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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 1929 O’Keeffe visited Taos, New Mexico, where a group of artists and writers, including Mabel Dodge Luhan, Dorothy Brett, and D. H. Lawrence, had established an artists’ retreat. She was mesmerized by the dramatic, open vistas (though she did not care for the people in “Mabel-town”) and decided to spend her summers in New Mexico apart from Stieglitz. Eventually she bought property in a town called Abiquiu. Stieglitz did not like the arrangement, but O’Keeffe found New York and Lake George, where the large, garrulous Stieglitz clan gathered in the summers, too claustrophobic. When Stieglitz died in 1946, she moved West permanently. For the next forty years she lived in her New Mexico house, doing work that further established her place in the history of American art.
After World War II, O’Keeffe carefully consolidated her image as America’s lone artist who had the courage and strength to do things her own way. Living far from the tumult of the New York art world, she created the myth that she had become an artist solely by the force of her vision and determination. Although there was some truth to it, the myth ignored the important help she received over the years from her mother, Elizabeth May Willis, Alon Bernent, Arthur Wesley Dow, Anita Pollitzer, and, most important, Alfred Stieglitz, without whose support her career as an artist would have been inconceivable. As one critic wrote in 1978— just as O’Keeffe would have wished—her “painting, with its images of romantic, isolated purity, became an embodiment of an individual who was strong enough to live out her life exactly as she wanted to.”
Perhaps she did. But there was another side to O’Keeffe, less attractive, more hidden, but equally important. Victor Lobl, a photographer who traveled to New Mexico on assignment in 1971, saw it. O’Keeffe, he said, “gives off [the impression] that she has come out of a vacuum. Nothing around her can take credit for who she is. Her independence through painting eradicates where she comes from.”
Of course, it did not. But O’Keeffe’s conviction that her art liberated her from the mundane ties of common life, which were indeed frustrating, hard, and, finally, inescapable, gave her the will she needed to become one of America’s preeminent artists.