Born in 1887, the long and illustrious career of Georgia O’Keeffe has orbited around her desire to express feelings through abstracted holes, slits, gaps, and crevices as presented in nature and the human form. Her magnified attention to space has led to endless debate about the intimate meaning, symbolism, and purpose of the work; with her oeuvre being regularly misunderstood as overly feminine, unnecessarily sexual, and repetitive.
Georgia O’Keeffe and Gender Expectations
At the beginning of her career, Georgia’s work was misrepresented by male critics, who did not want to comprehend the complex and powerful transmutation between nature and the feminine form on display in O’Keeffe’s paintings. Furthermore, they denied this subject any relevancy and deemed the exploration of such as unprofessional, and unserious.
While the compelling painter has long denied the viewer the ability to sexually predate her canvases or have access to any crass or lewd visions of a female body, she has never shied away from the elemental sensuality of her own body and spirit. Her work remains timeless with a gravity and sensitivity few have been able to match. O’Keeffe is one of only two female artists on the list of 100 most expensive artworks ever sold and is known for her individualism and innovative spirit and style.
O’Keeffe spent much of her professional life battling with the gender expectations cast upon her by the conservative society in which she operated. She found it incredibly taxing to be expected to spend her emotional resources on positioning herself concretely to misogynistic critics in defense of her works’ feminine value. Her work is unarguably intimidating in its elemental beauty, and she embraces a blend of subtle and complex expressions that has been the pleasure of male artists to indulge in without personal criticism for centuries.
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This is no mean feat for a female artist of the time, and her rise to be taken seriously in the art world was an extremely well-choreographed ascension. In 1976, O’Keeffe rejected an offer to be exhibited in Los Angeles at a show celebrating the best female artists of the time in order to distance her work from gendered criticism.
It is historically documented that very few male artists have been probed with the same intensity at their decision to centralize their personal study of masculinity in their work and this hypocrisy is at the core of her personal brand of feminism, one that distances itself quite drastically from the feminism of the times she lived in. O’Keeffe never let anyone refer to her as a female artist.
By creating such a strong visual mythology for femininity that is so intensely and sensually linked to nature, O’Keeffe’s work was relentlessly typecast as ultra-feminine and unserious by male critics who ricochet between readings of emancipation and oppression, strength and frailty that continues to divide critics of her work, both male and female.
Had she altered her artistic output away from feminine subjects her journey to global fame of the same gravity as her male peers would have been quicker, but it would not have been authentic to her progressive views on sexuality and gender, where she neither exaggerated or concealed her powerful sexual energy that was at once masculine and feminine.
Thanks in large part to these seismic and modern explorations of gender relations by pioneering women authors, including Simone De Beauvoir, O’Keeffe’s was finally seen subjectively, it seems, for exactly what she intended it to be perceived as. As an expression of feminine energy in total symbiosis with nature, without a central focus of solely sexual feeling or through a feminist lens.
O’Keeffe’s Personal Style
O’Keeffe’s sharp, firm, and androgynous personal style is the clearest physical embodiment of her attitude towards this drive to even the gendered playing field, and her uniform of starched white shirts, tailored suits, and brogues was indeed radical for the 1920s where formless, monochrome styles for women were unheard of. One cannot help but remain startled by the strength and defiance transmuted through her wardrobe in any portrait of the artist. Even as her wardrobe evolved into slightly more feminine yet rigid, modest, and monastic robes, O’Keeffe was concerned with her work, not with her gender. Despite the status quo at the time that women were second-class artists, even citizens, she rallied against this social norm by using her body as the ultimate canvas for expression.
O’Keeffe was a member of a radical feminist organization called The National Woman’s Party and was heavily inspired by the unorthodox and utopian feminist writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s approach to gender relations affecting female artists. Gilman pushed for social and domestic reform, including the reformation of gendered clothing. Both artists believed that both men and women should dress in similar uniforms for work and leisure in order to minimize distractions between genders. Gilman’s stance on gender corresponds closely with the ideas of O’Keeffe since both women rejected the notion that women inherently possessed a set of particular character traits.
There is a clear defiance in O’Keeffe’s work that is filled with signs, transmitters, and motivators that signal her feelings towards the issue of women’s liberation as subtly yet directly as the subject of her paintings. What O’Keeffe has to say about being a woman in the 20th Century, furthermore a woman who is both an artist and a successful person is both unspeakable and absolutely explicit. It is both nuanced beyond words and also as clear as the blue skies hanging over the mountains of Sante Fe which she so loved to paint.
From the emergence of the suffrage movement through the invention of contraception to the onset of second-wave feminism, her art has served as a mirror to the progression of women in society. It has been both weaponized and embraced, criticized and deified. It has been molded and mutated through endless lenses for support and rejection of varying points of view and interpretation.
Relationship with Alfred Stieglitz
Her relationship with Alfred Stieglitz has played a huge part in public perception of the eroticism and perceived sexuality of her work. Stieglitz was a photographer and a titan of the New York art world who was twenty-three years her senior. Their master-student dynamic was provocative and undeniably sexual, giving O’Keeffe the mysterious allure of the other woman able to steal away a married, serious man. They were, however, each other’s undeniable muses, and experienced an undeniably long and illustrious relationship, full of mutual love, respect, and ambition. Stieglitz experienced a creative furor at the beginning of their affair and throughout their relationship. He photographed O’Keeffe’s body, face, and hands endlessly, and exhibited her early work at his famous gallery 291. His early portraits of O’Keeffe perfectly capture the dangerous duality that comes with female eroticism and the male gaze, helping push her career, and inevitably influencing future criticism of her work.
Towards the end of their time together, Stieglitz had been trying to keep O’Keeffe in New York for the art scene, while she was fixating on the open plains of New Mexico, that she had recently visited with Rebecca Strand, wife of the modernist photographer Paul. O’Keeffe was mesmerized by these plains. Stieglitz had recently undertaken a new affair with a socialite in New York and O’Keeffe had found out. True to style, and appalled at the thought of staying in the city with Alfred, Georgia began to rebuild her life in the desert, fifteen years before the death of her husband and her total relocation to Ghost Ranch.
What Kind of Woman Was Georgia O’Keeffe Really?
O’Keeffe was a dominant woman of autonomous mind and body in a successful and consenting relationship, relentlessly pursuing a career that would in time totally eclipse that of her husband. It is in these dualities that the essence of O’Keeffe is most strongly distilled and where all the criticism and debate around her work is silenced by the force and brightness of her spirit and vision.
The strength of her conviction and the confidence with which she asserted herself in the world as an intensely modern woman is perhaps the only necessary statement she ever needed to make and one which she made clear through her image, her words, and her work. Perhaps it is in the defiant embracing of her masculine and feminine energies that the confusion around her intentions originates. This is a scary marker of just how difficult it was, and is, to consider, respect, and revere multitudinous and multifaceted women.