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‘Let Them All Be Damned-I’ll Do As I Please’
In a career that made her one of the greatest American artist of the century, Georgia O’Keeffe claimed to have done it all by herself—without influence from family, friends, or fellow artists. The real story is less romantic though just as extraordinary.
September/October 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 6
In 1908 Alfred Stieglitz was forty-four years old and on the verge of helping instigate a revolution in the American visual arts. He already had pioneered the development of photography as a fine art by publishing a handsome quarterly called Camera Work and by taking spectacular photographs, including The Hand of Man and The Steerage. They demonstrated successfully how the camera could at once capture a personal vision and make a universal statement about life in America. In 1905, with the help of the painter and fellow photographer Edward Steichen, Stieglitz founded a gallery to show the new photography and, beginning in 1907, to promote modern art. Before 1913, at 291 and in Camera Work, he introduced to skeptical, frequently hostile audiences not only Rodin but also Matisse, Toulouse-Lautrec, Cézanne, Rousseau, and Picasso. The critics called these artists “madmen,” “lunatics,” and “impostors”; some critics, like Royal Cortissoz, claimed that the chief purpose of these artists was “to turn the world upside down.”
Stieglitz did not disagree with Cortissoz’s interpretation. Indeed, he considered himself a “revolutionist.” Stieglitz believed that art and life were synonymous and that young artists, by defying conventional expression and portraying their inner visions, could launch a revolution based on personal freedom and social justice. As Steichen wrote to Stieglitz in 1913, referring to the gallery at 291, “I really think you are shaping one of the most vital things in the evolution of America.”
But if art could revitalize society, it followed logically that American artists could not simply imitate European styles and expect their work to shape life in the United States. Stieglitz consequently decided after 1913 to promote American artists exclusively. From that year until his death in 1946 he dedicated his life to sponsoring American artists—especially John Marin, Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove, and, after 1918, Georgia O’Keeffe. The first three left no doubt, in Dove’s term, that Stieglitz’s “super-encouragement” made their painting possible. As much as his own photography, their painting was his legacy.
In her autobiography O’Keeffe never acknowledged Stieglitz’s efforts on her behalf, in the way Marin, Hartley and Dove did, in part perhaps because her struggle was more difficult. Between 1908 and 1912 she gave up her goal of becoming an artist. Later she said she went to Chicago to work as a freelance commercial artist in advertising because she felt that the realistic styles of painting that she had learned in school were uninspiring and that she had nothing original to contribute. More likely her family’s reversal of fortune explains her quitting school during those lean years, but O’Keeffe would not admit such dependence.
While O’Keeffe was back in Charlottesville in the summer of 1912, her sisters persuaded her to attend the University of Virginia’s summer-school art class. It was a turning point in both O’Keefie’s personal life and her development as an artist. Taught by Alon Bernent, an assistant professor of fine arts at Columbia University’s Teachers College in New York City, the class rekindled O’Keeffe’s interest in art. Bernent introduced his students to a theory of art outlined by a colleague in New York, Arthur Wesley Dow, who wanted to transcend realistic representation and instead, as he put it, fill space in a beautiful way. Dow believed that Japanese aesthetics and the ancient principles of abstract design could open new avenues of expression for American artists. Dow’s theory offered O’Keeffe a chance to start over; “filling a space in a beautiful way,” she later explained, became her lifelong goal.
New York expanded her intellectual EH horizons as much as the Texas plains had extended her artistic vision.
Bement was so impressed by his student that he asked O’Keeffe to become his assistant, and for the next four summers she returned to Charlottesville to teach under his direction. He introduced her not only to Dow’s textbooks but, equally important, to the Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky’s revolutionary tract Concerning the Spiritual in Art. Published in 1912, Kandinsky’s manual argued that modern artists should seek to portray the “inner spirit in outer things” through abstract representation.
In August 1912 O’Keeffe, with the help of a former classmate, obtained a job as an art supervisor for the public schools in Amarillo, Texas. Amarillo, a raw cattle town of about fifteen thousand, had no paved roads, no fences, and few automobiles. Drinking, fighting, and prostitution were the main recreations. But O’Keeffe, the young art teacher, felt she “belonged,” even though she quarreled frequently with her conservative superiors over how much artistic freedom to give her charges. The “terrible winds” across the flat, arid plains and the “untouched feel of the country,” she later said, exhilarated her. The light coming on the plains—the title of more than one of her paintings—captured her imagination, and she returned to the wide-open desert again and again both as a motif for painting and, eventually, as a place to live permanently.