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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
After two terms in Amarillo, O’Keeffe decided to resume her formal art education. Bement had urged her to take Dow’s course at Teachers College, and in 1914, at the age of twenty-seven, she made arrangements to return to New York, where she had been a student seven years earlier. In 1914 New York was experiencing a cultural renaissance. New directions in painting, literature, theater, philosophy, politics, and social customs were challenging Victorian sensibilities in everything from the function of art to the nature of sex. Two years earlier a visitor from Ireland had announced he could hear fiddles “tuning as it were all over America.” By 1914 they were in full song, as men and women, including Alfred Stieglitz, Randolph Bourne, Eugene O’Neill, John Reed, and Isadora Duncan, helped redefine American culture.
O’Keeffe lived frugally in a bare hall-bedroom for four dollars a week. The only aesthetic addition to her Spartan apartment on New York’s Upper West Side near Columbia was a pot of red geraniums she placed on the fire escape. She still kept mostly to herself and worked hard, but New York expanded her intellectual horizons as much as the Texas plains had extended her artistic vision.
Already fiercely independent and self-sufficient, O’Keeffe soon developed an ideology to support her personal impulses. She befriended a classmate, Anita Pollitzer, who was an engaging and active feminist. Following her friend’s example, O’Keeffe joined the organization that later became the National Woman’s Party, which in 1914 stood not only for universal suffrage but also for the complete emancipation of women in American society. She read and admired Floyd Dell’s Women as World Builders, published in 1913, which argued that “the woman who finds her work will find her love,” a radical idea for a still genteel age. And a boyfriend, Arthur Macmahon, a liberal political science professor at Columbia, introduced her to his former roommate Randolph Bourne’s Youth and Life, a 1913 polemic calling for self-expression and extolling the virtues of experimental living.
Most important for O’Keeffe’s future, she returned to Alfred Stieglitz’s gallery, 291. There she saw the latest European postimpressionist art, which she was beginning to appreciate, and talked to Stieglitz, whom she still found too inquisitive, familiar, and provocative for her liking. But one thing he told her at an exhibit of abstract drawings by John Marin made a deep impression. An artist with courage, Stieglitz said, could paint as he wished and make a living. Indeed, Marin had just squandered, in Stieglitz’s view, a year’s earnings to buy an island off the coast of Maine.
When, the following year, she went to Columbia, South Carolina, to teach at a small Methodist college, O’Keeffe maintained an intellectual lifeline to 291, subscribing to both Camera Work and Stieglitz’s new avant-garde sheet, 291, which explored the latest ideas in modern art. “291 came and I was so crazy about it that I sent for Number 2 and 3,” she wrote her friend Anita Pollitzer. “I think they are great—They just take my breath away—it is almost as good as going to 291.”
“I decided to start anew—to strip away what I had been taught—to accept as true my own thinking.”
Living in South Carolina in the fall of 1915, cut off from friends, relatives, and social distractions, O’Keeffe allowed the ideas she had been exploring to express themselves in a series of dramatic charcoals. Dow, Kandinsky, and Stieglitz had prepared her to become the first American artist to develop an intensely subjective, abstract style of painting without first going to Europe to study. In her autobiography O’Keeffe described the heady feeling that led to her breakthrough: “I hung on the wall the work I had been doing for several months. Then I sat down and looked at it. I could see how each painting or drawing had been done according to one teacher or another, and I said to myself, ‘I have things in my head that are not like what anyone has taught me shapes and ideas so near to me—so natural to my way of being and thinking that it hasn’t occurred to me to put them down.’ I decided to start anew—to strip away what I had been taught—to accept as true my own thinking. This was one of the best times of my life. There was no one around to look at what I was doing—no one interested— no one to say anything about it one way or another. 1 was alone and singularly free, working into my own, unknown—no one to satisfy but myself.”