’d produced before.
When the airplane landed, I was still thinking of O’Keeffe, feeling an affinity for this woman torn between the East and the West. As I emerged from the airport, the sultry humidity of a MidAtlantic July afternoon assaulted me. Everything seemed so unrelentingly green and overgrown, too, producing a feeling akin to suffocation. Above me, the sky was threateningly low, an enveloping gray mass pressing down from above. I could easily have stretched up to kiss it, but I had only the desire to push it away.