A few summers ago, while I worked retail on the Plaza in a shop that sold a lot of O’Keeffe prints, I overheard countless people make comments about one of New Mexico’s most famous artists.
The most common was something such as: “Oh, it’s just a bunch of vaginas.”
Indeed, one of the most common perceptions of O’Keeffe is that she was a highly sexual being who first painted abstract human sex organs, then moved onto painting realist plant sex organs (flowers).
The truth of the matter, according to a short documentary video shown on a loop at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, is O’Keeffe actually resented that image of herself and her work. It was largely created by Alfred Stieglitz, who gave O’Keeffe her first solo show at his New York gallery 291 in 1917. Stieglitz photographed O’Keeffe in various states of undress and then exhibited them at his popular gallery. Critics jumped on the bandwagon and called the artist a sexpot.
While Stieglitz both launched O’Keeffe to fame and created an image of her that disgusted and disappointed her, O’Keeffe still married him in 1924. That marriage lasted until his death in 1946, after which O’Keeffe famously moved to Ghost Ranch in northern New Mexico.
With Stieglitz’ death, O’Keeffe set out to redefine the public’s perception of her. She wished to transition from the fresh, urban painter she had become in New York City to more of a loner, more of a mythical figure in the austere deserts of the American Southwest. She consciously shaped a new image of herself and invited some of America’s finest photographers to document it.
What was it about O’Keeffe that so drew people to take photographs of her? Looking at the photographs, while their captions may name Ansel Adams, Andy Warhol or John Loengard, the creator, the true creator of each image was O’Keeffe herself.
In fact, all the photographs featured in Georgia O’Keefe and the Camera instill a strong sense of what O’Keeffe would have wanted the public to see. The photos span most of O’Keeffe’s life, primarily showing her and her home in Abiquiu, and are staged but not contrived, constructed but not inauthentic. Accompanied by the museum’s collection of O’Keeffe’s paintings, the photographs—alternatively playful and impish, then shadowy and brooding—lend an ever-evolving, human aspect to the painter, who is as famous for her personality as for her paintings.
In a striking image by Loengard, O’Keeffe walks on a stony path near Ghost Ranch. She is alone in the shot, a black dog a ways ahead of her and, in the distance, Pedernal rises to the sky—the mountain she called her own. It seems the quintessential image O’Keeffe would have wanted of herself: harsh, asexual and rugged.
Georgia O'Keeffe and the Camera: The Art of Identity
Through Feb. 1, 2009
Georgia O’Keeffe Museum
217 Johnson St.