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Ode to O’Keeffe

Ode to O’Keeffe

Today would have been Georgia O’Keeffe’s 133rd birthday. A pioneering woman of modernism and one of the 20th century’s most important artists, Georgia O’Keeffe will forever be celebrated for her lyrical renderings of colour, form, and the spirit of nature. 

As someone who has synesthesia, I have always heard colours and seen sounds in Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings, which no doubt explains the profound connection I feel with her works. Synesthesia is a neurological condition whereby the stimulation of one sense triggers a sensation in another. Chromesthesia, the type of synesthesia that O’Keeffe and I share, causes individuals with the condition to perceive colour while listening to music. Early on in her career, O’Keeffe explored the relationship between music and colour in her paintings, such as in Music, Pink and Blue No. 2 (1918) pictured above. Her fascination with painting synesthesia began in 1914, when she read Wassily Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art. In his manifesto, Kandinsky proposed the importance of form: ‘Form is the outward expression of inner meaning,’ and colour: ‘Colour directly influences the soul. Colour is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key or another purposely, to cause vibrations in the soul.’ 

‘Colour provokes a psychic vibration. Colour hides a power still unknown but real, which acts on every part of the human body.’

Enlightened by Kandinsky’s writings and encouraged by Arther Wesley Dow, her teacher at the time, O’Keeffe departed from the academic European model which focused on painting still-life arrangements, and developed her unique oeuvre: celebrating the beauty of colour, form, and inner expression. She later wrote, ‘I found that I could say things with colour and shapes, that I couldn’t say in any other way—things that I had no words for.’ Fusing the two divine art forms of music and painting, O’Keeffe rendered subjective experiences and inner sensations outwardly on her paintings. The abstract fluidity of her paintings express those ineffable, intense feelings experienced in nature, colour, and music that cannot be translated into words. Even an entire dictionary of words can seem paltry in comparison to the infinite shades of colours that exist in the universe. 

Georgia O’Keeffe, Music, Pink, and Blue No. 1 (1918). Oil paint on canvas. 35 x 29. Seattle Art Museum.

Recognising her destiny early on, Georgia O’Keeffe declared to a friend at age 12: ‘I am going to be an artist.’ She was originally born at her family’s dairy farm in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin in the American Midwest in 1887. There are few artists more adamantly associated with the United States than O’Keeffe. Her career bloomed at the time when American modernism was on the rise, and the U.S. was overtaking Europe as the center of the art world. At the heart of the group of avant-garde American artists responsible for this transatlantic shift was the influential photographer and gallerist Alfred Stieglitz. He showed a keen interest in O’Keeffe’s works, advocated for her paintings and helped her rising career take flight. She had her first solo exhibition in April of 1917, and Stieglitz persuaded her to move to New York in 1918. Despite her move to the city, O’Keeffe continued to make abstracted works rooted in nature, landscapes, sounds, and colours—such as Red and Orange Streak (1919), and Blue and Green Music (1919). Musical sensibility is distinctly visualized in Blue and Green Music (1919). Its lyrical composition, colour harmonies, and chromatic textures echo the expressive notes in a piece of music. One can almost hear the green crescendo of the trumpet, the trills of the violin rippling on the bottom left corner, and the melodic blues of the piano flowing out from the middle of the canvas. 

Georgia O’Keeffe, Blue and Green Music (1919). Oil paint on canvas. 23 x 19. The Art Institute of Chicago.

O’Keeffe not only rendered the sounds of music on her canvases, but also translated the beauty of nature into abstract shapes and forms. She started making her flower paintings—perhaps her best-known works—in 1918. O’Keeffe’s radical renderings of flowers stemmed from her interest in the intimate details of nature, which magically reveal themselves the longer we explore and examine it. In works such as Flower Abstraction (1924), fleshy folds and undulating lines ribbon across the picture plane in harmonious hues to unveil the intricacy of a flower. Unfurling and unfolding before the viewer, its delicate petals seem to bloom and breathe melodically.

Georgia O’Keeffe, Flower Abstraction (1924). Oil paint on canvas. 48 x 30. The Whitney Museum of Art, New York.

The swirling shapes and sensuous shades of O’Keeffe’s iconic flowers mirror the fluid rhythm of nature. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, ‘Nature always wears the colours of the spirit.’ We cannot separate our emotions from nature. When we look at nature, it reflects our inner thoughts and sensibilities back to us. O’Keeffe’s paintings of nature are thus the manifestation of the artist’s subconscious. These works are windows into her soul and her vision of the world. 

‘If you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for a moment.’    

Georgia O’Keeffe, Abstraction White Rose (1927). Oil paint on canvas. 36 x 30. The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe.

Alongside O’Keeffe’s flowers, her romantic relationship with Stieglitz quickly bloomed into one of the most significant partnerships in art history. But Stieglitz’s support of her work proved to be a double-edged sword: he advocated for an overtly sexual interpretation of her works that O’Keeffe rejected. To assert her independence, she moved away from pure abstraction, and instead turned to traditionally masculine subjects, such as the architecture of New York and the wide expanses of the West. In 1929, O’Keeffe left New York to spend the summer in New Mexico. Upon her arrival, she immediately felt captivated by its raw beauty and vast emptiness. She found the salvation and independence she craved in its wide-open spaces and in the expansive nature of the sky. She was an avid hiker, and she loved to tromp the Earth at all times of the day to absorb its landscapes, its changing colours and conditions. 

While visiting the D.H. Lawrence Ranch that summer, O’Keeffe painted The Lawrence Tree (1929). She painted it from the perspective of lying down on a bench, and looking up into the starry night sky through the branches of a ponderosa pine tree. As our eyes travel up the tree trunk, dancing with its red synaptic branches that seem aglow, we inhabit the artist’s point of view. For a moment, we become enveloped by the woody aroma of the pine. Arching our necks to take in the majestic canopy against the celestial sphere, we feel the awe she must have felt when she reached the cosmos. The way O’Keeffe painted The Lawrence Tree (1929) allows the work to be hung in any orientation, referencing the significance of changing perspectives. The Lawrence Tree perfectly encapsulates O’Keeffe’s spirit—wild but rooted. Her friend and the writer Waldo Frank wrote in 1926: ‘O’Keeffe is very like a tree. Her arms and her head stir like branches in a gentle breeze. She is almost as quiet as a tree, and almost as instinctive. If a tree thinks, it thinks not with a brain but with every part of it. So O’Keeffe. If a tree speaks or smiles, it is with all its body. So O’Keeffe whose paintings are but the leaves and flowers of herself.’ 

Georgia O’Keeffe, The Lawrence Tree (1929). Oil paint on canvas. 31 x 40. Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Connecticut. 

In 1939, O’Keeffe travelled to the Hawaiian Islands. Enthralled by the tropical flora and voluptuous landscapes, she wandered around the islands and painted twenty works from cascading waterfalls to blooming hibiscuses. O’Keeffe’s magnified flowers enhance the exquisite beauty and emotional power of an otherwise delicate and easily overlooked object. Simplifying while accentuating the forms of flora, O’Keeffe challenged her viewer to perceive the world in a different light. Her Hawaiian works not only express her profound curiosity and love of the natural world, but also shed light on her personal passion for colour. Oscillating between abstraction and representation, O’Keeffe used pulsating contours and chords of complementary colours to breathe life into her blossoms. O’Keeffe’s also exemplified the art of juxtaposition in her flower paintings. She masterfully contrasted soft, subdued gradations and pastel palettes with wide, flat strokes; combining intimate subtleties with overwhelming boldness of feeling. 

See Also

Georgia O’Keeffe, Hibiscus with Plumeria (1939). Oil paint on canvas. 40 x 30. Smithsonian American Art Museum.

In May 1946, O’Keeffe became the first woman artist to have a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. When Stieglitz died later that summer, O’Keeffe relocated to New Mexico, where she lived and worked for the rest of her life. There, she painted wildflowers, shells, skulls, and skies against the backdrop of boldly colourful New Mexico hills. At once breathtaking and meditative, O’Keeffe’s New Mexico paintings celebrate the mystical spirituality and sublime beauty of the vast landscape. She found that the rocks, the flowers, the mountains, and the wide open desert skies reflected the contemplative soul within her. So she took her brushes, and translated the sweeping American landscape into her own unmistakable language of art. 

Georgia O’Keeffe, Summer Days (1936). Oil paint on canvas. 36 x 30. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

Although O’Keeffe’s identity is rooted in her contribution to American modernism, she never stopped exploring, travelling, and dislocating herself in order to expand her perspective and stimulate her creativity. Her intrepid spirit did not wane with age: she painted well into her nineties, and she embarked on an international world tour around Europe, Asia, and the Middle East in her seventies. Exhilarated by the cloudscapes seen from the airplane window of her first flight, she painted Sky Above Clouds IV (1965) when she was 77. Largest of all her visions, this work fulfilled her lifelong dream of creating a massive mural-size painting. With a blanket of white clouds stretching into an infinite horizon, Sky Above Clouds IV symbolises her own expanded view of the world, and echoes her lifelong commitment to capturing nature’s rapturous beauty and spiritual power. 

Sky Above Clouds IV (1965). Oil paint on canvas. 96 x 288. The Art Institute of Chicago. 

In her 70-year career, O’Keeffe inspired the world with her innovative mastery of light, colour, and form. She expressed her radical vision in every aspect of her life: extending her uncompromising independence and consistent aesthetic from her canvases to the way she fashioned every detail of her style, home, and way of life. She forged an exhilarating voyage to a world of openness and freedom. A brilliant colourist, daring modernist, and pioneer of individualism—Georgia O’Keeffe will always remain one of the most groundbreaking artists and women of all time. 

O’Keeffe in Albuquerque, New Mexico, 1960. Image Courtesy of Tony Vaccaro. 

‘I’ve always been absolutely terrified every single moment of my life, and I’ve never let it stop me from doing a single thing I wanted to do.’

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