Georgia on Our Minds; Long after Her Death, O'Keeffe's Still a Definitively American Artist. but Take the Myth with a Grain of Salt
Byline: Peter Plagens
For most Americans with an interest in art, the monumentalized flowers and delicately breathtaking landscapes of Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986) are modernist enough to be exciting and traditional enough to be credible. Her persona is equally compelling: the fiercely independent, no-man-needed woman in a long black dress, walking the canyons of New Mexico in search of the perfect bleached skull to paint. A few curmudgeons consider her work "The Bridges of Madison County" on canvas: high-toned at first glance, sentimental at bottom. But from the beginning, O'Keeffe was determined to find a style that was honest, pure and personal, and never to compromise it.
Her early success was startling. By 1927 she was supporting herself entirely by painting; in the 1930s her pictures commanded the price equivalent of five automobiles. And she's still a star. "A Sense of Place," the current exhibit at the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, N.M., shows a selection of her landscapes, along with 20 color photographs of the sites that stirred her to paint them; attendance has spiked 21 percent. (The show runs through Sept. 12, then travels to Columbus, Ohio, and Wilmington, Dela.) And at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, "Georgia O'Keeffe and the Sublime Landscape" will welcome an estimated 60,000 spectators by late September before moving on to Fresno, Calif.; Indianapolis; Chattanooga, Tenn., and Boise, Idaho. That would be second only to the turnout for the museum's Monet show a few years ago.
O'Keeffe claimed that her visual memory reached so far back that she could accurately recall her baby quilt. At the age of 12, she'd decided she was going to be an artist. But as a massive new biography--"Full Bloom" by Los Angeles art writer Hunter Drohojowska-Philp--makes clear, O'Keeffe's real life wasn't quite like the defiant legend her admirers crave. She met the love of her life, the much older modernist photographer Alfred Stieglitz, in 1916, when she stormed into his avant-garde New York gallery demanding to know why some of her drawings had been hung there without her permission. They became lovers and Stieglitz left his wife and child to marry her. He pushed O'Keeffe to be a great painter--and she pushed herself even harder. Their collaboration was both artistic (she posed nude for his lens) and domestic: she settled into being a surprisingly dutiful wife, packing china service for 12 every summer when the couple decamped from their Manhattan penthouse for upstate Lake George. …