Tuesday, January 1, 2008

More on O'Keeffe

I remember my mom reading biographies regularly when I was growing up -- she always had a stack of library books by her bed, just as I do, and she enforced an "afternoon naptime" for those of her brood not yet at school, so that she could fit in a little reading time. I've never been much for biographies myself, but somehow this past year I've read two, and I've got plans for more in the new year. In fact, I was rather amused to see my own commitment to finishing Hunter Drohojowska-Philp's Full Bloom: The Art and Life of Georgia O'Keeffe last month: commitment that resisted the huge temptation posed by Ian Rankin's Exit Music, a copy of which I had already purchased!

Partly, I read this biography to satisfy my curiosity, raised by photographs I saw in the Vancouver Art Gallery's O'Keeffe exhibition, about the artist's personal style, and it did that and then some. Despite the obvious lack of editorial care, the book is engaging, thorough, and certainly impresses readers with O'Keeffe's dedication to her work, the loneliness she seems to have accepted as the price of that dedication (despite, or because of, her relationship with Steiglitz), and the sexist environment against which she struggled to present herself as an artist who wanted to be seen as just that rather than simply as a woman artist (with all the patronizing or essentializing implications of that term).

Anyway, here are a few snippets I particularly enjoyed:

She "effused to [Maria] Chabot [an employee whose relationship with O'Keeffe was troubled by unclear boundaries so that sometimes she behaved and was treated like a friend and other times clearly overstepped her role as employee/servant and was rebuffed for such overstepping] that she had made, 'a town blouse--so plain it is wonderful'" (398). I think this appreciation of the potential "wonders" of the "so plain" is evident in those photos I saw which recorded O'Keeffe's clean, simple, yet distinctive dress.

"To allay her feelings of isolation" during the winter months in New Mexico, "O'Keeffe adopted pets. One of her cats would catch rats and eat only the heads, leaving the other half for the kittens. Ever frugal, O'Keeffe kept the half-rats in the icebox to be consumed by kittens as needed" (443). Ever frugal? Are you kidding? This has to go somewhere beyond frugal, no?

Inviting Pete Seeger and his wife, Toshi, back to lunch at her Abiquiu home in the summer of 1957, O'Keeffe apparently confided in her other guests before Seeger's arrival that she was going to be embarrassed, having sat on and broken (!) the flute he had made her from the bones of a bird she'd brought back from Lake Titicaca in Peru. Confessing the accident to the singer, Drohojowka-Philp tells us, O'Keeffe added that she had more bird bones and "the amiable Seeger agreed to construct another flute, so O'Keeffe brought the bones from a high shelf in her storeroom. The group then drove up the Chama valley to a nearby cave to test the instrument's high-pitched tones in a place with optimum natural accoustics [sic]" (464).

In December of 1957 she traveled to Oaxaca, Mexico with Alexander 'Sandro' Girard, an architect and interior designer, and his wife, Susan, both "renowned for their advanced taste." The couple "sincerely admired O'Keeffe's personal sense of style. Susan remarked that it was far from effortless: 'I never saw her look in a mirror but the way she had that scarf wrapped around her head, it was always fabulous,' she said. 'Even if she was going to a black tie dinner, she always went as herself, in black and white, and what could be more stylish than that?'"

In March 1967, "Vogue magazine ran an adulatory profile, with photographs by Cecil Beaton glamorizing O'Keeffe's distinctive sense of style. She was portrayed petting her chow on the Ghost Ranch patio and posed in a black kimono jacket and white ascot standing next to the elk antlers at the entrance to her house. She conceded, I thought it was rather grand." (497).
I'd love to track down this article and Beaton's photographs -- a nice little archival project for "one of these days"!


  1. Fascinating! What an incredible life she led. Imagine, having Pete Seeger make you a bird bone flute.

  2. Georgia O'Keeffe at Ghost Ranch: A Photo-Essay, by John Loengard.
    I love O'Keefe she is art teacher gold a perfect role model for disaffected medway town girls.
    I also love books that focus on the environment an artist works in and this one is brilliant, its very small but perfectly formed and available on amazon in this format or he appears to have repackaged it under a new title. Your Christmas looks idyllic I could have done with one of those hats in Prague!

  3. Deja: I know, isn't that too cool!
    And Alison: Thanks for the recommendation. It's sold out wherever I've looked, but perhaps the repackaged version is on the way. There's another title I'm going to check out by Loengard on O'Keeffe at Ghost Ranch so I hope it's the one.

  4. O'Keefe was quite the interesting woman. I saw a lot of her art and photography and remnants of her personal style when living briefly in Santa Fe and telecommuting for my office in San Francisco. I think she was ahead of her time.


I'd love to hear your response to my post. Agree, disagree, even go off on a tangent, I love to know you're out there, readers. Let's chat, shall we? I apologize, though, for the temporary necessity of the Word Verification -- spam comments have been tiresomely numerous lately, and I'm hoping to break that pattern.

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