“I think it’s so foolish for people to want to be happy. Happy is so momentary, you’re happy for an instant and then you start thinking again. Interest is the most important thing in life; happiness is temporary, but interest is continuous.” (Georgia O’Keeffe)
I seem to remember knowing and liking her work before I got to London; if I did, it was entirely due to my mother. I’m pretty sure … I know I had at least heard of her. Anyway, there was this retrospective of the paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe on at the Hayward Gallery, South Bank (of the Thames flavoured variety) and I must have known her stuff, because I was excited about going.
After some googling today, to see if I could find out some more about the exhibition; I discovered that it was called ‘Georgia O’Keeffe: American and Modern’ and it happened it 1993. Apparently the London art critics loathed it. The Independent newspaper gave it a thorough beating and then rounded up quotes from the other negative reviews. If there were any positive reviews back then, I couldn’t find them online.
“I went through this whole phase where I wanted to be Georgia O’Keeffe. And one day my art teacher came over to me, and she, like, hit me over the head with this rolled-up piece of paper – all my teachers hit me! – and she’s like: ‘You’re terrible! You’re never going to be an artist. You’re a showgirl, get out of here.’” (Madonna)
The reviews passed me by then and I’m really glad they did; at 23 I was still insecure in my convictions and opinions, no matter how dense an intellectual smokescreen I tried to produce. And that exhibition whacked me into my body the way the Weeping Woman had. 1993 … I’d shifted from London to Edinburgh to Swansea to Guildford by then, so it must have been a drive to a station (Cobham or further up, I don’t know) and then a train into London. By then, I was one of those annoying travellers who infest places with their too loud voices, maps of the underground clutched in sweaty paws and a dog eared A-Z stuffed into a Guatemalan or Nepalese bag. I digress. I confidently made my way to the Hayward, bought a ticket and wandered in. There were a fair few people toddling through, but it was nowhere near the jostling, bustling crowds that had blown my mind at the Royal Academy. The Hayward didn’t feel as large and light as the Tate, and it all felt like a rather solemn experience initially. I imagine my eyes were as wide and timid as a bushbaby’s and knowing me, I probably did my best to render myself (long henna-red hair and all) invisible.
“She was a testy old bird. She reminded me of my grandmother. When I first visited her, I left her a book of my drawings. She didn’t like that and threw her head back like, “Oh for God’s sake” and left the room. Months later, I was reading an interview with Georgia and she was saying, “In another life, I would come back as a blond soprano who could sing high, clear notes without fear.” (Joni Mitchell)
There was a film on a loop in one of those gallery darkrooms, I crept in and lurked silently right at the back. I stayed for at least one whole loop, and I fell in love. There was this total hottie, who, as she got older, said quite polite fuck yous to Alfred Stieglitz, New York, the formal art scene – and then she did it her way. She retained what I think of as a particularly classic beauty, she aged, as they say, well. Joan Baez is busy doing the same thing. Grace … that sort of woman has it in truckloads. Photographs of her hands, by husband Stieglitz, became rapidly iconic. I got the impression of someone who, having looked very intensely at a broad range of things, let her soul haul her happily to New Mexico. Most of my favourite works are all from and of there. On film, she spoke about air travel in the 1950s having shown her the world in a whole new light, as well as inspiring the cloud paintings. Art epiphany #2 happened to me, when she was ushered around a gallery and the guy she was with asked what she thought of a Mark Rothko and then a Jackson Pollock. She liked the dense layers and textures of the Rothko, and compared it to a weaving. She didn’t like the Pollock and described it as a mess. (I can’t substantiate those comments, because I can’t find the film online – and a memory from 21 years ago is dodgy at best.) It didn’t occur to me that those opinions were not remotely difficult to get to; what filled my youthful mind with helium, was that I’d had exactly those thoughts too. They weren’t obvious impressions, they were a shared secret between two creative minds, me and Georgia. The head full of helium allowed me to float merrily out to the actual exhibition, with a whole lot less insecurity than before.
“I’ve been terrified my whole life but it never kept me from doing a single thing.” (Georgia O’Keeffe)
Room after room after room of O’Keeffes, was another artgasm. It was good to be able to admit to myself that actually, I didn’t like her flowers much at all. I liked (loved) the Lake George and New Mexico paintings, their blues, bones, ladders and stars. So many rooms, with so much more than flowers. I stood, entranced by paths and buildings and skies.
Miss O’Keeffe was strong-willed, hard-working and whimsical. She would wrap herself in a blanket and wait, shivering, in the cold dark for a sunrise to paint; would climb a ladder to see the stars from a roof, and hop around in her stockings on an enormous canvas to add final touches before all the paint dried. From the NY Times obituary)
While I was waiting impatiently to get closer to Ranchos Church Front, Oil Painting, (1930) depicting the Ranchos de Taos San Francisco de Asis Mission Church, I began to eavesdrop. It was a middle aged American couple, dressed the way American tourists that age dressed back then, snug jeans, golf shirts tucked in tidily and those bags that amuse the hell right out of Brits, by being called fanny packs in the USA.
Weren’t we there last year?
Uh, uhm … you mean the trip with Bob and Margaret?
Mhm yeah, I’m sure we went past that church.
It looked different though …
The gate was open when we went past.
Remember that I was fresh from apartheid era South Africa; nine years of a state of emergency counted in a box on the front page of our newspaper every day. Mandela’s “rainbow nation” was still a year away. By 1993, I was still having my mind seriously blown by all the culture I could schnarf. Everything was funnier, brighter and more beautiful than the long dry grass I’d left behind a couple of years earlier.
The gate was open when we went past.
I couldn’t stop laughing about it. Later, as I left the gallery, with all the English concrete drabness outside seeming a little more drab, I had to phone my mother and laugh with her about it. I spent 40 bloody quid on that call and it was well worth it. I needed to tell her pretty much everything I’ve blathered on about in this post. Years later, she was still saying things like, “…and this delighted voice chucked £40 down the phone, just to babble about O’Keeffe.” When I get assaulted by wonderful books, music, art, I get as revved as … whatever thingy gets really, really, really revved. Always did, still do.
“If only people were trees…” O’Keeffe told an interviewer in 1927, “I might like them better.”
In the gallery’s gift shop, I agonised about whether to fork out £13 for the catalogue, or £18 for the full colour, landscape oriented poster called Georgia O’Keeffe at 90. She was wearing a gaucho hat and in profile against a gorgeous blue sky. With a fairly deep white border (one of those that pretends it’s a mount). I bought the catalogue and spent the next 21 years sporadically regretting the choice and hunting for the poster. The image in this paragraph is the closest I could get to it, perhaps it is that poster, but why on earth is the gaucho hat entrenched so freaking deep in my mind? I know, I know, it’s because I want it there. Do I truly want that poster now? Probably not. It wouldn’t bring that day back.
Georgia O’Keeffe talking about her life and work: 3 short video clips from a vintage documentary.
Letter from Frida Kahlo after hearing of O’Keeffe’s nervous breakdown.
A sister in the shadow of Georgia O’Keeffe.
GEORGIA O’KEEFFE: I feel I’m lost without my cane.
ANDY WARHOL: You have me. You can use me as a cane.
Warhol interview with O’Keeffe (& her assistant, Juan Hamilton. She was 96 at the time)
Conjecture about her sexuality:
Roxana Robinson writes: ” [ O’Keeffe’s ] androgynous looks and sexually independent manner set her outside the norms of conventional feminine behavior. Writing in the early years to Arthur Macmahon, she had commented ingenuously that she wished sometimes he were a girl. Other women were attracted to her; Frida Kahlo, the Mexican artist – an avowed bisexual – boasted that she had flirted with O’Keeffe on meeting her in New York. Moreover, O’Keeffe’s relationships with women were often close and tempestuous: all this has given rise to speculation about bisexual activity. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility, but both [ her friend and neighbor ] Maria Chabot and [ her housekeeper ] Jerrie Newsom flatly and absolutely refuted the suggestion that O’Keeffe ever had sexual relationships with women.” Georgia O’Keeffe: a life