Wow, did Georgia O’Keeffe handle her color!
We visited the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, NM. I highly recommend seeing it. The Museum was comprehensive and detailed, showing us layers of O’Keeffe beyond her paintings. For that reason, I feel like I know her as Georgia.
I was struck immediately by the nuance between Georgia’s gradients of color, attention to detail, and growth in artistic development over time. In the museum, we learned how Georgia began with formal art education in the early 1900s before breaking into abstraction. She attended to the small things, like the exact hues and shapes of simple objects like the center of a flower.
She painted in New York City and met her partner there, but eventually left into nature at Lake George, New York. Then, she went further. She moved her life to beautiful, rural northern New Mexico. She had to experience the world at a slower pace – her own pace. Nature “speaks” to her.
As I gazed at the northern New Mexico landscapes, I was curious: how was Georgia a representation of pure American Modernism? She was capturing the wondrous landscape the local people saw every day. But, that’s the point: American Modernism, led by Georgia as its mother, aimed to show reality in an overly-industrialized era. Painting New Mexico flora, fauna, and daily life gave modern people a glimpse into a different reality outside the confines of busy Times Square or the four walls of a factory.
The previous week, we had driven south to Alamogordo and the White Sands National Park. During that three hour drive, we saw so many images Georgia could have painted. Natural beauty is commonplace here. We can thank Georgia for sharing it with the American people when we needed it most.
But she did more than share it: she connected our intimate, familiar relationship with nature to the divine – going beyond what exists toward what’s possible. This is where Georgia’s art shines. She had been painting the bones of animals in a way that brought them to life. She later evolved into gazing through the holes of pelvis bones and painting what she saw on the other side. She painted divine color schemes and shapes through the lens of the simple, wild beauty in front of her. These paintings are beautiful. They remind us that even the daily sunlight can be divine when viewed through the lens of “slow,” “compassion,” and “appreciation.”
She captured what sunlight should be: appreciated. She captured the shape of what “blue” would be if it were a shape.
The world enjoyed 98 great years of Georgia before she passed away in her home in New Mexico.
It’s nice when the story has a nice ending that wraps up. But, that’s rarely the case. Art mimics life, and life mimics art. So, both moves on. The way to subvert American Modernism is to subvert Georgia O’Keeffe and her art. One way to do this would be to pretend to paint a landscape that isn’t a landscape. Or represent the shape of “blue” but paint it “red.”
I have to respect my contentious to subvert such a great artist as Georgia. Because although we need to appreciate her work, we need to see it as foundational but not the end. We can always extend, expand, condense, abstract, or even subvert the great works of our time. We must. Because that’s what Georgia did.