“I've been asked the question—and people think I'm going to answer [it] in some salacious way—they say, 'Tell me something that nobody knows about O'Keeffe.' And I [answer] … ” Carolyn Kastner, curator at the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, let those words hang for a moment before she whispered, “She's an abstract painter.” The legacy of Georgia O'Keeffe is a rich and complicated one, often approached by the average viewer through her intensely close studies of flowers (commonly equated with sex organs, though that is a largely gendered and outdated notion, O'Keeffe having said many times, “When people read erotic symbols into my paintings, they're really talking about their own affairs”). In actuality, the scope of her work is so much broader and full of depth than is allowed by contextualizing her work solely as vaginas transcribed into flowers. Considered one of the first Americans to practice abstraction, O'Keeffe is a singular figure, a woman who cut her own path in life and in the art world at a time when it was rare for anyone to do so, electrifying and forever changing art history along the way. Nov. 15, 2016 would mark O'Keeffe's 129th birthday.
Kastner is saddled with considering the range of O'Keeffe's work and the expansiveness of her life, and winnowing that down to exhibitions that express the fullness of both through a set of pieces. “We just recently moved from the idea of exhibitions as focused ideas about a specific period in her life to telling the story of her life … [People] want her whole life every time they come in our museum,” Kastner articulated, just hours before hanging the museum's latest exhibition, O'Keeffe at the University of Virginia, 1912-1914 which will be on view until September 2017. This exploration of her early career, largely composed of watercolors, expresses something important to Kastner: That even at a young age, O'Keeffe had all the tools—the process, imagination and dedicated practice—that would take her to the end of her life, “that created the power … for her to be an iconic artist.” Because the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum owns two of her homes, a massive collection of preliminary sketches and drawings, as well as all O'Keeffe's tools, they have the ability to tell a more complete and expansive narrative of her life.
“Her immediate response to abstraction arises in her teens, when it was at its earliest point of discussion among artists” Kastner explained. “She had a vision of where she was headed … when very few people embraced that idea. [It] moved the art world forward.” Throughout the ‘20s while O'Keeffe lived in New York, she was directing the course of American modernism, along with others who haunted the circle of Alfred Stieglitz. It was during this time (and beyond it) that she began magnifying natural forms with her artistic eye—forever denying the assessment of her work as being in some way somatic. In the later half of the 1920s, she created her unprecedented monochromatic series of New York buildings, which almost seem to be at odds with more natural subjects, yet if you consider the intentional design of each piece, you see the deft hand of O'Keeffe working in synchronistic ways. Over the course of her career, one can consistently observe “her working out these very specific ideas about how to experiment with composition … not how to represent the world you see, but how to make the world you see into an impressive composition that transfers something to viewers other than exact replication of it,” Kastner said. “Where it takes you is back into your own perception, not into an exacting representation of what you're looking at.”
“By 1924 she was one of the most famous artists in the United States, and that would sort of ebb and flow for the rest of her life. But she was never really far from the cutting edge of art in the United States,” Kastner summed up. Yet, eventually she sought new inspiration, and found it in the environment of New Mexico. By locating herself and her work in a very specific landscape, she again contributed a new idea to American modernism, applying the abstract structure she'd always been interested in to canyons, landscapes painted through the aperture of bones, rock formations and more of what awed her here. “Across gender, across cultural identity, artists [that visit the museum] talk about how you cannot paint the New Mexico landscape without at least reflecting on O'Keeffe's contribution to that idea … They know there's a reckoning there,” Kastner explained. Considering how many American modernists traveled to the Southwest and painted, it is considerable that O'Keeffe's contributions are most remembered.
But as Kastner said, people want O'Keeffe's whole life. The persona of Georgia O'Keeffe can't be ignored when discussing her legacy—and her personality surfaces as nearly as inspiring as her work. She frequently hiked and camped in the snow, rain and heat, journeying to paint terrain like what she called the “Black Place,” about 150 miles west of Ghost Ranch. At the age of 74, she rafted down the Colorado River through Glen Canyon for 10 days. She travelled to New Mexico time and again on her own, leaving behind her partner, Alfred Stieglitz. In her life and in her work, O'Keeffe never capitulated or tired. “She worked very hard to become Georgia O'Keeffe,” Kastner explained. “When you come here you might only know her flowers, but what you see is a very active creative mind … She had such a long and successful career, and if we tell her story well enough, people leave understanding that she made that career for herself. That's a very powerful idea.”