At some point, most of us have stood before a Georgia O’Keeffe flower hypnotized by its sinuous soft folds and curves. Perhaps a poster in a college dorm room or an original in a prestigious museum, the oversized flower defies the boundaries of frame, intensely up-close and personal. Chances are that a colleague or stranger within earshot whispered nervously, or snickered haughtily, about the painting’s obvious allusion to female genitalia, eliciting giggles, an awkward pause, flushed discomfort, or all of the above.
The notion of hyper-sexualized symbolism in O’Keeffe’s work somehow cemented itself in America’s collective artistic consciousness, yet a new exhibit at the Columbia Museum of Art (CMA) aims to rattle our preconceptions by delving into a little-known period in O’Keeffe’s life when she first gave birth to her unique visual voice. And it all happened in South Carolina’s capital.
Long before O’Keeffe was launched into New York’s frenzied art world and well before her Jimson Flower No. 1 auctioned at Sotheby’s for a whopping $44.4 million (making her the highest selling female artist in history), Georgia O’Keeffe was a struggling young artist. In 1915, just shy of 28 years old, she took a post as a painting instructor at Columbia College for $4 a week.
Her teaching position afforded her a room and time to herself to take walks in nearby piney woods and along the Congaree River, searching for inspiration in the natural world. Though classically trained in traditional mediums, both at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Art Students League in New York, O’Keeffe was aware of the burgeoning principals of European Modernism and its risk-taking ideals. On her bedside table in Columbia lay Kandinsky’s book Concerning the Spiritual in Art, considered radical at the time for encouraging artists to explore an inner visual landscape rather than replicate the physical world.
“O’Keeffe hated South Carolina,” laughs CMA’s chief curator Will South. “She called it ‘deliciously stupid,’ but she loved nature. It was here in Columbia, far away from what art historians call the ‘anxiety of influence,’ that she took a moment to analyze everything she had painted up until that point, and to reject it. She spread everything on the floor in her room and noticed that each of her paintings reflected the techniques and styles and subject matter of her instructors. It occurred to her that she had ideas of her own.”
O’Keeffe would later reflect on this moment of awakening in South Carolina, “I realized that I had things in my head not like what I had been taught — not like what I had seen — shapes and ideas so familiar to me that it hadn’t occurred to me to put them down. I decided to stop painting, to put away everything I had done, and to start to say the things that were my own.”
There, within the four walls of her room in Columbia, O’Keeffe eschewed paints and easels, sat on the floor, dipped her charcoal in water to achieve fluidity of line, and began experimenting. Rather than copy nature, she tried to convey her sense of it, bridging the gap between feeling and observation. Images poured forth from mind to paper, many of which were so intensely personal to her that she hid them away, not to be discovered until after her death. But a few of those drawings she rolled up and mailed to her close friend Anita Pollitzer, a Charlestonian by birth and a famous suffragette living in New York City. O’Keeffe’s cover letter to Pollitzer insisted that she not show the drawings to anyone. Pollitzer must have determined that the ground-breaking originality of the work was more important than O’Keeffe’s request for privacy, because she marched the drawings straight over to legendary photographer and gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz, one of only two modernist dealers in New York City at the time. After studying the drawings, Stieglitz uttered his now famous line, “Finally, a woman on paper!” And the rest is history. O’Keeffe came to New York and demanded that Stieglitz take down the drawings. He refused. They fought. They fell in love. Stieglitz divorced his wife and exhibited O’Keeffe’s work yearly for the remainder of his life.
One such exhibition paired O’Keeffe’s flowers alongside intimate photographs Stieglitz had taken of O’Keeffe in the nude, causing critics (and subsequent generations of the rest of us) to draw inference between the human form and O’Keeffe’s flower petals. It was a correlation O’Keeffe denied for life, even going so far as to suggest that those who saw sexuality in her paintings were simply projecting their own preoccupations. That said, however, if you consider that O’Keeffe painted flowers from the intimate perspective of a bee’s viewpoint, and that pollination of crops is essential to our very survival, then in a sense we are all deeply connected to the so-called sexuality of the flower.
The current exhibit at CMA is ground-breaking in that it is the first and only show to focus a lens on this previously unexplored period of intense artistic experimentation in O’Keeffe’s life. Her Columbia months sprouted the seeds for her artistic path and (by way of her Charleston friend) launched her career. If you look at the work CMA has managed to assemble, you’ll see the ripples, smooth gradations, organic ideals, clean lines, luminosity, balance, and simplicity that were to become O’Keeffe dogma.
For the museum, staging the show took years of negotiation with holding institutions and in some cases, even outright begging. Curator Will South went to bat passionately for the drawing titled “Second, Out of My Head” (on loan from the National Gallery of Art in Washington) because he felt its subject matter was clearly influenced by O’Keeffe’s walks along the Congaree. “Ultimately, we were only able to borrow four drawings from O’Keeffe’s Columbia period. “There is huge competition among museums attempting to stage shows worldwide. Currently, there are O’Keeffe exhibits being organized on just about every continent. And most American collections don’t want to lend out their O’Keeffes because they are a huge draw. So saying, ‘No,’ is really easy.”
One major supporter of CMA’s endeavor is the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, N.M., which helped secure 10 important loans for Columbia’s exhibit. Santa Fe museum scholars recognized the importance of O’Keeffe’s South Carolina “awakening” and encouraged the reopening of this previously footnoted chapter in her life.
“What’s interesting,” says South, “is that O’Keeffe spent the latter half of her career trying to recapture the epiphanies she experienced during her period here in Columbia, so her work eventually came full circle.” O’Keeffe’s late work, following the degeneration of her eyesight in her 90s, echoes the simplified abstraction of this early inner blossoming here in Carolina.
“O’Keeffe’s time in Columbia was pivotal,” emphasizes South, “and it’s extraordinary how she broke the mold. For every 20,000 art students who continued painting in the style of their instructors, there was only one who broke away. The fact that she was a woman made it especially difficult during a time before women could even vote. It’s hard to appreciate how radical she really was at the time. It’s akin to being asked now if you’d volunteer to go colonize Mars, with the understanding that you’d have to leave behind everything as you know it and never return. Most of us would balk at that prospect, but very few will say, ‘I’ll go.'”