Portrait of an Artist
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PAUL SOLMAN: In Santa Fe, New Mexico, this summer a very public event: A new museum has opened devoted to America’s endlessly popular and famously female artist Georgia O’Keeffe, featuring her signature flowers, her skulls and bones, her visions of the American Southwest. Meanwhile, at New York’s Metropolitan Museum, an intimate look at the woman, herself, has just opened, images made by her husband, the famed photographer and art dealer Alfred Stieglitz. They provide glimpses of a life that’s become a legend.
But then some say Georgia O’Keeffe’s major work was her life, a life of ferocious, even transcendent, American independence.
O’Keeffe began about as independently as you could get 80 years ago–an abstract woman artist in an era when both abstraction and women artists were anomalous. The museum’s president, Jay Cantor,likes to start with drawings like this one. When Alfred Stieglitz first saw them, he supposedly said–
JAY CANTOR, Georgia O’Keeffe Museum: “Oh, at last, a woman on paper.” The meaning is very clear that Stieglitz and his male contemporaries didn’t believe a woman could do tough, hard imagery, could really look into the frontiers of abstraction and conquer it. So he was very excited by work like this.
PAUL SOLMAN: O’Keeffe was raised in Prairie, Wisconsin, studied art in Chicago in New York, was teaching art in small town Texas, when she began to develop her own style. She set the scene in a 1977 PBS documentary Perry Miller Adato did for New York’s WNET.
GEORGIA O’KEEFFE: My sister and I used to walk out from canyons. And the evening star would come when it was still sunny. It would be still bright daylight, and there would be the evening star sitting up in the sky, which I thought was very exciting, and I began painting the evening star. And I think there are eight of these variations of this that I did at that time.
PAUL SOLMAN: This was back in 1916, when Picasso and Braque were still inventing cubism. Images like these had no precedent in American art, as they attempted to capture the feelings and the image induced, rather than the image itself. As her friend, Anita Paulitzer, put it in a letter to O’Keeffe, “To live on paper what we’re living in our hearts and heads and all the exquisite lines and good spaces and rippingly good colors are only a way of getting rid of these feelings and making them tangible. Meanwhile, Alfred Stieglitz was having feelings of his own.
GEORGIA O’KEEFFE: They photographed me till I was crazy. And he’d be photographing every day. And he started photographing me with glass plates when you had to stay still between three and four minutes. And you’d itch here, you know. You’d want to scratch there. In that three minutes, you could have more itchy spots on you than you can imagine.
PAUL SOLMAN: The O’Keeffe of Adato’s documentary, then in her 80′s, thought of the O’Keeffe in her 30′s as a completely different person. She had come to take for granted what was positively revolutionary back in the early 1900′s.
MARIA MORRIS HAMBOURG, Metropolitan Museum of Art: Think about the image of woman at the turn of the century in America.
PAUL SOLMAN: Maria Morris Hambourg is curator of photography at the Met.
MARIA MORRIS HAMBOURG: In the summer, for example, we’re talking about August right now, well, let’s imagine a woman with a large-brimmed hat to keep the sun off her face, perhaps a high-necked, lace collar, and probably corseted in order to keep this hourglass shape. She might, in fact, have a bustle, like a Gibson girl, bows and ribbons. In fact, she was quite a package, all tied up.
O’Keeffe presented herself entirely differently, a very enticing, alluring, liberated, modern woman, playing a variety of roles–Eve with her apple, a modern sorceress, sort of a cross-dresser, wearing very mannish clothes, a whole variety of roles. And from that, into Venus Embodied, from that very big, beautiful nude some of the most glorious nudes ever made in any medium.
PAUL SOLMAN: The pictures were first exhibited in 1921.
PAUL SOLMAN: And how were they received?
MARIA MORRIS HAMBOURG: Scandalously. Stieglitz was a middle-aged man and married, and she was in rather obviously undressed situations. It was clear that the relationship between Stieglitz and O’Keeffe was an intimate one, and here it was all over the walls of a Fifth Avenue art gallery.
PAUL SOLMAN: As artist, however, O’Keeffe was in the process of embracing New York.
GEORGIA O’KEEFFE: I think New York is wonderful. It’s like a dream. It always makes European cities look like villages to me. I think of the city going up, don’t you? Well, it tends to move the sky.
PAUL SOLMAN: So now she’s moved to New York, with Stieglitz, living with him, and painting New York pictures.
JAY CANTOR: Well, at this point Stieglitz and O’Keeffe are actually married. O’Keeffe is not only talking to Stieglitz, and bouncing ideas off of him, but she’s been enmeshed in a circle of abstract artists, who are very interested in the beat and rhythm of city life, suggested in part by the alternation of lights in the windows, by the folding quality of a light on the clouds, and the whole sort of thrust.
The attenuated shape of the canvas, itself, is obviously in response to a feeling in the city, its uprightness, but also a kind of narrow, constricted world that it represented for O’Keeffe. And I think you can see that in the canyon-like image of the city that we have on the other side.
PAUL SOLMAN: On a personal level the buzz of the city was more than she bargained for. Stieglitz was forever holding court, putting a strain on their relationship.
GEORGIA O’KEEFFE: Yes. He had to have people around. And I find people very difficult. And when I couldn’t take it, I went in my room and shut the door.
PAUL SOLMAN: In her art she did something else as well. She started painting flowers–flowers for city folk.
GEORGIA O’KEEFFE: And I thought, now, if I would paint that flower, just that flower, the size it is, nobody would ever look at it. But if I enjoy the flower, and I would paint it, I’m going to paint it big so they will have to look at it.
PAUL SOLMAN: Well, people certainly did look, and what many of them saw was fraught with Freudianism. Until her dying day, however, O’Keeffe denied any sexual symbolism.
GEORGIA O’KEEFFE: The people that saw them that way, they were talking about their own self, not about me.
PAUL SOLMAN: Try telling that to Guru Rattan Kar-Khalsa, visiting the O’Keeffe Museum with her daughter.
GURU RATTAN KAR-KHALSA: What I enjoy about her work is so many of them are actually voluptuous, you feel a very feminine voluptuousness. And then over here, bringing this purple–the purple vine and the green vine amidst all this just lush blue, black ripeness, and then you’ve got these tiny projectiles. So, again, it’s kind of like a contrast maybe male and female, detail, and then a more formless substance.
PAUL SOLMAN: O’Keeffe was much influenced by Eastern art. Critics have often commented on her Eastern sensibility. But, in fact, O’Keeffe was heading West, specifically to New Mexico, which she began visiting regularly in 1929.
GEORGIA O’KEEFFE: As soon as I saw it, that was my country, like something that’s in the air. It’s just different. The sky is different. The stars are different. The wind is different. I shouldn’t say too much about this because other people may get interested, and I don’t want them interested.
PAUL SOLMAN: She still painted flowers, but gradually they were displaced by the skulls and bones she found in the desert.
ASTA OLIVER, Georgia O’Keeffe Museum: She loved to look at the New Mexico sky through these bones. She also in her book that she wrote in 1976 talked about bones in an interesting way. She said, “The blue and the red of the bone series is a kind of thing that I do that makes me feel I am going off into space, into a way that I like, and that frightens me a little because it is so unlike what anyone else is doing.
PAUL SOLMAN: O’Keeffe spoke later in life of having lived on a knife’s edge. Stieglitz cheated on her. She suffered a nervous breakdown. But she persevered and in the 1930′s already was an image of self-reliance.
MARIA MORRIS HAMBOURG: The sort of physical self-determination becomes fully apparent And we see an O’Keeffe who was entirely her own person, rather severe, very funny, at the same time not without humor, but very clear about who she was and what she wanted.
PAUL SOLMAN: One thing she wanted was an old Catholic mission in tiny Abecue, New Mexico, her winter home for the last five decades of her life.
GEORGIA O’KEEFFE: I thought that door was something I had to have. I don’t know why, but I had to have that door.
PAUL SOLMAN: She had the door and she painted it, again and again. It apparently amused her and continues to amuse others.
KERMIT HANSEN: But I love the humor of it. “My Last Door.” Now whether that’s symbolic of “this is my exit,” or whether it is that she is saying, yes, I did five other patio doors, and I am attracted to them, but this is my last.
PAUL SOLMAN: Well, who knows what she meant? What we do know is that she loved Abecue, loved her garden, loved the rocks she collected, loved the views of the New Mexico landscape, both those from her house and the ones she saw in expeditions into the landscape, itself.
MIKE WOLSTED: It’s just amazing how she seems to capture what’s really going on out here.
PAUL SOLMAN: When you say capture, you mean the light, the colors. I mean, is there something…
MIKE WOLSTED: I would say everything, just the overall feel of it. It’s, you know, as I say, just having seen this yesterday in real life and then coming back and seeing it in relief. It’s just really, really amazing.
PAUL SOLMAN: By O’Keeffe’s 80′s Stieglitz was long dead. Her eyesight was failing. O’Keeffe hired a young sculptor, Juan Hamilton, to be her final companion. She was magazine cover famous but still calling her own shots.
JUAN HAMILTON, O’Keeffe Friend: I was in awe of her, and oftentimes I think as a person she was more incredible than as a painter. Her interest in evolving and in learning more, in knowing more was incredible. Her ability to please herself and not to try to please others, oftentimes people came to the door, and she’d say, what can I do for you, and she’d say, well, I just wanted to see you, and her response was, front, side, and back, and she’d turn sideways, turn backwards, and then walk away, and you’ve seen me.
PAUL SOLMAN: With Hamilton O’Keeffe wrote a book and traveled the world, including a stop in Washington.
JUAN HAMILTON: As we went by the Washington Monument, O’Keeffe looked up at the gradations of light across the monument against the blue sky, and she said to me, “I’ve always wanted to paint that.” She worked with different assistants–not trained artists but gardeners and housekeepers and had her painting books out and had them reading and mixing paint with her–worked very hard, did nine different examples of this work, which has been liked or not liked by many.
PAUL SOLMAN: To many modern artists it was O’Keeffe’s abstractions, both early and late, that so distinguished her. But to many women she meant something more.
MARIA MORRIS HAMBOURG: There are not that many people–if you were growing up in America and you were an artistically minded or independent-minded person who stood out as the kind of figure that–figure that you could admire, look up to, and hope one day to resemble, and O’Keeffe was certainly–for me personally she–she represented that. I ended up being a curator, of course, not being an artist. I didn’t have that talent.
PAUL SOLMAN: But she still was–
MARIA MORRIS HAMBOURG: But she stood for it, absolutely, because she took the time, she cared enough to pay attention.
GEORGIA O’KEEFFE: I have been very fortunate, much more fortunate than most people. I don’t–for instance, I can imagine myself being a much better painter and nobody paying attention to me at all, but it happens that the things that I’ve been doing have been in touch with my time so that people have liked it. But I could have been much better and nobody noticed it, much better, I’ll say, as a painter. You see, a painter is one thing and a person in a way is another thing.
PAUL SOLMAN: Georgia O’Keeffe died in 1985–age 98.