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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
But O’Keeffe did have models. A year before she executed the lyrical charcoals in South Carolina, which satisfied and expressed some deep personal need within her, Stieglitz had written Marsden Hartley, “The chief thing that interests me is to see the perfectly natural unfolding of the so-called inner-self.” O’Keeffe knew what she was doing, and she knew, too, what the most important critic in the United States was looking for in 1915. “I believe I would rather have Stieglitz like something— anything I had done,” she wrote Anita Pollitzer the same month she drew the charcoals, “than anyone else I know of—I have always thought that—If I ever make anything that satisfies me even ever so little—I am going to show it to him to find out if it’s any good.” If she had not added the following thought, however, she would not have been the artist she became. “I don’t see why we ever think of what others think of what we do—no matter who they are—isn’t it enough just to express yourself.” She continued, “Let them all be damned—I’ll do as I please.”
Sophisticated and naive audiences appreciate her style, her use of bold colors, and her strong sense of design.
O’Keeffe rolled up her drawings, put them in a paper tube, and mailed them to PoIlitzer in New York. “They are at your mercy,” she wrote, “do as you please with them.” Realizing that O’Keeffe would wish Stieglitz to see her Lines and Spaces in Charcoal, Pollitzer took them to 291 on New Year’s Day, 1916. The elevator was out of order, so she walked up to the fourth-floor gallery, where she found Stieglitz looking tired and discouraged after a long day of visitors. She asked him if he wanted to see some drawings. In the quiet of a late Saturday afternoon, Stieglitz observed O’Keeffe’s long lines and curved shapes and commented, “She’s got the sensitive emotion.” In a letter to O’Keeffe, Pollitzer recounted Stieglitz’s reaction. “They’re the purest, finest, sincerest things that have entered 291 in a long while,” he said, and added that he would like to show them someday.
O’Keeffe was thrilled by Stieglitz’s reaction. “It makes me want to keep on,” she wrote her friend. “I had almost decided it was a fool’s game.
” In the spring semester in 1916, West Texas State Normal College in the small town of Canyon, twenty miles south of Amarillo, offered O’Keeffe a position, provided she first take Dow’s teaching-methods course at Columbia. She left immediately for New York, having made arrangements to live with Pollitzer’s uncle’s family. She was unhappy in South Carolina and looked forward to returning to the Texas plains and to visiting New York City again.
O’Keeffe did not go to 291 until almost the end of the school term. Someone had told her that “Virginia O’Keeffe” was having an exhibit there. Realizing that Stieglitz had hung her charcoals without her permission, without informing her, and perhaps without even getting her name right, she raced downtown to demand their return. “For me,” she later wrote, recalling her first public exhibition, “the drawings were private and the idea of their being hung on the wall for the public to look at was just too much.” Stieglitz did not even know who she was when she angrily confronted him. He recalled she wore a “simple black dress with a little white collar” and “had a sort of Mona Lisa smile.” Less interested in her pique than in the origins of her art, he probed for the impulse that had led to a particular drawing. “I often get headaches,” O’Keeffe told him, “and this is the picture I see.” Then, in reply to another personal question, she shot back: “Do you think I’m an idiot? I refuse to say anything more.” But the very persuasive Stieglitz defused her anger, took her to lunch, and asked her to send him her work in the future.
Stieglitz claimed he would have known that a woman had done the abstract charcoals had he not been told. Referring to them in 1915, O’Keeffe herself wrote that it was “essentially a woman’s feeling” she wanted to convey. When Camera Work reviewed the O’Keeffe drawings, Stieglitz exclaimed that “‘291’ had never before seen a woman express herself so frankly on paper.” Later O’Keeffe repudiated the confining notion that she was a woman’s artist. Freudian interpretations of the flower paintings, which she did in the twenties and thirties, particularly upset her. By then she knew she could compete with “the men,” as she called her colleagues, on their own terms, and she rejected the claims of feminist criticism, including efforts in the 1970s to make her a role model. But in 1916 the idea that she was portraying an American woman’s view of the world appealed to Stieglitz and others who felt that O’Keeffe’s feminine imagery could help liberate a puritanical, male dominated society.
When O’Keeffe went to Texas to teach in August 1916, she and Stieglitz corresponded frequently. In April 1917 he gave O’Keeffe her first solo show. It was a critical success, and she sold her first picture, an abstract charcoal interpretation of an “early morning train roaring in.”