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Georgia O'Keeffe

Report of the Special Interest Morning
led by Richard Cupidi
on July 9th 2016

Alfred Stieglitz  Georgia O'Keeffe: a Portrait  (1918)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
©The J. Paul Getty Trust

The morning incorporated two lectures by Richard Cupidi, a well-known art lecturer with a special interest in O’Keeffe and her work.  May I say what an engaging presenter I found Mr Cupidi to be; personable, enthusiastic, highly knowledgeable of his subject and he even managed to persuade the audience to participate!

The current retrospective exhibition of Georgia O’Keeffe’s work at Tate Modern is the first time in 25 years that it has been seen in the UK.  This must beg the question of why such an influential artist in the USA is so little known over here.  There is not a single piece of her work on permanent display in any UK Gallery or Museum.  Richard suggested that this might be because she was a female artist, and indeed there is little doubt that she would have been much better known had she been male.

The initial impact of O’Keeffe’s work is certainly her use of colour.  Whilst some of her work verges on the abstract, yet the vibrancy of her colour and the evidence of her work being personal is evident.  She was clearly an independent spirit, not influenced by any particular artist or style of painting.

It was pointed out to us in viewing Evening Star No II that O’Keeffe used no lines in her work – rather blocks of colour.  She was misrepresented by art critics of sexuality in her painting of flowers – during a period when Freudian interpretation was in vogue.  When Music Pink and Blue was shown, she opined that music and colour are indistinguishable.  One of my favourite paintings of this period was Red Streak of the Texas plains, in which everything was alive.

At about this time, in New York, Alfred Stieglitz, who owned the 291 Gallery, was sent
by a friend examples of O’Keeffe’s watercolours which he exhibited.  When she heard, Georgia O’Keefe travelled to New York and insisted that her work be removed, as she had not consented to the exhibition.  Stieglitz pleaded with her, and she finally agreed to them remaining on show.  From this point, an affair between the pair commenced and they married in 1924.

New York proved an inspiration for O’Keeffe, and several paintings of landscapes of skyscrapers followed, notably City Night.  Interestingly, people were rarely seen in her work, apart from four angels at the top of a skyscraper.


Colours in her paintings of flowers were ever present, but she would blow up the same subject in order to increase the scale and intensity of poppies, irises and famously Jimson weed, of which several versions were painted, one an enormous canvas, all demonstrating almost balletic movement.

We broke for coffee and cake at this point, with an instruction from Richard to go outside for a few minutes to examine colours!

Jimson Weed / White Flower No. 1  (1932)
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Arkansas, USA
Photography by Edward C. Robison III
© 2016 Georgia O'Keeffe Museum/DACS, London

The second lecture commenced with a view of six paintings in the Jack-in-the-Pulpit series by O’Keeffe.  These started with a realistic depiction of the flower, which then became more abstract with each subsequent representation – distilling the flower’s essence.

The next phase of Georgia O’Keeffe’s life was in New Mexico, where she would spend three months of the year until her husband died, when she moved there permanently.  The paintings of the New Mexican landscapes show an even greater intensity of colour, and great detail which glowed – this is referred to as “magical realism”.  As she was able to see for miles, she called the land “the faraway”, where she considered the sky, the stars, the wind as all being different.  The Mountain, New Mexico demonstrates the magical realism, with its fluidity and use of colour, resembling muscles and sinews, and its sense of vision.

I had no idea that D H Lawrence was living in New Mexico at this time, but O’Keeffe was a friend of his, and painted The Lawrence Tree from beneath it  (she lay on a table), with a moonlit sky above.  Its structure might have been interpreted differently – some of the audience thought that it resembled a squid or octopus.

Next came a painting of a Cow’s Skull, with an interpretation of the continuity of life and death and a suggestion of a crucifixion, and later a Ram’s Skull with a vivid flower alongside – possibly a Morning Glory with a bright sun-like centre.  May there have been a God-like quality in these?

Intense criticism from critics led to O’Keeffe having a nervous breakdown, and she failed to paint for 3 years, but then returned to New Mexico and the desert, where the natural world inspired her again.

Her images of skulls were continued with From the Faraway Nearby, with the surrealistic number of horns and a far landscape.  It might suggest a mental unrest, but that is conjecture on my part.

Black Mesa Landscape, New Mexico / Out Back of Marie's II  (1930)
Georgia O'Keeffe Museum. Gift of The Burnett Foundation  ©Georgia O'Keeffe Museum

In 1946, the Museum of Modern Art exhibited Georgia O’Keeffe’s work – the first retrospective accorded to a woman by the MOMA.  In 2014, her Jimson Weed White Flower No 1 was sold for $44million.

In conclusion, I found O’Keeffe’s work fascinating, and much of it had a spiritual quality, in particular the New Mexico paintings.  One cannot overemphasise her dramatic use of colour.

My thanks to Gwen and Liz for organising the lecture, and to Richard Cupidi for his excellent presentation.

Philip Akroyd

Related Links (open in new windows):

Georgia O'Keeffe at Tate Modern
Georgia O'Keeffe Museum

Our erudite and entertaining lecturer, Richard Cupidi