Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) was a pioneer of American modernism and an important figure in the history of twentieth-century American art. Committed to a representational style during the rise of abstraction, O’Keeffe achieved critical success early in her career for her poignant depictions of the American landscape. Though perhaps best known for floral compositions that depict a variety of flowers in soft pastels, over her long career O’Keeffe investigated the natural world though a varied oeuvre that explored a number of motifs, such as buildings and landscapes.
Born in Wisconsin, O’Keeffe studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Art Students League in New York, while also working as a teacher. Though she exhibited in a group show in 1915, she did not dedicate herself completely to art until 1916, when her future husband Alfred Stieglitz arranged her first solo exhibition at his Gallery 291. She exhibited a group of charcoal drawings which presented designs reduced to abstract forms, well before many of her American contemporaries would commit to abstraction. Influenced by the circle of artists around Stieglitz, including Marsden Hartley and avant-garde photographer Paul Strand, O’Keeffe developed a unique style characterized by undulating lines and delicate tones.
From 1918 to 1928, O’Keeffe spent much of her time between New York City and the Stieglitz home at Lake George. Many of her New York City works feature skyscrapers and domineering cityscapes, but as her retreats to Lake George allowed her to focus more on nature, she began to produce varying views of the lakeside home and the surrounding forest.
O’Keeffe developed a deep infatuation with the natural world, and, beginning in 1929 embarked on annuals trips to New Mexico. These pilgrimages continued until she moved permanently to Abiquiu, New Mexico in 1949. She felt a powerful spiritual connection to the land and was fascinated with Native American and Hispanic cultures of the west. She turned increasingly to desert vistas for inspiration and began to incorporate western motifs, such as cow skulls, into her work. Presenting rarified views of the natural world, O’Keeffe used repeating circular forms and curvilinear lines to innovate a new mode of representation while her contemporaries moved towards pure abstraction. At a time when many artists were fascinated with the urban landscape and new technologies, O’Keeffe reprioritized the organic in art.
O’Keeffe’s works, particularly the floral compositions, have often been interpreted as euphemisms for the female form. However, O’Keeffe pushed back against the notion that her art must represent the female body because she was a woman. Instead, she saw her canvases as experimentations in composition and form; her subjects are often presented at the front of the canvas, with little perspective. Through such compositional techniques, O’Keeffe encouraged a closeness to the viewer that creates a more personal relationship between viewer and object. Though O’Keeffe has been lauded as a major influence on Feminist artists like Judy Chicago, she is increasingly recognized as an important figure in the broader scope of twentieth century American art.