:: Article

Song of Herself

By Jackson Arn.

Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe, (ca. 1920–22).

In 2004, eighteen years after the death of Georgia O’Keeffe, The New York Times published an appraisal of her career with the title “A Major Minor Artist.” Though she has risen in esteem somewhat in the last decade, the title continues to reflect her reputation in art-critical circles. She’s never completely rinsed off the mud Clement Greenberg slung at her in the forties and fifties, in particular his charge that her delicate landscape paintings were “little more than tinted photography,” unfit to hang next to the formally daring work of Pollock and Rothko.

As far as the American public is concerned, however, O’Keeffe is patently a major figure. Schoolchildren encounter her bright, friendly flowers in art classes; in adulthood, they learn about the paintings’ vaginal undertones, which suffuse her work with an air of naughtiness and joie de vivre that persists long after Van Gogh’s sunflowers and Whistler’s mother have ceased to excite them.

A new exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum aims to disturb neither critical nor public opinion on O’Keeffe’s painting. The relatively few canvases on display in Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern are mostly unremarkable in their interpretations of space and subject, resting on unchallenging harmonies of red-green and orange-blue. Nor does Living Modern delve into the subject of much recent O’Keeffe scholarship: the ways in which the photographer Alfred Stieglitz, her lover, husband, mentor, and collaborator, curated her paintings to overemphasize their sexual meanings, skewing the way they’ve been interpreted since. Rather, the exhibit’s true subject is the O’Keeffe persona, which we’re informed was carefully crafted and updated by O’Keeffe over the course of her seventy-year career.

If, as Robert Hughes wrote, Andy Warhol was the first American artist “to whose career publicity was truly intrinsic,” Living Modern reinterprets O’Keeffe as a kind of proto-Warhol, who allowed her image to circulate, first in photographs at Stieglitz’s 291 Gallery and later in multi-page spreads in Look and LIFE, to the point where it took on a level of renown that threatened to overshadow her art. It’s a sign of O’Keeffe’s success as a self-promoter that even today, many Americans who’ve never seen one of her paintings in a museum can describe the broad strokes of her life: her early years in New York City; her journey westward to New Mexico; her transformation into a living symbol of an indigenous American wisdom, strength, and pluckiness.

The exhibit offers more than a hundred photographs documenting this transformation. In the earliest, taken in 1916 when O’Keeffe was staying in Canyon, Texas, she’s stooped slightly to one side as if the wind might blow her over, the harsh sunlight emphasizing the baggy folds in her black coat. Just a few years later, she’d moved to New York and begun posing for Stieglitz, already one of the most celebrated American photographers and a mentor for a legion of great artists, including Marsden Hartley, John Marin, Max Weber, and Arthur Dove. In the dozens of photographs Stieglitz took of O’Keeffe, she seems possessed of an inner tension; her black coat has become dramatically inscrutable, and her high, androgynous cheekbones clash provocatively with her full, curvaceous lips.

After she began living in New Mexico in the 1930s, she posed for Ansel Adams, Maria Chabot, and, much later in life, Arnold Newman and Annie Leibowitz. In a 1960 photograph by Tony Vaccaro, she stands before the desert, halfway through finishing her painting, Pelvis Series, Red with Yellow. Her head is turned down pensively, and her tan skin is nearly the same color as the mountains in the background, as if, after three decades, she’s become one with her adopted home. The painting is the least interesting thing in the frame.

Arnold Newman, Georgia O’Keeffe, Ghost Ranch, N.M. (1968)

In emphasizing O’Keeffe’s “self-crafted public persona,” Living Modern creates a number of interpretive problems for itself that it fails to solve very gracefully. The curator, Wanda M. Corn, needs to show that O’Keeffe was the true auteur of her own public image, not a passive modeler of other people’s ideas. This is no mean task, since the photographers for whom she posed—almost exclusively men—are among the greatest of the twentieth century, and each had his own distinct aesthetic principles. O’Keeffe’s presence changes, sometimes almost contradictorily, with each photographer, to the point where it can be hard to define her public image with any precision. For her close friend Paul Strand, she’s candid, “sleepy-eyed and slightly disheveled”; for Tony Webb, she rows down the Rio Grande, radiating confident energy; for Newman, she consents to be shot in color, wearing the blue denim she’d previously sworn off before the camera. The exhibit doubles down on its auteurist claims by noting that O’Keeffe designed and sewed some of her own clothing. However, it seems she largely ceased to do so after she migrated west and became successful enough to afford Claire McCardell frocks and Japanese kimonos.

It may well have been Corn’s conscious decision to limit the number of paintings in Living Modern, but in doing so she prevents viewers from grasping the relationship between O’Keeffe the artist and O’Keeffe the self-promoter. The bright, warm canvases on display seem altogether tonally different from the stark, vaguely intimidating black and white portraits that first made O’Keeffe an icon, and one may wonder how the same woman who, if the exhibit is to be believed, spent years refining her public image also found the time to develop the equally iconic, entirely separate visual vocabulary apparent in her paintings. One also wonders why Corn left out O’Keeffe’s work from after the 1950s, during which she suffered from macular degeneration but continued to explore new styles and adapt her craft, not just her persona, to the shifting tastes of art critics and patrons. The implication would seem to be that celebrity had supplanted painting as a means of artistic expression for O’Keeffe by the time she was in her mid-sixties, when in reality they developed side by side for the rest of her life.

The relationship between art, the self, and the world was critical to O’Keeffe’s career and to the modernist circle to which she belonged in the 1920s. In the 1973 essay that she later reworked into On Photography, Susan Sontag noted the profound influence of Walt Whitman on Stieglitz and his followers. Like Whitman, Stieglitz sought to render heroic “the trivial and the vulgar,” confident in the knowledge that “each precise object or condition or combination or process exhibits a beauty.” Much of O’Keeffe’s New York work operates in such a register; in a 1960 interview she said she’d tried to paint flowers on the scale of skyscrapers. Taken holistically, the O’Keeffe oeuvre owes a conspicuous debt to Whitman (himself a beloved American whose persona has sometimes overshadowed his work) and the overture to Song of Myself: “I celebrate myself, and sing myself / And what I assume you shall assume / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you … My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air.” The great shift in O’Keeffe’s art—usually designated as the point at which she took up residence in Abiquiú and traded in flowers for Southwestern landscapes—wasn’t only a shift in subject matter. The prevailing direction in her early flower paintings is always inward, gesturing toward the unknowable origins of life, sexuality, and consciousness. Her later compositions often seem to point outward, toward a distant desert horizon. This change in orientation corresponds to a shift in her work from psychology, interiority, and the self to exteriority and an eternal American frontier: a transition that, per Whitman’s poem, isn’t really a transition at all.

Georgia O’Keeffe, Pelvis II (1944)

The inward fused with the outward, the origin that doubles as ground zero, the everything that might be nothing: these paradoxes recur throughout O’Keeffe’s work. Perhaps the most inspired painting in the exhibition, Pelvis II (1944), depicts a dreamy blue and white sky as seen through a dry, pale bone. Here, O’Keeffe reimagines two of the quintessential genres of Western painting, the cloudscape and the memento mori, as partners, the one’s subtext of perpetual becoming leading the way toward the other’s grim finality, and back again. It’s also possible to read Pelvis II—at the simplest level, an image of a hole arranged to look like something much more alluring—as O’Keeffe’s commentary on her own celebrity. Was the wise, worldly O’Keeffe persona indicative of a boundless talent, or was it just a pretty gloss, circled around nothing at all? To borrow from another female modernist whose stock has risen and fallen over the course of the twentieth century, was there a there there?

Toward the end of her long life, O’Keeffe was interviewed by Andy Warhol for Interview, and a copy of this conversation, along with a silkscreen portrait of O’Keeffe by Warhol, appears toward the end of the exhibit. The pairing of the two artists, seemingly different in every way, isn’t as incongruous as it might appear. They died within a year of one another, and have remained supremely popular with the American public ever since, their paintings reproduced and spoofed in posters and cartoons and kitchen magnets. Both were said to be extremely shy, despite often being surrounded by admirers; both rose to success at a young age in New York City before migrating westward (Warhol set up shop in Southern California, a few hundred miles away from Abiquiú). They shared an aversion to discussing their artistic methods and beliefs: the Interview interview is unintentionally hilarious for the way its two famous participants refuse to open up to each other. But remaining tight-lipped throughout their lives had its advantages, since it let viewers imagine them to be however they liked them to be.

Christopher Makos, O’Keeffe and Warhol (1983)

Warhol represented the final iteration of a uniquely American kind of career that O’Keeffe epitomized and Whitman may have invented. In such a career, the public’s love for an artist’s work is bound up with its love for the artist, and the artist’s love for herself is bound up in her love for the public. It must be said, though: the quality of such an artist’s work is often in danger of deteriorating. Love for oneself threatens to devolve into a narcissistic love for publicity, and too much love for one’s adoring public curdles into a naïve, creatively hollow acceptance of the status quo. Warhol’s oft-quoted remark—“America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest … A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good”—is nothing if not a corrupted, consumerist version of Whitman’s “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” At a time when Ellison, Kerouac, and Pollock had all begun to protest, albeit in radically different ways, the kitschification of America, O’Keeffe had made peace with her society and was already well on her way to becoming a kitsch classic.

In the decade since Greenberg criticized O’Keeffe’s paintings and spelled out the differences between the avant-garde and kitsch, many in the art world have begun to re-engage with kitsch and celebrate the outsized Warholian persona instead of sneering at it. With this in mind, Living Modern could signal a turning point in the way critics think of O’Keeffe’s career. Roberta Smith, writing in The New York Times, praised the exhibit for offering a “refreshing” take on O’Keeffe for the Instagram generation—a better review than O’Keeffe got in 2004, and one that would have made Warhol proud. In any case, O’Keeffe’s flowers and cow skulls will remain staples of elementary school classrooms for years to come. Her paintings may not quite be milestones in the history of art, but her career was certainly a milestone, for better or worse, in the history of the way artists are seen and talked about.


Jackson Arn is a Brooklyn-based writer whose work has appeared in Reverse Shot, 4×4Afterimage, and other publications. His essay “In Pursuit of Uselessness” was awarded the Bunner Prize for critical writing at Columbia University. The first story he ever wrote was about aliens invading the Earth. They won.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, June 20th, 2017.