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Christopher Buckley

The Artist First—Revisiting Georgia O'Keeffe


I began to look at the work of Georgia O'Keeffe at the end of 1974 during my first year in the writing program at the University of California Irvine. I was attracted by her use of light, by her very direct celebration of the world in its elemental parts. Subconsciously at least, I think the bones, trees, flowers and hills among all that air and light--he cherishing of life that was implied in the paintings--appealed to some vision I had of the world that I had not as yet fully articulated to myself. I had no plan to write anything about O'Keeffe or her work, and for the next year or so her images and whatever themes I may have perceived just rolled around in my mind.

I had, however, also been studying art. I took many classes from Phil Leider, who is probably the best teacher of any subject I ever had. Classes I had from Leider were not focused on contemporary work, but he taught us how to look at painting. Neither Art Historian nor Art Critic, (he had been editor of Art Forum for a number of years in New York and in San Francisco), Leider gave us both lines of thinking on a particular painting or artist and then supplied a view that often discarded both theories and considered, in a very immediate, specific, and practical fashion, the artist and the aspects of the work itself. He taught us to always "trust the artist first." The main thing was that after studying with him, consciously or unconsciously, I had some idea about how to look at painting.

In 1976, Penguin/Viking published a book of her paintings and her writing about her paintings, Georgia O'Keeffe. I spent a good deal of my free time looking at reproductions of her work and re-reading her own thoughts about it. I was fortunate to see a dozen or so paintings first hand in various museums and shows. After a while, her voice/vision began to seep into my mind, into that place that makes and orders images, that find words, phrases and lines for them. There was an elemental correspondence between O'Keeffe's images and a view I sometimes had of the world, and I began to think about a poem which might take up, tangentially, her ideas and vision. I had by that time written a handful of poems on other paintings/painters and so had some notions about ways to approach the subject. For two summers running I promised myself I'd take a block of time, sit down and try a sequence of poems. But I was teaching part time all of the time, summers included, and I did not come up with that block of time; I did not even make notes--ideas just floated around in the back of my mind like driftwood on an inland sea. Finally, in the summer of 1979, after I had moved to Fresno, I had two weeks free before the fall semester began and I sat down to work. In draft form, eleven poems came in a flash, like a dam breaking.

A couple of weeks later, two more poems worked their way to the surface; I was working mainly from the Viking/Penguin book of 1976, which was really the first one to offer a significant group of reproductions and writing about her book. Soon, I had a group of thirteen, all written as monologues, as if O'Keeffe herself were speaking, and luckily I was so enthusiastic about her work that it did not occur to me that this might be monumentally presumptuous.

I had written a painting poem or two before as a monologue, as the artist speaking, but always with some conscious choosing and maneuvering. These poems just happened this way. From first to last, the poems came out of my mind and typewriter as monologues, and I never questioned them or the voice. The poems I wrote on O'Keeffe's paintings, and on a famous photograph or two of her, were in fact not much like anything I had done before; they were shorter, more concentrated and imagistic. The rough drafts came in a rush, often two a day, sometimes three. I accepted the sound and the phrasing when it arrived. A little mystical, yes--but really, I was just so soaked in, absorbed with O'Keeffe, her world and voice, that the process seemed perfectly natural. A voice had entered me and this was how it spoke.

O'Keeffe and her work were speaking, I was speaking, something was singing reasonably through me. If I had only learned one thing in graduate school--something I taught myself--it was not to question the style, genre, or theory of a poem or poems while they were being written. If work proved unworthy, it was no problem to discard it, to not publish it--there seemed to be no shortage of critics--but wearing the critic's hat, the theorist's long gown while in the midst of creating the work was a sure way, in my experience, to write nothing, or write nothing worth while. Finally, I had to take the risk that a reader would be compelled by the voice of the poems, would find it authentic and would enter the vision of the poem and painting. Finally, it seemed more stilted and artificial to describe her work from a distance. The last thing I wanted was for the poems to sound like an art history lecture. The monologues worked for me and close poet friends who read my work, and I had little trouble publishing the poems in journals.

O'Keeffe was alive when I was writing most of the poems. In 1980, after I moved back to Santa Barbara, I sent out a manuscript. of thirteen poems to a small, letter press publisher in Minnesota who accepted it. Each year thereafter, when the chapbook was not published due to a new excuse, I added a poem or two as I encountered paintings I had not seen before or ones I had looked at but not really "seen." After the initial burst, I wrote another ten poems over the next six years. By the time I moved to Pennsylvania in 1987 the manuscript. was close to book length.

I traveled to Washington D.C. to see the retrospective show, and seeing that much work first-hand provided new energy and ideas. As a consequence, I wrote another handful of poems which seemed to complete the book. I wrote the last five or six poems, which brought the book up to thirty, after O'Keeffe's death. I withdrew it from the small press, figuring seven years was enough time to do something if they really intended to, and then submitted the complete manuscript. to Vanderbilt University Press, which had published my third collection of poems. They accepted it, and it was published in 1988. The first printing sold out in about nine months, and so it was lucky for me that the small press never acted. I do not flatter myself too much, however. O'Keeffe was so popular in the late `80s (and still into the `90s) that I used to joke that you could sell sand in a can so long as her name was on it. I have always suspected that there were people who, buying a copy of my book with its beautiful reproduction of O'Keeffe's "Cow's Skull with Calico Roses" on the cover, were surprised to find poems inside instead of more reproductions of her art when they got home and looked through it. My concern at the time was that I not look like someone trying to "cash in" on O'Keeffe's recent popularity. By this time, I had been working on my modest project for ten years.

I have a preface, a disclaimer really, in the beginning of that book which explains my methods and concerns:

This collection of poems is homage, not homily. I am not attempting to speak for Georgia O'Keeffe, nor am I trying to define her work in any absolute academic or aesthetic way. In my opinion, too many have made that mistake over the years. These poems are written as monologues, and in that sense they do assume O'Keeffe's voice.... I found this the most natural way to write the poems. It would be going too far to say that O'Keeffe's actual voice, the texture and vision of her life and work, entered my conscious or subconscious mind as I wrote. But I do not think that a person can spend a long time looking at her art and thinking about it and not be, to some degree, favorably influenced by how she saw the world, how she phrased her perception in art or in words.

The monologue seemed the only "true" way to write, a risky way to be sure, but the only one in which the poems would have some immediate power and range and a chance of not sounding pretentious and academic. During the 1970s, poems derived from famous art became very much in vogue and many simply showed off their art history acumen. I wanted to avoid that kind of poem whose slim virtues resided only in esoteric information and detail. I wanted a truly human poem grounded in a meaningful subject, one that would balance the bright and concentrated images that jumped from the paintings on to the page with ideas, invention, while retaining fidelity to the subject.

The poems became persona poems and then the voice contained a bit more authority and hence, latitude for my speculations about her work. I tried to bring the emotional/ conceptual center of the poems to a resolution that was not only true to my own feelings but true to O'Keeffe's avowed ideas and her painterly details. Although whatever I have said, of course, using this poetic device, is finally only my own take on O'Keeffe's images, I hope the affinity I felt with her view of things was close and accurate enough to do her no great disservice.

Her paintings celebrate life--a life made beautiful not only by individual fortitudes, but by its wonder and uncertainty as well as by its shining reductions. She found vitality in everything from desert bones to skyscrapers in New York. She had a practical cast, one that found value in the earth and praised the strength of the natural, the human spirit as it endured. I wrote my poems doing the best I could to continue to see what she was showing us, using my own words to say what the images, in part, might add up to.

My poems then, were about her life and her paintings, her take on the world as I saw it and read it. The more I read about O'Keeffe in articles, in her letters, and in biographies--the more I looked at her work--the more I found I shared her responses. In 1985, Crown Books published The Art & Life of Georgia O'Keeffe , by Jan Garden Castro, which was a mix of reproductions of well known and lesser known paintings, photographs and a critical monograph by Castro. I especially agreed with Castro's conclusions that O'Keeffe was, in a secular sense, a "spiritual" painter. Castro ( The Art & Life of Georgia O'Keeffe , p.170) frames her view with reference to Mircea Eliade, author of The Sacred and The Profane : "The Sacredness to time, space and nature is a belief that distinguishes religious from nonreligious humankind..." Castro goes on to conclude a few sentences later that, "In some respects, O'Keeffe seems to fit the role of the sacred, rather than the secular, artist/creator. Her works seem to exist in a universal present time...composed of a small number of forms with a ritual significance that inhabit a consecrated space." Castro is reasonable and accurate in her evaluation here because she largely appraises O'Keeffe outside of any orthodox or parochial intellectual theories--she is not out to "prove" that she has some special or discrete way to interpret the paintings. Rather, she is looking at a cumulative effect of the work and the vision overall. In enunciating a "spiritual" cast to the work in general, Castro does not for a second ascribe that view, that texture, to any ideology, or a priori concept on the part of O'Keeffe.

Castro goes on to ask, "Why does O'Keeffe deny the male and female symbols in her work? This issue...seems to involve O'Keeffe's determination to assert the real, as opposed to the symbolic, nature of each object. Nor did she favor the religious interpretation of the earth as a sign of fertility, a bearer of life and death. Her opinion about the significance of dreams is unknown." Castro correctly, I believe, realizes that O'Keeffe's concerns, first, last and always, were formal concerns, just as O'Keeffe said all along. Her emphasis on light--within her objects as well as without--proclaims some essential vitality, some life principle that perhaps outlives death or transcends it. About the bones and skulls she collected and painted, O'Keeffe said that they had nothing to do with death, they outlasted it. Certainly for her, these were not symbols of death or mortality. If anything, they were only emblems of the landscape she loved, one alive with elements that spoke to her about what it was to be alive in that space and to make art there. As anyone familiar with O'Keeffe's own writing and with painters in general will know, her subjects were chosen for their formal qualities of line, tone, and space, and not for some "message" value. This is of course disappointing to the critics and art historians, the recently arrived deconstructionists and New Historicists whose business relies often on ignoring the artist in favor of their own manufactured concepts.

And this brings me to the problems, past and present, of interpretations of O'Keeffe's work. I hope my own poems are close to the views--transcendent in a general sense--of O'Keeffe. In writing a poem on a painting, a group of paintings, or on a photograph, I attempted to deal directly, factually, with the details presented in the work. But, I also let myself be guided by O'Keeffe's sensibility and aesthetics as she expressed them in her writing and as it was reinforced and amplified in the paintings. O'Keeffe's mind and vision are both speculative and determined, while most of the criticism of her work in the `20s and `30s is silly and pretentious, and that line of response--the sexual, quasi-Freudian interpretation of the paintings offered mainly by men--persists into the late `80s and early `90s despite feminist theory and women writing the contemporary responses. O'Keeffe disavowed it directly and sensibly at the same time. Since then, comprehensive and intelligent essays by Jack Cowart, Juan Hamilton, and Sarah Greenough--published in the Catalogue for O'Keeffe's traveling retrospective show 1987-1989, Georgia O'Keeffe: Art and Letters, (National Gallery of Art, Washington/ Little, Brown and Co., Inc., 1987)--have also pointed out the failings of these three interpretations. And, interestingly enough for our times, the sexist nature of the early criticism is there brought to light.

O'Keeffe was interested in things, but was also interested in their relation to whatever force they might have in common. She was sure about what engaged her as a subject for paintings, sure about the shapes in her mind for which she sought the exact colors. She was not an ideologist. She was open to discovery; she set out to make art in order to discover something, and that might be the relationships of color, line, shape, light or life-force. This approach is often true for artists--they have their antennae, their satellite dish trained to receive information, while certain art critics or art historians who have already figured "it" out, are out to prove something.

Again, the 1976 Penguin/Viking edition of O'Keeffe's paintings and writing about painting is very helpful, for while O'Keeffe wrote a little about her work to friends in letters and for herself in memoirs, she did not comment publicly about her own work. And so that book has many good sentences from O'Keeffe which address her intentions clearly and directly, and which, if one bothers to study the letters and biographies, seems to be the way she approached most her life and her art. Wonder, the speculative nature of life and the earth as she saw it, was important to O'Keeffe's vision--she was not simply a maker of icons.

She said, "I have used these things (flowers and bones) to say what is to me the wideness and wonder of the world as I live in it." In the same book she says, "The unexplainable thing in nature that makes me feel the world is big far beyond my understanding--to understand maybe by trying to put it into form. To find the feeling of infinity on the horizon line or just over the next hill."

Perhaps her work can be seen as asking a question about transcendence, posing some possibility about the subject. Jan Garden Castro points out that she cherishes life in her attention to the elements of her environment, to the time and space around her. Yet this is very subtle in the work; what is clear is that at the heart of her considerations are the questions of a painter's composition, of form--the same questions which must be answered whether one paints representationally or abstractly. "It is surprising to me," O'Keeffe said early on, "to see how many people separate the objective from the abstract." Much of the flower series paintings work toward abstraction. The Jack in the Pulpit series is a good example; Numbers IV, V and VI move up closer and closer to the flower until the end lines and colors are in fact abstractions and the obvious focus becomes two-dimensional. O'Keeffe looked for correspondences of color and line, and regularly developed formal themes found in representative subjects to non-representational compositions.

Of course, there are many of her paintings that simply are abstract. The series "Shell and Old Shingle," which begins with clam shells and a roof shingle, works into abstraction by number IV and into another complete correspondence in number VII--a painting in which O'Keeffe paints the mountain across a lake. The Blackbird series works in much the same way, the lines of the bird being reduced and simplified until the mark-making then is not about representation but about shape and space. There are many other examples throughout her work. Her flowers were expanded for their abstract qualities and to make people notice them. Responding to some early reviews by men which foisted a Freudian and sexual theme on her work she responded, "Well, I made you take time to look at what I saw and when you took time to really notice my flower you hung all your own associations with flowers on my flower and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower and I don't."

As my art teacher Phil Leider taught us, we should "Trust the artist first." When we have not only the evidence of her life and work but the direct evidence of her comment on the very subject of Freudian/sexual interpretation, we ought to believe what the artist tells us.

Here is a quote from Sarah Greenough's essay "From The Faraway," which speaks to the early misguided criticism on O'Keeffe and which also brings to light the sexist nature of that criticism:

The notoriety that O'Keeffe acquired in the 1920s, as a result of the large number of portraits Stieglitz made of her, significantly affected the critical reaction to her work. During this time, a large and very vocal majority of critics repeatedly discussed her painting in relation to her work. During this time, a large and very vocal majority of critics repeatedly discussed her painting in relation to her sex; they saw her first as a woman and only second, if at all, as an artist. Even in the early 1920s, when much of her work was quite abstract and devoid of sexual references, she was hailed as the "priestess of Eternal Woman." Readers were told that "the essence of very womanhood permeates her pictures." Lewis Mumford wrote, "she has beautified the sense of what it is to be a woman; she has revealed the intimacies of love's juncture with the purity and the absence of shame that lovers feel in their meeting." Freud's theories were extremely popular in the 1920s and undoubtedly encouraged sexual allusions... Because she was so distressed by much of the critical writing of her, which was primarily by men, and because she hoped that another woman might see her art more clearly, she solicited reviews from several women. (pp. 136-7)

Greenough goes on to quote from reviews whose prose is even more purple than that above. I don't think that these early reviewers--or contemporary ones, for that matter--had to stay up very late to come up with the idea that there is something sexual about flowers; however, that was not why O'Keeffe painted them. Those were not her associations, and she said so. A portion of Juan Hamilton's essay "In O'Keeffe's World" from the same catalog of the retrospective show is a good counterpoint to the criticism of the 1920's and `30s:

Her genius was her oneness with herself. Her ability to generate an aura of honesty and directness. There was a connection between her internal and external world that was full of truth. It appealed to a lot of people. So her flowers are flowers in their own way. They don't allude to other flowers. When she painted the West, it was the West she sensed. There is an openness in the pictures, and a magic sense of light. Other painters would come West and paint the hills of New Mexico in such a way that they looked like Connecticut. They would bring their own styles and assumptions and pin them on the work they did. She was an open person, open to new experience, in a fresh and honest way that was unique. (p.11.)

Still, some of that wrong-mindedness persists today. An example appeared in the Sept. 1989 issue of Art & Antiques . The magazine was previewing some of the paintings from the then new book of O'Keeffe paintings which would be released in time for Christmas, Georgia O'Keeffe: In the West . The issue featured an article by Hunter Drohojowska who was writing yet another biography on O'Keeffe for Knopf. Although it was otherwise an informative article, some very poor reasoning on pages 88 and 89 significantly damaged the essay. Commenting on some of the well known paintings of skulls and flowers, Drohojowska wrote:

The surrealism of such paintings--with their ongoing theme of floating bones combined with landscape or flowers--is undeniable. O'Keeffe protested. `I was in the surrealist show when I'd never heard of surrealism. I don't think it matters what something comes from; it's what you do with it that counts. That's when it becomes yours.' Of course O'Keeffe also claimed that her work had no sexual references, that it was all something made up by Stieglitz.

Art Historians generally accept that an artist's own account of the genesis of his (her?) work must always be taken with a grain of salt. Witness Picasso's well-known claim that he had never seen an African mask when he painted the Demoiselles d'Avignon, contradicted by a photograph of the artist in his studio with just such a mask hanging on the wall.

Well, it's difficult to know where to begin with convolution this severe. But, before I engage this quote line by line, I believe it is important to note that here again we encounter a fairly arrogant attitude. "As we all know," Drohojowska implies, "artists are not to be trusted." Just for the record and for common sense, I would venture that artists--if we want to risk sweeping such divergent personalities into a group--have as many honest, direct, or duplicitous members as any other "group"--say, academics? Generalizing on this grand a scale leads to trouble--historically, racism and sexism, and at the very least inaccuracy. A case by case approach would seem to be the most accurate and profitable way to proceed in evaluation, especially when the writer / critic is writing a biography and ostensibly has some pertinent material from which to draw.

First of all, the tacit definition and application of Surrealism that Drohojowska offers here does not apply--bones combined with a desert landscape or flowers are not undeniably surrealist. There is no psychological atmosphere providing motivation and centering the emotion of the piece. Indeed, far from the images being juxtaposed, it is obvious that they are all from the same immediate environment. I would make the argument that some critics have made about De Chirico, that his work is not surrealist but rather still life taken off the table, an observation that seems more compelling for O'Keeffe than for De Chirico. Given the specific subjects O'Keeffe painted in the west, this seems fairly obvious, difficult to ignore, unless of course, your academic standing and/or writing career depended on manufacturing theory regardless of the evidence to the contrary. Lacan has replaced Freud for this tenuous foothold and O'Keeffe and what she had to say about her style and her subject are conveniently put aside, for her own considerable writings about her work do not serve to advance the industry of current speculation. There's not much profit for the writer to examine the art as art, its aesthetic goals and motivations. Painters, students of art would do so, but those more interested in advancing theory about work rather than the work itself, are, simply put, out to advance themselves and not the art.

In his essay "The Scholarship and the Life" in From The Faraway Nearby , (Ed.s. Merrill & Bradbury, Addison Wesley, 1992) James Craft, Assistant Director of the Whitney Museum, concludes by pointing to this trend in O'Keeffe criticism.

One easily finds in O'Keeffe what one needs and then formulates her art and self to the shape of one's own vision. It is one of the exciting factors of her art and self that this happens, but it is a danger we must try to deal with as scholars and critics. (p. 27)

In the same book, art historian Anna C. Chave quite logically exposes the bias, sexually and aesthetically, of the male critical response to O'Keeffe, especially early on. However, she then ignores O'Keeffe for her own interpretations, and while they are more feminist than masculine, they equally ignore O'Keeffe the artist and person, and this after she has stated that O'Keeffe knew what she was doing!

But O'Keeffe was no plant, no amoeba, no dimwit: she was a self-possessed, literate person who formulated with great deliberateness often eloquent visual descriptions of her ideas, perceptions, and feelings. O'Keeffe saw art precisely as a means of saying what she wanted to say in a way that suited her.... Her art was prompted, then, by the realization that `I was a very stupid fool not to at least paint as I wanted to and say what I wanted to when I painted.... (p.31)

Later in her essay, page 36, Chave finds it more profitable to disregard what O'Keeffe herself has said about her own art and substitute her, the critic/historian's interpretation of the work, thinking, obviously, that she knows better than O'Keeffe.

O'Keeffe's objection to the sexual readings of her art probably had more to do with the degrading forms those readings took than with any naiveté about her works' sexual overtones.

I do not follow the thinking here. It is so facile to place a Freudian or reverse-Freudian (all around shapes and spaces are feminist/feminine, womb-oriented) on to any art or objects. It seems to me an artist who wrote and talked as much about her work as O'Keeffe did, who lived a very long time and had ample opportunity to live through several decades and movements in art and in thought, and who said her considerations for style and subject were painterly ones, should be listened to. It seems presumptuous at best for historians and critics to assume they know better the intentions and achievements of the artist, but I have long been at odds with the theorists and deconstructionists. Nevertheless, while there may be some room for interpreting an artist or writer who made no comment on his/her work or who is far removed in time, it makes no objective sense to disregard the expressed comment of a contemporary artist.

"Trust the artist first--not Johnny Carson, Dan Rather, not your parents, not art historians and academics--trust the artist." That is what the best teacher I ever had said to us. He was talking of Vermeer and Velasquez that day, showing us--through the history of the artist's composition and body of work, how the artist was thinking when he made the work. Of course, there are many fine and helpful art historians who do somewhat the same thing, and it is granted that there have been artists who consciously or unconsciously mislead viewers, reviewers, interviewers, gallery owners. But when someone's life and writing is as direct and craft-oriented as O'Keeffe's, when her art and objects shine in such candid contexts, we ought to believe what she says. Moreover, if one were to err in believing the artist or the critic, I would vote for erring on the artist's side, for that would at least force us back to the work itself instead of some postulating about the work which is at least once removed from the process and the actual object.

The poems I wrote from the late `70s through the mid `80s based on O'Keeffe's paintings were published by Vanderbilt University Press in 1988-- Blossoms & Bones : On The Life and Work of Georgia O'Keeffe . As I mentioned earlier, the monologue form immediately seemed the right one to use as I was so compelled by the images and also by her own voice in her writings. I was over-taken by the imagery and the life, and hence three of the poems in the book were even derived from some rather famous photographs of her. My attempt always was to stay close to a few, which, if she did not see it exactly that way, she would nevertheless find close to the mark.

The three new poems I placed in From The Faraway Nearby were written in the early spring of 1990 three years later after I wrote the last poem that went into the Vanderbilt book. I had been looking at some of the paintings from that new book, Georgia O'Keeffe : In The West ; I think we are all grateful for a look at more of the paintings. I was especially taken with "Spring" and "The Beyond," her last painting. Along with the painting "Pelvis IV," they still held for me the wonder and mystery, the mystical assemblage and light that O'Keeffe's best work has always held.

Addison Wesley did not want to pay permission fees to use any poems from my book and asked if I might write some new ones. I thought about that for a few days while looking at the work, and one night just before sleep, before dream, that same voice entered my mind. I wrote down some notes for one poem and the next day drafted three poems; and when the poems came, they came in that quiet, meditative rush, just as if some voice were in fact entering me, or at least as if I were listening to some real voice. In the following weeks, I re-shaped" them focusing on the idea and feeling of "last things" as seemed appropriate for "The Beyond," especially. I ended up revising the poems several times even after they were published. One day I tried to write some more on other paintings I had not considered, but the voice was gone. I was grateful for those three poems. In them, I listened again to that voice, lived with O'Keeffe's images, and tried to find the forms for that particular wondering about the earth and what might lie behind it that glows within it now. That is what the bones and flowers and vast desert spaces and sky suggested to me. I trusted what the artist gave me, and remained as faithful as I could to what she saw.


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