How Georgia Became O'Keeffe

BOOK: How Georgia Became O'Keeffe

How Georgia Became



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skirt! ® is an attitude . . . spirited, independent, outspoken, serious, playful and irreverent, sometimes controversial, always passionate.

Copyright © 2012 by Karen Karbo

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying and recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, except as may be expressly permitted in writing from the publisher. Requests for permission should be addressed to Globe Pequot Press, Attn: Rights and Permissions Department, P.O. Box 480, Guilford, CT 06437.

skirt! is a registered trademark of Morris Publishing Group, LLC, and is used with express permission.

Grateful acknowledgment to the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, the Art Students League of New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, Wadsworth Athaneum Museum of Art, and the Museum of Fine Art of St. Petersburg, Florida, for making possible the inclusion of artwork by Georgia O'Keeffe.

Text design: Sheryl P. Kober

Layout: Mary Ballachino

Project editor: Kristen Mellitt

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available on file.

ISBN 978-0-7627-7131-8

Printed in the United States of America

E-ISBN 978-0-7627-8585-8

For Jerrod

Georgia O'Keeffe

American (1887–1986)
Oil on canvas

Gift of Charles C. and Margaret Stevenson Henderson in memory of
Jeanne Crawford Henderson 1971.32
Photograph by Thomas U. Gessler



I don't see why we ever think of what others think of
what we do—isn't it enough just to express yourself.

When Georgia became O'Keeffe there were no female art stars in America. Not one. In 1916 Georgia was an art teacher because that's what arty girls did. When she was twenty-eight, she was hired by West Texas State Normal College in the minuscule town of Canyon, Texas, due south of Amarillo. In Canyon there were a few churches, a few bars, a feed store, a blacksmith, a lot of cattle, and not much to do for sport but club rabbits. When Georgia arrived to assume her role as the entire art department, oil had yet to be discovered. Canyon was a flea on the immense dusty hide of the Texas prairie. Georgia's students were the children of cattle ranchers. They sat on packing crates because there were no chairs.

Then, as now, staring down the barrel of thirty made many single women a little hysterical. A woman without a husband was a woman without a meaningful life. From all evidence this does not seem to have been the case with O'Keeffe. She could not have cared less. If there was a contest for making yourself as unattractive to the opposite sex as possible, Georgia would be the darling of the oddsmakers.

As a young woman she dressed as she would all her life—in long black dresses that resembled the vestments of a priest. Occasionally she went in for a white collar. When she was really in a crazy mood, she was known to pin a flower to her lapel. She was a stranger to makeup and wore her black hair pulled straight back from her face. Here, I feel the impulse to offer some details about the fashions of 1916, but it hardly matters. Whatever women were wearing in those days, this wasn't it.

Georgia's behavior was equally unconventional. The West may have been wild, but Canyon prided itself on its propriety. Ladies were expected in church on Sunday and at tea parties during the week. It didn't take much to create a stir. Georgia asked her landlords whether she might paint the trim in her attic room black, and before you could say
Don't they have anything better to gossip about?,
spread that the new art teacher wanted to paint her entire room black. She ignored both church and teas, preferring to spend her time walking into the sunset. The extreme panhandle landscape had seduced her. Every night after dinner she left town and walked west toward the orange sun easing down the back of the sky to the brown horizon. It was said she could outwalk any man. She could outlast him in that cheek-chapping middle of nowhere, reveling in the color of the sky.

It wasn't as if she had some disorder that made her clueless about the societal expectations of the day. She knew what people thought; she just didn't
In a letter to her new friend Alfred Stieglitz—the so-called father of modern photography, and the man without whom the name Pablo Picasso would mean nothing to us—she wrote, “When there are so many things in the world to do it seems as if a woman ought not to feel exactly right about spending a whole day like I've spent today—and still—it did seem right—that's what gets me—it must be done—and if any one asked me—what it is—I can not even tell myself.”

Lest you imagine Georgia's refusal to gussy herself up, her general bookish nature, and her compulsive need for a daily miles-long hike made her unattractive to men, think again. Georgia was rarely without suitors. By the time she'd taken the Texas teaching job in 1916, she'd already enjoyed several torturous, passionate love affairs. Arthur Whittier Macmahon, a well-heeled intellectual from Columbia University, bewitched by Georgia's perception of the natural world (it was a heady romance), wrote to her daily.

In Canyon, the local attorney, a Yale man, liked to take her for long drives on the prairie. She even enjoyed a vigorous flirtation with a student, Ted Reid, whom she met while serving as the artistic advisor for the drama department's spring play. Reid was handsome and popular; even in those days, a star football player who also loved theater held a special appeal.

Reid was a student, O'Keeffe was a teacher. He was on one side of the twenties, she was on the other. In one account of these years, Reid was already engaged to the woman who would become his wife. On Saturdays Reid drove O'Keeffe to nearby Palo Duro Canyon (“The Grand Canyon of Texas,” as it still bills itself), where they would pick their way to the bottom on the narrow cow paths, and O'Keeffe would sketch the cliffs, the sky, the occasional string of cattle that would wend its way into the canyon, seeking shelter against the merciless panhandle wind.

The townspeople tolerated what was, for the time, fairly shocking behavior, until the afternoon when O'Keeffe invited Ted Reid up to her room to see some photographs that she'd recently received from Stieglitz. This outrage was the last straw. When the gossip swirled throughout Canyon that the art teacher was entertaining one of its finest young men in her rented attic room, something happened that neatly makes the point I'm after here—that even before Georgia was O'Keeffe, when she was a near old maid trying to make ends meet, her determination to live life her own way afforded her an enviable freedom. If it were anyone else, she'd have been run out of town on a rail, but Reid was the one who received a stern talking-to by the local matrons, Reid who was told his behavior was inappropriate and unacceptable.

One assumes that the reason the town scolds took Ted to task and not Georgia is because she had already been written off as the town eccentric, and Reid was not just one of their own, but also a favored son. Still, Georgia suffered only Ted's sudden lack of interest. She wasn't kicked out of the house in which she boarded, nor did she lose her job. As she would do for most of her life, O'Keeffe followed her own rules, and got away with it.

You'd be hard-pressed to find a life that's been more mythologized than Georgia O'Keeffe's. So many people have gushed so flagrantly over her singular style; her huge erotic flower paintings; her snappy (and occasionally snappish) bon mots; her long and unconventional marriage to Alfred Stieglitz; the otherworldly landscape of northern New Mexico, with its voluptuous land forms and many large dead animals, whose skulls and vertebrae she immortalized; and her prickly devotion to her privacy; it's amazing there aren't more O'Keeffe folk songs, limericks, totems, feast days, rituals, annual pilgrimages, and bank holidays. Given our feelings for everything she represents, it speaks well of the human race that we haven't fetched up a minor religion around her that worships independence, focus, creativity, and the proud wearing of those bad scarves my mother used to don the day before she went to the beauty parlor.

Likewise, you'd be equally hard-pressed to find a writer who has waded into the long, productive life of O'Keeffe and who doesn't feel obligated to point all this out, the better to avoid the risk of trafficking in hagiography.
Along with many esteemed biographers and scholars (the
[emphasis mine] Bibliography: Recommended Reading list offered by the research center at the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe is eight pages long), I would like to point out that much of what we know about O'Keeffe has been recast so that we might better revere her as a kick-ass lady who led a life that appeared to be charmed, epic, meaningful, and, ultimately, full of cool minimalist style.

One aspect of the myth is that there's an objective truth about her life, that somehow it's possible to know what really went on in her marriage to Stieglitz, or how much she colluded in creating her public persona as a private person, about whether Those Paintings really were vaginas, about whether she'd had affairs with women, about whether she was revered or reviled in Taos and its environs, about whether she was lonelier than she let on.

But aside from verifiable facts that have already been verified, everything is open to interpretation. Everything is always open to interpretation, maddeningly. We have her paintings. We have her letters, thousands of them, written to Stieglitz (sometimes several a day while they were apart), and to other boyfriends who predated him, to friends and colleagues, relatives, teachers, museum directors, critics, photographers, poets, other artists. We have all those astonishing black-and-white photographs of her, thousands of them. After Greta Garbo, Georgia O'Keeffe was the most photographed woman of the twentieth century.

And yet, she eludes us still.

But I'm okay with that. I realize this signals a lack of scholarly rigor, but I have no interest in getting to the bottom of things. I'm more interested in our fascination with O'Keeffe, generation after generation, museum show after museum show, biopic after biopic, “best of” list after “best of” list. What's behind our ongoing one-sided relationship with her image? What is it about her that speaks to us so deeply?

I was one of those college girls who hung the famous (and still best-selling)
(1928) poster, first on the walls of her dorm and then the apartment walls of young adulthood, the white corners acquiring another pinhole with each move, in unceasing awe of O'Keeffe's absolute confidence in her own path and the power of her paintings (reproductions don't do them justice). I was deeply interested in the fact that she came from Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, a place made for leaving, from a family that was neither fabulously cultured and wealthy nor exotically dysfunctional and impoverished. I was, and still am, intrigued by her lifelong lack of interest in pretty shoes and skin care.

O'Keeffe attracts as she repels, and perhaps that's what makes her so intriguing. People like to say they don't give a damn, but O'Keeffe lived it. The proof? She was the embodiment of two aspects of living that most of us dread: being old and being alone. For O'Keeffe, forty was the new sixty. She had no problem being known for decades as the old lady in the desert with an affinity for cow skulls, an old lady in heavy black clothes with beautiful cheekbones and a lot of wrinkles, with no one for company but her various housekeepers and a pair of fierce chows who provided hours of entertainment by chasing off and occasionally biting unwanted guests.

Few human beings manage to be so resolutely themselves for so much of their lives. If we're lucky, we're able to scrape together a few days of self-realization in high school, followed by a month or two in college, after which we fall in love and completely revamp our personality to please our beloved, or else we land a job that requires us to kiss up to someone to whom we normally wouldn't give the time of day, after which we have children and don the invisible T-shirt that says
i live to serve.
By the time the kids are grown, we're tired and set in our ways, and all it takes is waking up in a hotel room in a new city to forget who we are completely.

O'Keeffe is the poster child for doing exactly what you want, in the service of an abiding passion. Intuitively, we know how rare this is. In 1999,, the online employment agency, made a mockumentary commercial called “When I Grow Up,” which featured kids answering that age-old question. Instead of saying they wanted to be astronauts or the person who discovers the cure for cancer, they foretold their futures. “I want to file . . . all day,” said one kid. “I want to climb my way to middle management,” said another. “I want to be a yes-man!” said a third. The ad was wildly successful; we laughed in recognition of how hard it is to make our dreams come true.


Unless you're fifteen, when the point of defying convention is to piss off everyone around you, the main reason for refusing to go along with familial, societal, and economic expectations
is so you can free up your time and thoughts to pursue something meaningful. Living up to the expectations of the world can take up all your time and energy if you let it. The clearer we are about what we want and what may be our abiding passion, the easier it is to chart our own course.

In the art world, critics remain divided over whether O'Keeffe was a genius or merely an energetic fetishist who pressed upon us, year after year, her sexy yin and yang paintings of calla lilies, sweet peas, the various chalk-white bones of horses and cows, mysterious doorways, and adobe walls. What remains indisputable, however, is her genius for navigating the waters of her own vision, for discovering it, nurturing it, and never abandoning it. At a time when women still didn't have the right to vote, when their life goal was marriage to pretty much anyone who would have them, O'Keeffe was having none of it. She had better fish to fry. How, we may ask, did she catch these all-important fish?

She wrote letters.

I realize I may as well be suggesting that you take up whittling, but the fact remains that one of the best ways to figure out what you're all about is to write letters. Many letters, hundreds of letters. Letters to friends, lovers, acquaintances, and colleagues, each one a mini-manifesto about how you waged the battles, both large and small, of each day, what you did, why you did it, and how you felt about it. I feel equally compelled to say that if you did this, in a short time you would have no friends at all.

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