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In Minds Of: Georgia O’Keeffe

Discussion on Georgia O'Keeffe’s approach to abstraction, and how the museum engages audiences and tells her full story.

Words MARCUS CIVIN

Alfred Stieglitz. Georgia O'Keeffe, 1928. Gelatin silver print, 4 5/8 x 3 9/16 inches. Georgia O'Keeffe Museum. Gift of The Georgia O'Keeffe Foundation. [2003.1.13]

After she died, following her instructions, the ashes of that famous painter of flowers, Georgia O’Keeffe, were scattered in Northern New Mexico. In a late-in-life, on-camera interview, O’Keeffe, lean and windblown, remarked about her chosen resting place, “As soon as I saw it, that was my country. I’d never seen anything like it before, but it fitted to me exactly. It’s something that is in the air. It’s just different. The sky is different. The stars are different. The wind is different.” Before she moved there from New York, O’Keeffe wrote to Mabel Dodge Luhan, who already lived in New Mexico and would become a friend: “Kiss the sky for me—You laugh—but I loved the sky out there.”

Alfred Stieglitz. Georgia O'Keeffe, ca. 1930. Gelatin silver print, 3 9/16 x 4 1/2 inches. Museum Purchase. [2014.3.74]

Lyrical, forceful, and intimate, Georgia O’Keeffe’s drawings, paintings, sculptures, and photographs have come to define for many the American Southwest—its rocks, bones, brush, twisty trees, feathers, mountains, road, and sky. “All the earth colors of the painter’s palette are out there,” she told a writer for an arts magazine in 1931, “The light Naples yellow through the orchres—orange and red and purple earth—even the soft earth greens.” Then, she lamented how everyone wanted her to only paint flowers even as she gazed out on her other adopted splendors, “You have no association with those hills—our wasteland—I think our most beautiful county—you may not have seen it, so you want me always to paint flowers.”

This spring, I interviewed Ariel Plotek, a recent Curator of Fine Art at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in New Mexico, and the museum’s director Cody Hartley. We discussed the artist’s enduring and widening appeal, her approach to abstraction, and how the museum engages audiences and tells her full story—even where that story contains or runs side-by-side with inequity, colonization, and displacement. Plotek and Hartley were particularly concerned with O’Keeffe’s relationship to place and the resonance of her life and work for future generations, especially as the museum expands its physical campus, reach, and influence. For better or for worse, these days, more people are knocking about and taking in the New Mexico landscape. O’Keeffe is now recognized and admired, not only for abstraction originating from many sources—not just for her flowers, but also for her style, the way she lived, encouraged others and embraced change.

 

<Read the full interview from Issue Six>

This story is from Issue Six.

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