Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant, there is no such thing. Making your unknown known is the important thing. Georgia O'Keefe
In 1999 a major show of Georgia O'Keefe’s work came to the East Wing of the National Gallery, a place that had been a second home in my girlhood. I stood in line three times for tickets, spending hours elbowing the crowds to take in her paintings. Art has long been my refuge, but this show captivated and thrilled me.
It was called The Poetry of Things
, the name of my Instagram handle today. I have continued to think about this exhibit for nearly two decades since the show. It was unapologetically female, clean, beautiful, singular
I have since taken every opportunity to see her work and no matter where it is displayed, great pains are taken to explain that the flowers were not sexual. I’ve always thought that a bit ridiculous. Flowers are sex. Sex is not apart from who we are, it’s baked in.
I decided that if I could paint that flower in a huge scale, you could not ignore its beauty.
My guess is the fervent denials were necessary to avoid marginalizing her work. To equate her flower paintings with genitalia is to reduce her to a ‘female artist’ making erotica.
That speaks more to how we collectively marginalize women’s bodies than any real critique of her work. Her paintings are unmistakably female in tone and intention, something that is still hard to come by in fine art.
“I decided to start anew, to strip away what I had been taught.”
Clearly, she prevailed. Her work stands alone, and her mythology only grows. Her home in Abiquiú (which is now a museum) has attracted a legion of kooky-in-the-same-way, middle-age women looking for proximity to the Great Artist. At forty dollars a pop, touring the house has become quite the cash cow for the foundation that owns it. They are held every hour on the hour, each one full.
They have structured the tours so that you are effectively required to stand still and endure a shrill lecture, a way to corral people from their instinct to touch things. I get the feeling Georgia herself was a quiet person, parsimonious with her words. I would have liked to see her home in peace, but silence was not an option.
The house is spare, modern and personal. Her New York sensibilities in view with pieces from Eames and an emphasis on architectural shapes. It’s long been my dream to live in a house with a courtyard. I got a thrill from seeing hers.
Still, I was irked. The sea of counter culture sameness surrounding her legacy chafed me. Was this me, too? Were we all the less talented masses looking to borrow something from a dead woman’s artifacts?
Once I got a little distance from Abiquiu and had time for the exploration to settle a bit in my mind, I realized there was inspiration to be found in seeing the remnants of O'Keefe’s life. It wasn’t in her belongings, the landscape she loved or even in her paintings. It was to understand the woman who did the work.
She was captivating because she believed wholeheartedly in her own vision. She trusted her instincts. She was entirely herself.
I have already settle it for myself so flattery and criticism go down the same drain.
That is the real seduction and delight of Georgia O'Keefe. I loved seeing her rock collection, the views from her bedroom, and the terrain she must have crossed thousands of times. As lovely as all those things were, they are hers. They are the byproduct of another’s curiosity. As I visit her homes and view her work, I am only a spectator to another’s process.
I was getting very interested in what was mine.
The work is to dig deep and listen to your own, quiet voice. Find solidity and direction in what you know to be good. Be curious, and use what you are drawn to as the only needed endorsement. Cultivate your own idea of things and protect it from the scrutiny of others.
The world can’t wait to be a critic, now more than ever. Georgia O'Keefe sailed past all of that to make a life of her own. Beyond her beautiful paintings, that too, is her legacy.