Skull and Roses: Reflections on Enshrining Georgia O'Keeffe Print E-mail
Essays and Memoirs

okeeffepink-tulip-lg(Southwest Review Volume 83, Number 1, 1998)


In Santa, Fe, New Mexico, I spent the summer of 1997 writing and, on several occasions, standing agog inside the new Georgia O’Keeffe Museum before some eighty selections of her sculptures, watercolors, drawings and those famous silky geometric images in oil: the floating pelvis, the blood clot, the lustrous orifice, the sky wedge, the eggy nutrient, the fetishized shell, the crucified sky, the lonely comic orb, the birth aesthetic, the pastel creation. I felt guiltily alone, an infidel at a church service who is happily seduced by the resplendent altars and rose windows, and forgets the presence of the word. And all the while, enjoying my O’Keeffe, I was buffeted from gallery to gallery by a procession of lovers: the turquoise matriarch, the bemused father, the ecstatic Spanish girl, the garrulous rodeo queen, the mute college boy and his shrieking girlfriend, the leering cleric, another writer (several other writers) eyeing me, the man with his hand over his mouth and the Japanese woman, her arms crossed, stroking her bare shoulders, crying.

So many art-suffused faces, a cocktail party of four hundred, replaceable every fifteen minutes, crammed into six thousand square feet of five small- and mid-sized rooms, under adequate light and heightened security, O’Keeffe’s work in random order, more by size, texture and theme than by chronology. Some days the line swayed for forty-five minutes before we entered—first, sitting on the cold concrete for an eight millimeter film of the craggy-countenanced, redoubtable artist, saying she liked this interesting rock formation so she painted it and didn’t care what people thought she should paint only that she painted what she felt passionate about, and, last, browsing the gift shop’s books, mugs, silver spoons, commemorative hankies, buying iconic O’Keeffe images on postcards and sending them the next day with phrases like "grand sensualities in oil" and "paintings, alas, under- and overwhelming."

Art / public: Alien beings in contact, as though none of our faces were in the paintings and none of the paintings revealed the likeness of us who beheld them. Gertrude Stein said that anything is two things. The two things here, art / public, connect and disconnect. Adoring public adoring artist, we know. But adoring public under- and overwhelmed by artist’s art, we barely know. Why haven’t we looked this closely at her work before is the question, and the answer is we have been distracted by the art world’s deification of her and the self-curio of a woman whose own image is nowhere present in her paintings. An altered dimension: O’Keeffe in her museum may be an O’Keeffe much stranger than the one heralded in book, poster and popular imagination.

Before this museum’s work was assembled, there seems to have been only one Georgia, indivisible—the most famously admired woman artist in America. Enthroned thus, she is a biographer’s (and corporate sponsor’s) dream—O’Keeffe the chameleon, abashed yet certain, kind yet cranky, alone yet possessed by others. Dueling biographers Roxana Robinson and Benita Eisler claim that O’Keeffe in her relationships was, respectively, always faithful and always heterosexual or occasionally unfaithful and definitely bi-sexual. (Biographer Hunter Drohojowska-Philip, her book due in 1998, promises to examine the painter’s ambiguous sexuality for which, she says, the evidence is inconclusive.) O’Keeffe was, points of fact, the wife, cuckold and camera-object of the great American modernist, Alfred Stieglitz. She was the most beloved model of other fine American photographers among them Ansel Adams, Paul Strand and Todd Webb. She was an unswerving talent whether in New York or New Mexico, the enchanter of flowers, the wooer of landscapes, and other things which open us. And all this twists with the O’Keeffe enigma: To be known more for having worked so many years and less for the body of work itself. For outlasting any decline in her storied rise from smalltown-Midwest-girlhood—her discovery by Stieglitz in 1916, her show at his 291 gallery and her seamless fit into the art scene of New York in the twenties; her body as porno-romance for Stieglitz’s stagy photographs; her painting pineapples for Dole Fruit advertisements; her purported million-dollar earnings during the depression, eventually making more dough than Stieglitz and, reciprocally, taking care of him in his decline because he had fostered her in the beginning; her escape to New Mexico, her lost eyesight, her hands to pottery, her caretaking renewed fame in the last three decades of her life. Edgard Varèse said it best—for so long a contemporary artist who refused to die.

If you care to read, the biographers note that her paintings exemplify her: the fierce tenderness, the ethereal, canny eye, the female-sinewed androgyny shape-shifting into muscular whites, sun-baked brick browns, black-under-blue horizons. It is the business of artist biographers to find the prickly and wounded personality of the artist wherever they can. And yet no one searches for the painter’s personhood purely in his or her work. Is it even possible to unveil it there? Surely, the brambled path to the renowned O’Keeffe has always been through legend, her obsessions, the idea of female-as-difference. And so, in the two-day symposium attached to the opening and attended by over two hundred and eighty people, once again the painter is picked over, groomed and trotted out for inspection by the psycho-bio experts—and a stiff $250 participant’s fee. To do her this service means to dredge again the River of Innuendo—the salacious readings of her flower images, the feminist and libertine influences of Jean Toomer in New York and Mabel Dodge Luhan in Taos, the Willa Catherish-hidden lesbianism, the sexual and economic enmeshment with Stieglitz, the much-disputed dependency on Juan Hamilton, her young mentor who she said saved her from uselessness. Why such oiliness, now an industry incarnate, around O’Keeffe? About Mozart’s cruelties, sex life and love of flatulence we seldom spend a breath. Instead, we listen to and play his music, undistracted by the life. I understand that a great artist wears some mask which stirs us to unmask her, often skewing us to disregard the work. But for want of the hagiography, which is available in every art magazine, newspaper supplement, book jacket flap, and New Mexico tourist flyer, I steered clear of the symposium, read the reports in The New Mexican and, instead, went straight to the paintings. Shuffled along with the throngs once more. There is where I hoped to find her.

An O’Keeffe is there: the joyous painter, the painter of beauty, classic proportion, color-wheel balances. Like lilacs in spring, she takes hardly any getting used to. Joy is none too subtle, either, and in O’Keeffe subtlety exists accidentally—in the borders between abstract and representational forms where often her masterful gradation of pastels, especially in the petunia or treelike paintings, fuses the surface to the background in one depthless color-shape. The contradictions of the artist’s self may be in those delicate shadings. But look as closely as you will—the fabled persona of O’Keeffe, moping about in there somewhere, like Rousseau’s jungled jaguar, is absent.

Something else is not there even more strongly: O’Keeffe’s paintings, except for the felt presence of the artist seeing the image, are without human forms. Not that she needed to paint people in order to be human yet, despite a few kachinas and a watercolor nude on display, this element is missing. The missing human subject has, for me, the strongest ring of what’s elusive about her oeuvre. It is, I think, from the human subject that darkness and enigma arise, and there is very little darkness or enigma in her geometrically lovely canvases, perhaps on purpose. Indeed, the few attempts at mystery—a black door floating above a long brown patio walk or the familiar ladder rising/falling in the turquoise night sky—have not enough mystery to sustain them, although they are touched with a Texas schoolgirl’s humor. While her paintings reveal an intimate decorum about the sensuality of objects, it seems O’Keeffe knew that full- or even half-fledged abstraction was not her forte. One reason, said her friend, the art critic Henry McBride, was popularity: "Were she abstract, she’d lose her public, and as she has a considerable public, naturally she hates to do that." I would argue that the darkness is missing because it was foreign to her character. O’Keeffe was a painterly painter. She said cow bones were not symbols of death but dynamic opacities and textures to paint. She limned penile calla lilies and vaginal clams, or the woman-loved flower arms of the jimsonweed blooms, sensual petals and guarded cavities, then had to deny with bullhorn those who humped old Freud on her back. Except for the viewer-insistent lascivious imagery of these flowers (one reviewer wrote that O’Keeffe’s images "surge" with sex), she is like so many American artists—naive about the interpretations of her work and thus unable to nail down what is there. Nothing to interpret in the landscape, it asks only that we enact how we feel it with paint, I can hear her declare in Fine Arts 101. Like canvas and oil, the feeling was finite, too.

What she painted is beauty or, as she called it, "the wideness and wonder of the world as I live in it." Beauty, endlessly, and, curiously, what so many would agree is beautiful. That is what she left us to see and to see it people have—from the perches of scholars, on the boards of directors, in her poppy on a postage stamp, in million-dollar bequests to her foundation, in the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival posters where a beautiful picture promised equally beautiful music. Endlessly, expectantly: Beauty. Like the Navajo prayer: "We walk in beauty." No psychology, no religion, no oppressive nature, no portraiture. And herself excised as well: no self-portrait, no self-insistence, no self-deprecation. How curious! The mythic images of the spirited Georgia (one famous photo) on the back of a friend’s motorcycle off to the White Place to sketch or the Gothic enigma, posing (another famous shot) head lowered in her black gown and cape and flamenco black hat are nowhere evident in her paintings. She painted not her image to bedazzle us as Van Gogh did but what her eye lingered upon in those places where she lived. And if half-of-tourist-America loves her for that it’s also the reason why they love her for having stumbled upon and lived in the northern New Mexico vistas which before her transfer to canvas so few knew existed. The hard part about O’Keeffe is that you can’t, without sounding amateurishly psychoanalytic, talk about her art in terms other than its graceful simplicity and valentine shapes. So obvious that it seldom bears repeating. Only sighing over, perhaps. The easy part about O’Keeffe is her work’s irreducible nature which is, lest we forget, mainly recognizable images, sunnily and classically portrayed.

But nothing’s as easy and final as graceful simplicity, especially when so many want to expose the psycho-sexual hallucinations of her work. We cannot let O’Keeffe merely be pretty nor can we endure more divinations from the kukookajoos. But we are sucked into their "debate," pulled away from the paintings constantly. It matters even less today what her images suggest; their value will grow no matter what "controversy" swirls around her. Ironically, the absent human form makes it far easier to supply certain mythic elements into her designs than if the human forms were present. What else can we deduce from Vermeer’s portraits of young women but the tender unawareness of his subjects in moments they had no idea he was stealing from them. Sadly, I think O’Keeffe’s work has seldom been valued for a similar evocative tenderness and absence of ego but valued rather for what it says about the psychology of male v. female creativity in the twentieth century. All this and more swarmed through me as I tried to twig the underwhelming sense I felt in front of her simple art, so simple as to buckle to whatever interpretation the enquiring minds want to bestow upon it. Perhaps it had to do, most essentially, with the ignoble notion that the critics insist we do nothing but idolize her.

The eye caresses the objects it desires, and in O’Keeffe’s paintings this synthesia flowers more comfortably upon the senses than in the work of most artists. Even though the industry of her persona will continue to inveigle her art beyond what she expected, such a fate cannot be what she wanted. Does any artist, except the Dadaists, perhaps, seek notoriety to replace the work? Did Mapplethorpe want his photographic portraits to end in censorship controversy and remain rooted there? Can O’Keeffe’s small, delicate canvases outlast the cant, the way she outlasted every painter of her generation? The substance of her paintings is a felt sensuality, a summery prettiness, and it is immediately visible, cognitive, like light. No shadow intrudes to darken it. O’Keeffe painted those things she coveted, and that’s enough of a talent to admire her work. But I suspect there is more than the delicate perfection her paintings enact, much more intrigue than she would have cottoned, to have endowed her with a museum.


Who gets a museum and who doesn’t get a museum in the art world might seem, at first, a question of simple favoritism. Less than four hundred artists worldwide have their own roofs—Picasso, Van Gogh and Da Vinci in Europe, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera in Mexico, Norman Rockwell, Andy Warhol and now O’Keeffe in the U.S. are the best known. But why these folk and not others? Why not Edward Hopper, El Greco, Mary Cassatt? The favoritism arises as much from the pleasing accessibility of the artwork as it does from such factors as luck, market forces manipulable and not, appeals local and national, the usual prosaic life of the artist v. the regeneracy of the artist’s personal myth, and the willfulness of the super-savvy collector who usurps the inefficiency of more democratic museum-making policies in most art-loving communities.

Traditionally museums come about via the gifts, bequests and tax-deductible munificence of collectors whose wide-ranging tastes in art have probably done more to preserve a people’s or country’s fine art legacy than any windfall from Washington. Museums often get off the ground as partnerships between collector and government trustee, creating a city, county or regional exhibition center. By nature, by tradition, the museum is inclusive, drawing together its new and retrospective shows and its permanent collections from a region, a period, a style, a genre, a locale’s history, be it national or provincial.

But the O’Keeffe Museum has circumvented the traditional course. It has been rammed into existence, albeit with energy and love. It started less than two years ago at the behest of two entities, the Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation and the gifts of Anne and John Marion. The O’Keeffe Foundation was begun by several relatives of O’Keeffe who contested the 1983 and 1984 codicils to her will. These Juan Hamilton-initiated changes, supposedly signed under duress and after the artist became blind, transferred to him forty million dollars in artwork and fifty million in property. Though the will went to probate, eventually the codicils were removed when Hamilton relinquished his claim and settled for seventeen million dollars worth of paintings. In other words, the Foundation is vastly endowed. The Marions (he, a retired chairman of Sotheby’s; she, the president of Burnett Oil and the Burnett Foundation), shook everyone awake. Not only did the pair insist museum open in two years but they also—as a private institution—by-passed what others have been trying to do, unsuccessfully, through occluded government bureaucracies for decades. No one doubts that those involved in this museum so admired the artist and her work that their intentions to enshrine her are fully honorable. Many board members knew her and have donated paintings as well as stories to grow this new hall. Other blessings have accrued. The O’Keeffe Museum has a working partnership with the Museum of Fine Arts and the Palace of the Governors to share admission and membership policies, present educational programs and create an MFA endowment with seventy-five percent of the O’Keeffe Museum profits. Friday evening free admission has been scheduled, and the work of other artists from O’Keeffe’s milieu may one day be shown. Hands across adobe, the Santa Fe art community guarantees this museum will flourish.

And so will the commercial concern. It makes good business sense to open this museum for O’Keeffe’s works fetch top dollar in the Santa Fe and Southwest art markets; the prices even her "lesser" pieces command are equivalent to the richest real estate in Santa Fe. Such sums are constituting new rules for the business of museum-making. For one, private citizen or private groups can now forcefully direct what we might call "cultural investments," that is, fashioning institutions to combine local artistic or cultural legends with the tourism dollar to benefit B&Bs, motel chains, jewelry shops and local home prices. It’s not so much a question of which art, traditional or otherwise, the culture agrees to honor but the cooperation of collectors and city council members as to what to set aside, to protect and, most important, to promote.

The contemporary museum lives and dies these days on the efficacy of its corporate savvy. The single-artist museum is no different from the multi-artist museum: It, too, must make it. Yet with the O’Keeffe Museum the art shown is so singular in appeal that everything about the museum’s success rises or falls on the continued viability of the artist’s legend. To keep this wheel greased, the legend must grow with the work, which is to say, the reputation of the dead woman must be carefully managed. O’Keeffe’s reputation seems the ripest of any American artist for such a single scope: she is recently dead and still rising in fame; her life’s controversies are centered on her ambiguous sexuality, a winning card which has also kept Shakespeare, Virginia Woolf and the Marquis de Sade from rusting prematurely; her working life seems to model such classic American themes as frontier individualism, the way west, the axis of Big-Apple fame and small-town loyalty, the dream of self-determination. Crucial to the manageability of her reputation is a balance between the monetary wealth her work is still enjoying and the aesthetic satisfaction the work produces. I think that what people see in O’Keeffe’s work is this mix of abundances—money and aesthetics. It is not the Emersonian ideal of an artist’s lofty sensibility that transcends grubby Mammon, which attracts her following. It is the superstructure of an artistic vision, undergirded by the blessings of the marketplace, which matters. To many folks, O’Keeffe is good (and worth those prices) because she’s so well known. It is hardly cynical to note that the Grateful Dead shared a similar status—the highest-earning musical group ever in America still made for lots of ecstatic, liberated, naked fans.

A finite number of Santa Feans will see the new O’Keeffe Museum. At a conservative five thousand visitors a week, the town will be O’Keeffed-out in three months. But the station-wagon hordes will never stop arriving (the estimates are for one hundred and fifty thousand every year); every July and August they’ll wait in line as loyally as they do for summer movie blockbusters. It is more than strange that the works of countless artists in Santa Fe, living and dead, are displayed throughout the Canyon Road galleries and the several huge culture and ethnic museums of this art-happy town, not to mention the flood of work at the annual Fiesta, Spanish and Indian markets. The O’Keeffe Museum seems almost un-Santa Fe, an arbitrary and authoritarian single-artist bully, kicking sand in the face of galleries which support and sell the talented tenth of Southwest artists, bidding up the value of O’Keeffe’s "uncollected" work to astronomical heights. If another set of moguls were to attempt another single-artist museum—Who, I’d like to know? Hockney? Wyeth? R.C. Gorman?—the result would be suicide. Indeed, no more perfect axis exists than adobe homes, skylights, summer in Santa Fe and Georgia’s paintings. Such harmonic convergence is, alas, too flawless to fathom.


What is fathomable is the work of O’Keeffe’s New Mexican period once you have seen it in the context of its creation—Abiquiu, New Mexico, where the painter lived for close to fifty of her ninety-eight years (she died in 1986). The view from O’Keeffe’s bedroom blessedly wipes out all the museum politics. The picture windows look north to the stunning red and white eroded contours in the distance that she loved to drive to and spend the day painting. Below the house (which sits on a ridge above Bode’s store in Abiquiu, about an hour northwest of Santa Fe along route 84 to Ghost Ranch where O’Keeffe had another home) is the cottonwood valley of the Rio Chama, this day verdant and bright with horses splashing in the puddles from heavy rains, a dankness quite uncommon in the high desert. It took O’Keeffe, the story goes, more than ten years to decide to buy this property and move out of New York after Stieglitz’s death. Ten years! Perhaps she never saw it as fecund as my tour group did after three days of July monsoon. I imagined around that view from her bedroom a frame enclosing a composition in light and abstraction which O’Keeffe would have pecked only a morsel from—a ribbon line of road curving east or a basalt monolith overtaking an unyielding blue sky. All of what we witnessed this day was pretty, with horses, with all the pretty horses in a row, nuzzling each other. The world before her here was as evolved and ordered and certain as O’Keeffe’s mind-made-up reputation was. No New York, no 291, no Stieglitz in that view, only the pregnant belly of wonder.

The home itself—we toured the outside but peered through the important windows to see the sparseness and light of her many added-on rooms—has a no rough-edges finish about it, a one-storey walled-in quietude like many homes in Santa Fe. Frank Lloyd Wright’s influence is present in the long low adobe walls, acequias (ditches for rain water), serpentine flagstone walkways, spacious rectangular patios, and along or above these lines, the giraffe-necked hollyhock, the wispy thickness of the tamarisk tree, the spangly-leaved aspen. Restraint surprises everywhere; O’Keeffe’s less is always more. A small hand or small face in clay, at eye-level, jutting out on one wall of a long passageway, and no other adornment. The squat black door set deep in a beefy adobe wall, which our bearded, kerchief-ed tour guide chuckled at, came with a tale. When O’Keeffe saw that door buried in the wall, she wrote a friend, she had to have the whole property. The low walls and the light-receiving place, the quarter-acre of potential and proximity and view, is what she had to have. There, too, I sensed her softness (painting the door in the wall) complementing her determination (she had to have the place). For me the home, more so than her paintings, revealed this dualism of will and repose, sky and mud, possessing and yielding. In another letter O’Keeffe mentioned that when she had the place remodeled in the late 1940s, the village women of Abiquiu (at the time the community was entirely Hispanic) spread the facing or sand-and-water plaster over every contour of the home’s outdoor surface. It pleased her, she wrote, to know that every square inch of her home had been caressed by a woman’s hand.

We plodded around her walls, our tread as venerating as a retinue of bishops. Looking through a doorway or on to the sun-drenched cornice where a reddish-pink adobe chimney humped up to adorn the sky, it was easy to spot an O’Keeffe painting everywhere—spare, elegant, classic, balanced, pretty, devoid of darkness, tumescent with sensuality. How easy, I thought, to put a frame around these glances and arrange the moment as a canvas to place above my fireplace. Not only did her entire home seem like one of her paintings but there were miniature studies at every turn waiting to be glanced, waiting, eternally, to be painted. A philosophical crux the museum exhibit only hinted at: Did O’Keeffe make her home conform to her vision or did her home determine her vision? Did she herself imbibe the landscape whole, retain its purity of vision, its equanimity, and are those qualities that we transfer from her work to what some now call the "O’Keeffe country" surrounding Abiquiu, the unframed contagion of her seeing? Are the legendary vistas of northern New Mexico from mountain to plateau, which so enthralled Coronado, now become a plein air museum of Georgia O’Keeffe’s?

The legend, the museum and the home—all three interdependent primaries—wedge themselves together to form the new O’Keeffe pie. Though the legend’s art is now housed in a museum, where the artist lived in Abiquiu, I saw, completes the legend. And may sanctify that legend as well.

A confession. I once met the woman, in 1981, at a Chamber Music concert in Santa Fe. During intermission, between sextets of Schoenberg and Mendelssohn, I said, "Hello, Miss O’Keeffe," and she looked at me, taking a slow-lidded forever to acknowledge my greeting. But then her many fans and her escort for the day (not Mr. Hamilton) drew her attention, turtlelike as it was, away, and she was gone from me as quickly as she came hesitantly forward. Gone. Five years later, gone for good.

But in memory I am standing back to let others in to greet the O’Keeffe I knew, not as a person, but as a living artist, a seer, uncomplicated by her work, her canonization in a museum, the O’Keeffeness of her home—all filled today, like her images in oil, with her absence. I linger, stare at the hawk-sparrow-woman whose momentary glance at me gave my life a new meaning as well. I have always thought of the flash of meeting her like an introduction to a crone who is ritually responsible, say, for keeping the river water and the gravity that makes the river water move moving.

When you meet her you want to say how grateful you are for the power she wields so gracefully, so responsibly, you want to arrest her with a memorable compliment, make a query or two, or else you wish to stand there and breathe in her magnanimous presence much like the presence of those men who reconvened at Normandy Beach fifty years after D-Day and said to a man that coming ashore that June day had obliterated their sense of privacy and individuality forever. But the crone just dismisses your gratefulness with a wave of her hand, or an "I know, I know," or a stilted turning away to greet someone who’ll no doubt make her feel less grandiose and maybe a bit more alive, make her laugh or forget, not remember. Somewhere Sophocles has written that the reason the gods and goddesses are so nosy about us is that they want the hopelessness and supplication of our lives far more than they want the dopey ease of their own immortality.