August 19, 2016

Women of the Southwest - Georgia O'Keeffe

It's been a hot and humid summer in New York City, so to beat the heat and have a few days break before the autumn season starts, a quick trip to beautiful Santa Fe, New Mexico was just the ticket!  The desert climate, the magnificent scenery, the blend of Indian and Spanish Colonial cultures and of course the decadent margaritas, made a perfect escape from the dog days in Manhattan.

One of the region's most iconic denizens and the artist probably most identified with the Southwest, is Georgia O'Keeffe.  Born on a farm in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, in 1887, Georgia O'Keeffe's career as an artist was almost predestined.  At the age of 20 she was enrolled at the Art Students League in New York where her remarkable talents were recognized and encouraged.  By 1916, her unique  abstractions had caught the eye of the eminent photographer and art dealer Alfred Stieglitz who not only showed them in his avant-garde gallery "291" but developed quite a personal interest in the young artist as well.

"Number 22 - Special", 1916-17

But I'm getting ahead of myself.  As a young woman and developing artist, Georgia O'Keeffe taught art at Columbia College in Columbia, South Carolina, and later in Texas at the West Texas State Normal College, now West Texas A & M University.  The wide open vistas of the Texan landscape proved a profound influence on her work and remained evident throughout her very long and prolific career.  In recognition of these formative years, the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe is presenting "Georgia O'Keeffe's Far Wide Texas", a special installation in addition to their important permanent collection.

"Train at Night in the Desert", 1916

At a time when realism was the norm, O'Keeffe's forays into abstract forms - bold lines and colors expressing feelings as well as objects - were radical to say the least.  In Texas she found her voice, later saying "I realized that I had things in my head not like what I had been taught - not like what I had seen - shapes and ideas so familiar to me that it hadn't occurred to me to put them down."

"Sunrise and Little Clouds No. II", 1916

Lured back to New York by Stieglitz with the promise of financial backing and exhibitions in his popular gallery, O'Keeffe left Texas in 1918.  Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O'Keeffe were married in 1924 and lived in a suite at the Shelton Hotel on Lexington Avenue during the winter and spring, and at the Stieglitz family compound in Lake George for the rest of the year.  Each continued to actively pursue their individual careers and before long O'Keeffe had become one of America's most important painters with her husband managing and promoting her work.

In 1929 O'Keeffe took her first trip to New Mexico and fell in love with the magical landscape of mesas and adobes.  In 1949, three years after the death of Alfred Stieglitz and after innumerable visits to the area, she moved permanently to Abiquiu, outside of Taos, and later to Ghost Ranch, a little farther north.  Again, she found inspiration in the Southwestern landscape, and her later drawings and paintings draw heavily on the barren yet rich environs.

Pencil study and finished oil painting of "Road to Pedernal", 1941

Georgia O'Keeffe lived in New Mexico for the rest of her long and productive life and her name has become as synonymous with the region as her paintings have come to represent the terrain.  The O'Keeffe ideal of "filling a space in a beautiful way", so radical when first presented, is now iconic of American Modernism as she herself has become an emblem of feminism and independence.  But it all started a century ago in a small town in Texas where the beauty and possibilities of the wide open spaces were seemingly endless.

"Lavender Hill with Green", 1952

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