Georgia O’Keeffe, Creator of Desert Still-Lifes, Dies

Times Staff Writer

Georgia O’Keeffe, who externalized her search for the eternal verities into a series of crystalline paintings, making her America’s undisputed empress of art, died Thursday.

Miss O’Keeffe died at St. Vincent Hospital in Santa Fe, N.M., at 12:20 p.m., said hospital spokesman Charles Cullen. He had no other details on her death and said only that she had moved to Santa Fe last summer from her remote desert adobe home in Abiquiu.

She was 98 and had outlived her roguish band of talented contemporaries by dozens of years.

Honored most recently by her country with the Medal of Freedom in 1977, she was a girl who served as a photography model for her husband, master photographer Alfred Stieglitz, who then matured into a painter who defied definition or categorization. The quests for cosmic meaning she sought through her palette had taken her to the stark isolation of her beloved New Mexico with its bleached animal skulls and exotic flowers that grew in the desert that was her front yard. And at her death she had become, if not a national treasure, one of America’s most revered museum pieces.

In essence, there were two Georgia O’Keeffes, the one the sensuous, nude lover that Stieglitz romanticized in a series of more than 500 photographs of every inch of her body. That sexual being, deemed scandalous in the early years of this century in all but avant garde circles, has since been viewed in most of the world’s better modern art museums. The second Georgia O’Keeffe was the private if not reclusive widow who prowled the desert, capturing death on canvas via the pelvic bones of fallen cattle that literally jumped at the viewer because of the boisterous blue skies she placed behind them. That was the woman as artist, an artist who drifted comfortably and often through regionalism, surrealism and abstractionism.


Born to Farming Family

Both these complex beings began as one in Sun Prairie, Wis., on Nov. 15, 1887, where Georgia O’Keeffe was born the second of seven children in a comfortable if not affluent farming family. She attended the rural school near her home and, reflecting the gentility of her family, with two sisters went into town one day a week for painting lessons.

In an extensive profile published in 1974 in the New Yorker, she recalled telling a girlhood friend when she was only 10 that she was going to be an artist. In yet another interview she said she had made that choice because “that was the only thing I could do that was nobody else’s business. . . . I could do as I chose because nobody would care.”

Her father’s health began to fail and the family moved to Virginia when she was 14 to escape the Wisconsin winters. In Virginia the teen-age farm girl attended a boarding school and then enrolled in the Art Institute of Chicago. But she contracted typhoid and was forced to withdraw from school for an entire year. She resumed her art education in 1907 but this time in New York where she soon began to gain notice for her still-life paintings. It was also at this time that Georgia O’Keeffe the girl began to attract attention.

The typhoid had left her bald and the hair that was gradually emerging came in curly. The stark, almost nonexistent coiffure coupled with her finely chiseled features made her a popular model at the Arts Students League and provided the experience in posing that Stieglitz capitalized on years later.

She observed once that being a model was never a comfortable experience for her and may have contributed to her preferring inanimate objects for her paintings.

But a certain disquietude was affecting her work. Although a rendering of a rabbit beside a copper pot brought her a prize, the slick painting styles then in vogue dismayed her and she withdrew not just from art school but from painting itself for several years.

“I found myself saying to myself,” she said many years later . . . “I can’t live where I want to . . . I can’t go where I want to. . . . I can’t do what I want to . . . I decided I was a very stupid fool not to at least paint as I wanted to and say what I wanted to when I painted, as that seemed to be the only thing I could do that didn’t concern anybody but myself.”

Became a Teacher

Miss O’Keeffe went to Chicago and designed for advertisements. She next decided to become a teacher and moved to Amarillo, Tex., where she taught art. She also taught at Columbia College in South Carolina and in 1915 returned to New York to study under Arthur Dow and Alon Bement.

Those two men, particularly Dow, revived her dormant interest in painting.

“It was Arthur Dow who . . . helped me to find something of my own,” she said. “He taught me the importance of design, of filling space in a beautiful way.”

She returned to Texas, to teach and also to sketch. A few of those early charcoal drawings soon changed her entire life.

Miss O’Keeffe had sent them, wrapped in brown paper, to a friend in New York--just to keep the former college roommate aware of what she was doing. The friend, Anita Pollitzer, was an admirer and casual acquaintance of Stieglitz, then at the height of his reputation as not just a photographer but the keeper of a gallery where Matisses and Picassos and the other curious modernists of the day could be purchased.

The year was 1916 and the charcoal drawings of a 29-year-old Texas teacher impressed the 53-year-old aesthetic entrepreneur. “Finally, a woman on paper,” he said in what has become a famous, if apocryphal, remark.

Felt Betrayed

But Miss O’Keeffe felt betrayed by her friend, complaining that the drawings were too facile for public examination. On her next visit to New York she insisted that Stieglitz remove them from his gallery.

She argued but her future husband prevailed. “He was a good talker,” she remembered.

Again she returned to Texas but this time with an offer from Stieglitz to pay her living expenses for a year so she could devote all her time to painting. She accepted the offer and settled in New York, involving herself with Stieglitz for what would prove the rest of his life.

Stieglitz liked to say that his galleries were experimental expositories of art, not just rooms where paintings could be purchased. In New York Miss O’Keeffe soon found she was absorbing some of the qualities of the young artists around her, discarding other techniques and styles, and--within a few short years--had developed a stark style so unusual that none of the paintings in her first exhibit (1923) were even signed. Yet all who saw that exhibit, “One Hundred Pictures,” recognized their creator.

It marked the first of the one-woman exhibitions that Stieglitz presented until his death in 1946.

The initial retrospective of her early work was held at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 1927. Later her work drew crowds to the Art Institute of Chicago, the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

At her death her paintings were owned by more than 50 museums and formed a major part of many private collections.

Painted the Familiar

As she would do later in the West, she now was doing in the East--painting the familiar, the convenient. One of her first prized efforts was “The Shelton With Sun Spots,” a 1926 examination of the New York skyline. She and Stieglitz had married in 1924 and taken an apartment high atop the Shelton Hotel.

They went on vacation to Lake George and she returned with “Lake George Window.” Now she was beginning to reinvent nature, painting giant flowers from miniature blossoms. Two of her early efforts, “Tulip” and “Poppies,” remain among her best-remembered paintings.

Her travels expanded and sometime in the late 1920s she discovered New Mexico (although she had passed through on a train years earlier). “Gate of Adobe Church” (1929) is a permanent recollection of one of those first visits in which she discovered that life’s meanings could be expressed by using the skulls of horses and cows or via a full moon that shone unimpeded through a pristine desert night. Little by little she was exchanging the creations of man for the works of nature.

From then on, Stieglitz continued to vacation at Lake George. But alone. His wife was spending every free moment discovering that an artificial flower stuck into the eye of a horse’s skull can depict both life and its alternative (“Horse’s Skull With Pink Rose” 1931).

She had matured and grown both with and beyond Stieglitz.

View of Stieglitz

“I see Alfred as an old man that I am very fond of--growing older--so that it sometimes shocks and startles me when he looks particularly pale and tired. . . . I feel that he has been very important to something that has made my world for me. I like it that I can make him feel that I have hold of his hand to steady him as he goes on.”

She also commented on the differences in painting in the high deserts of New Mexico and the Adirondack Mountains of New York.

“Lake George is not really painting country,” she said. " . . . Half your work is already done for you.”

She settled first in Taos in a house that D. H. and Frieda Lawrence had occupied briefly. Later, after Stieglitz’s death when the move West was made permanent, she found a rambling, devastated adobe in Abiquiu that she restored and that gave her a direct view of the mountains. The only things between the artist and her subject were the flowers and vegetables she had planted.

The hair, once dark, was now graying, but it was always worn drawn back severely from her face. Nothing interrupted her view.

Her paintings, which sold for a few thousand dollars in the 1920s, now were bringing considerably more and her expenses were minimal. She maintained a couple of servants, gave generously to needy Mexican-Americans and Indians who composed the tiny populace of her adopted village and even helped modernize the Abiquiu water system.

Built Town Gymnasium

She built a town gymnasium so the children that she never had could have someplace to go after school.

The interior of her home was as stark as many of her paintings. Simple furniture vied for floor space with the rocks she collected on the desert floor. The walls were made of the compacted earth of her new land. A few paintings were on the walls but very few of hers. One exception was “Sky Above Clouds,” one of a series centered around the earth, sky and clouds she did after experiencing air travel and a theme that predominated her final years.

Her work, rediscovered by new generations at New York’s Whitney Museum in 1970 and in 1977 in a national television documentary, continued to be simplified form set against vast spaces of color.

Late in her life she was seen constantly with Juan Hamilton, a friend nearly 60 years her junior and a potter whose designs strongly reflect the desert they shared. She employed him originally as a handyman, but for the last few years he had been in charge of arranging her new shows.

Rare Public Appearance

In 1983 she made a rare public appearance (wearing the white and black dresses that had become her trademark) and traveled to Washington for an exhibition of Stieglitz’s photos, the first retrospective of his work in nearly 50 years. She left town as quietly as she had arrived.

Although she was a symbol of liberation to women of the latter 20th Century, she steadfastly refused to serve their causes. “They never helped me,” she said of them. “The men helped me.”

In 1974 she had told the New Yorker interviewer she considered herself “very lucky.”

” . . . Somehow what I painted happened to fit into the emotional life of my time. . . . Often I’ve had the feeling that I could have been a much better painter and had far less recognition. It’s just that what I do seems to move people today in a way that I don’t understand at all. . . .

“Now and then when I get an idea for a picture, I think, how ordinary. Why paint that old rock? Why not go for a walk instead?

“But then I realize that to someone else it may not seem ordinary.”