April 17, 2014 by Ray Yanek
O’Keeffe, Georgia (1887-1986)
I knew the name. I immediately recognized her portrait and recalled that her art had
connections to the American Southwest, but for the life of me I couldn’t recall any distinct works that she created.
I’ll be staring at a mountain of research papers that need graded later in the day, so I’ll blame that for my lapse in memory.
Anyway, there seems to be two basic periods in the artistic life of O’Keeffe. The early part of her career (after leaving art to teach for a bit) began after she was convinced by her soon-to-be-husband and life-long partner Alfred Stieglitz, to quit her job and take up painting full time. O’Keeffe was heavily influenced by Japanese art and the culture’s belief in a mixture of light and dark in painting. Her goal was not realism, but rather to paint how she felt about her specific subject. This influence can easily be seen in the many flower paintings she created during this period
And what can also easily be seen by many is the yonic symbolism of the flowers. Yonic symbols are those which represent the fecundity of the female and the female sex organs. O’Keefe, in various interviews, denied consciously painting any of the erotic overtones that people believe are apparent in such works as Black Iris, and that people are merely seeing what they want to see in her works. whether O’Keeffe was serious in her denial or saying it with a sly wink, I don’t know.
O’Keefe did say, however, that “when you take a flower in
your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for the moment. I want to give that world to someone else” (qtd in biography.com). She succeeds in that. Looking at these flowers, into the colors and the shades and the mixture of tones, you fall into the painting and everything else goes away.
Her second artistic phase began after O’Keeffe was introduced to the desert landscapes of first
Texas and then New Mexico. O’Keeffe fell in love with the wide open spaces and with the movement of the clouds and the shadows over the desert. She focused these paintings on her ‘feeling’ about the landscapes and often placed with in them the bleached bones of long-gone animals. And occasionally a flower still pokes through. Occasionally also, so too does that yonic symbol.
But I suppose that’s for the viewer to decide.