Celeste Orlosky

Georgia O’Keeffe is an artist whose career spans nearly seven decades. She was born in Wisconsin in 1887 and after studying art at several universities became an art teacher. During this time she created a series of abstract charcoal drawings, which she sent to a friend in New York. This friend shared these drawings with prominent photographer and gallery owner, Alfred Steiglitz who put them on display at his 291 Gallery. Steiglitz had made a reputation for displaying modern American and European art, and owned a New York gallery in America, which was first to display European artists Auguste Rodin, Henri Matisse, Paul Cezanne, and Pablo Picasso. [1] “Without Stieglitz, it seems unlikely the twenty-nine year old O’Keeffe would have become anything more than the talented art teacher in South Carolina that she was when he ‘discovered’ her in 1916.” [2] With his encouragement, O’Keeffe came to New York and became Stieglitz’s partner in life and art until his death in 1946. He displayed her art frequently along with other titans of the American modernist movement such as Arthur Dove, Paul Strand, Charles Demuth, and more.

It is true that her level of success in New York is unlikely to have been met without Steitglitz but it is patriarchal to assume she would not have achieved some level of success on her own. As the artist herself said,

I have but one desire as a painter — that is to paint what I see, as I see it, in my own way, without regard for the desires or taste of the professional dealer or the professional collector. I attribute what little success I have to this fact. I wouldn’t turn out stuff for order, and I couldn’t. It would stifle any creative ability I possess. [3]

Like other artists in the movement of Early American Modernism, such as photographer Paul Strand, she experimented with close cropping of her subject and rendering detailed yet abstract close-ups. Or like Arthur Dove with similarly abstracted motifs from nature, working to find balance between representation and realism.

O’Keefe is known for her distinct point of view in paintings with close observation of nature, particularly the desert, and bold choices of color but before her move to New Mexico in the late 1940’s she shocked the New York art scene with her paintings of close-ups of flowers. She had several successful shows but it was in 1927 at Stieglitz’s Intimate Gallery that she displayed the large-format flower Black Iris. “Despite its restraint, the exhibition still managed to astonish and titillate. Her full-frontal purple petunias from the previous show seemed tame compared to the Black Iris that nearly covered the wall of the galley with its fuzzed, darkened open mouth, extended tongue, and arched petals.” [4] After the success of this show she was able to support herself and Steiglitz off the profits of her paintings for the rest of her life, particularly exceptional for a female artist in the 1920’s.

Analysis for this image rests on two intertwined principles. First is purely the interpretation of the image and its visual form. Secondly are the interpretations of critics and viewers onto this piece. O’Keeffe had made a reputation before this show for her skill as a colorist. Artist Charles Demuth gave her high praise, saying that, “in her canvases each color almost regains the fun it must have felt within itself, on forming the first rainbow.” [5] In Black Iris there is a muted color palette, primarily purples, pinks, and grays. She departs from her bold use of colors and instead relies on contrast and tone to create the boundaries of the petal’s forms. The top portion of the painting is silver and lavender with subtle gradations defining the petals. The lower half of the piece features a darker tone with bruised plum and gray creating the bulk of the petals. In the center is a curved triangular shape surrounding a dark black center with a maroon bud.

The petals taper towards one another at the top like hands in prayer, while the bottom dark petal falls downward like a tongue extending from a mouth. Rounded petals complement either side, and a bit of fuzz sticks out from the side of a petal on the left hand side. The edges of the central petals ripple like silk while the supporting petals almost melt into the rest of the background. The whole painting is suffused with luminousness, like the flower is being lit from behind or by moonlight. Her earlier large-scale flower paintings of 1924 such as Red Canna and Flower Abstraction utilize a V-shaped arrangement, which “suggests growth in nature by emphasizing the space between the diagonal lines that fans up and out in a conical shape.” [6] Black Iris is an inversion of this format. Creating a downwards-triangular movement with weighty dark bottom petals. If the upward V movement is growth, then Black Iris is the opposite, demonstrating introspection and sheltering.

Also exceptional about this painting is the scale. “Enlarging the tiniest petals to fill an entire 30 x 40 inch canvas emphasized their shapes and lines and made them appear abstract, when in fact they were based on her observations of nature.” [7] The painting is huge, taking up almost an entire gallery wall. Forcing the viewer into the most minute details of the piece, the slight fuzziness to the left of its opening, the curve of each petal, and the cavern of the center. “There is a fluid, smoky texture to the oil paint… an ethereal, meditative quality to the composition, encouraging the viewer to consider the rhythms of the forms and indeed to discover what they see when they really take the time to see the flower.” [8] O’Keeffe forces the viewer into a liminal space between realism and abstraction. Even though previous paintings such as ones of New York skyscrapers are considered part of the “Precisionist” movement, with precise lines and realistic renderings, her flower paintings skirt abstraction with their amorphous lines and use of color while retaining the soul of the flower.

She frames the composition in an unusual way. Instead of revealing a background, or any stems to support the flower, it is cropped, the only focus on the very heart of the iris. This cropping was a stylistic choice also made by photographers who moved in her and Steiglitz’s circle such as Paul Strand. Where she separates herself from this photographic movement is her ability to select details and to adjust the subject to fit her artistic vision. The edges of the petals are cut-off; we only see the central and supporting petals and the vague asymmetry in the natural shape of the flower. Each side of the flower is roughly the same but the painting is not symmetrical, there are minute variations that increase interest and keep the eye skirting from side to side and top to bottom. The flower is not like a flower from classic painting, part of a still life or tableau, it is the entire subject, full-frontally.

This was not the first time O’Keeffe had painted a black iris, but never before had she brought it to such a scale. “The first picture was fairly straightforward, in lavender tones. The second, however, was an abstract, small study of white ruffle before a raisin-colored circle. In the third version, Black Iris, great silver petals embrace the onyx and burgundy mouth…” [9] O’Keeffe was heavily influenced by annual trips to the Steiglitz summer home in upstate New York where she drew inspiration for her botanical and landscape paintings. The black iris is a flower that is only available for about two weeks in the New York flower shops. As the artist herself said of her flower paintings, “if I could paint the flower exactly as I see it no one would see what I see because I would paint it small like the flower is small. So I said to myself — I’ll paint what I see — what the flower is to me but I’ll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it — I will make even busy New Yorkers take time to see what I see of flowers.” [10] She has distilled the iris to its most essential parts.

Her work is filled with sensuality, especially from the natural world but “throughout O’Keefe’s career, critics and public alike have often narrowly focused on the sexual imagery they perceived in her shapes and compositions.” [11] O’Keeffe’s own interpretations for her pieces have been superseded by an almost mythical sexuality imbued by viewers. “When works such as this were shown for the first time even Steiglitz was shocked by their audacity. Critics — and Steiglitz, too — saw sexual content in their delicate contours, organic forms, and lush surfaces, although the artist always rejected such interpretations” [12] Steiglitz, who was her husband and collaborator, said that only after her piece Blue Lines, which he associated with their relationship, was Black Iris closest to his heart. [13] Critic Lewis Mumford “wrote that her symbolism ‘touches primarily on the experiences of love and passion’, that she had ‘found a language for experiences that are otherwise too intimate to be shared.’” [14] Steiglitz often used O’Keeffe as his model in photographs so it is possible that her flower paintings would be imbued with the nature of their relationship as well.

Despite the artists’ intentions, the interpretation of her flowers as evocative of genitalia is so prevalent and has served as a cornerstone of representation for proto-feminist art as well as a valuable contribution to American Modernism. “O’Keefe was no longer simply enlarging the flowers, she was painting their secret hidden centers and their sexual organs.”[15] Irises in Greek mythology personify the rainbow and connection between heaven and earth. As someone who derives so much inspiration and peace from the natural world, this particular iris has a hint of the divine to it. In its abstraction, there is connection between light and dark, heaven and earth. Only through both is the viewer able to have a full picture, in all its intricacies. The period of her life when this painting would have been painted was filled with health and relationship struggles. Where past flower paintings were full of vibrant color this piece is dark and moody. Rather than interpreting this painting as a feminist statement of liberated sexuality, it can be viewed as autobiographical. The viewer can see O’Keeffe’s emotional inner world of health struggles and impending marital infidelity in the petals of the iris.

Her flowers have been described by feminist art historian Linda Nochlin, “as a ‘morphological metaphor’ for the female genitalia, reflecting ‘the unity of the feminine and the natural order’.” [16] Or by Lewis Mumford as “as one long, loud blast of sex, sex in youth, sex in adolescense, sex in maturity, sex bulging, sex tumescent, sex deflated.” [17] As much as O’Keefe was a feminist (she joined the National Women’s Party in 1916 and supported social justice for her whole life, included speaking at feminist conventions), O’Keeffe rejects the interpretation of her work as sexual or representational of genitalia.[18] Of her large scale flowers she said, “Well — I made you take time to look at what I saw and when you took time to really notice my flower you hung all your own associations with flowers on my flower and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower — and I don’t.” [19] Black Iris is imbued with sexuality; we do see the flower’s reproductive organs, but it also contains emotion in the muted palette and contradiction of the dark and light tones. There is also the fleeting beauty in the natural world and the comfort of the softness of the petals. “O’Keeffe has translated the delicate ephemerality of this exotic flower, which blooms for only a few weeks each spring, into the artist’s language of color, form, and brushwork.” [20]

As one of few women achieving commercial success in the art world, and a strained relationship fraught with her husband’s infidelity, the pressures to be a certain type of artist must have hovered over her. During the years 1926–1927 when Black Iris would have been painted, Steiglitz suffered from recurring kidney stones and O’Keeffe suffered from sleeplessness, weight loss, and depression as well as being hospitalized for a benign breast-cyst with a long recovery. [21] In Black Iris it invites the viewer inwards, towards the center, the soul of the iris. “No longer an image of spontaneous growth and uplifting movement, the flower here has assumed a monumentality, a sense of being frozen in time, and a somber dignity. It is perhaps not surprising given the nature of O’Keeffe’s work, that this solemn autobiographical pictorial mood paralleled changes that were occurring in her relationship with Stieglitz at this time.” [22] There is solace in this painting, in the small gifts of nature. She wants us to see how she sees a flower, that what many relegate to a passing artifact which will soon wilt, is in fact worth savoring in perpetuity on a grand scale. Two years after Black Iris, she would travel to New Mexico where she would begin a bold new phase of her art, utilizing the desert landscape for her artwork, which she continued working on until encroaching blindness forced her to hire assistants to create her visions for her. [23] She lived to be 98 and died near Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Works Cited

“Black Iris, 1926 by Georgia O’Keeffe.” Georgia O’Keeffe, www.georgiaokeeffe.net/black-iris.jsp#prettyPhoto.

Drohojowska-Philp, Hunter. Full Bloom: the Art and Life of Georgia O’Keeffe. W.W. Norton, 2006, Internet Archive, archive.org/details/fullbloomart00droh/mode/2up.

GEORGIA O’KEEFFE EXHIBITION OF OILS AND PASTELS JANUARY 22- MARCH 17, 1939. , O’Keeffe Museum, 1939, www.okeeffemuseum.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/taketimetolooksource.pdf.

“Georgia O’Keeffe: The Making of the Artist, 1887–1950, and After.” The Library of Congress, www.loc.gov/collections/georgia-okeeffe-and-alfred-stieglitz-correspondence/articles-and-essays/georgia-okeefe-timeline/?loclr=blogpoe%22+%5Ct+%22_blank+https%3A%2F%2Fwww.theartstory.org%2Fartist%2Fokeeffe-georgia%2F.

“Georgia O’Keeffe Paintings, Bio, Ideas.” The Art Story, www.theartstory.org/artist/okeeffe-georgia/.

Messinger, Lisa Mintz, and Magdalena Dabrowski. Stieglitz and His Artists: Matisse to O’Keeffe: The Alfred Stieglitz Collection in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011, books.google.com/books?id=yluLVzM0etIC&printsec=frontcover&hl=en#v=onepage&q&f=false.

Messinger, Lisa Mintz. “‘Georgia O’Keeffe’:” MetPublications, www.metmuseum.org/art/metpublications/Georgia_O_Keeffe_The_Metropolitan_Museum_of_Art_Bulletin_v_42_no_2_Fall_1984#about_the_title.

Messinger, Lisa. “Georgia O’Keeffe (1887–1986).” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/geok/hd_geok.htm (October 2004)

www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/stgl/hd_stgl.htm.

Stockwell, Margaux. “Black Iris III and the Flower as Symbol in O’Keeffe’s Painting.” Singulart Magazine, 24 Sept. 2019, blog.singulart.com/en/2019/09/24/black-iris-iii-and-the-flower-as-symbol-in-okeeffes-painting/.

Voorhies, James. “Alfred Stieglitz (1864–1946) and His Circle.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/stgl/hd_stgl.htm (October 2004)

[1] Voorhies, James. “Alfred Stieglitz (1864–1946) and His Circle.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/stgl/hd_stgl.htm (October 2004)

[2] Messinger, Lisa Mintz, and Magdalena Dabrowski. Stieglitz and His Artists: Matisse to O’Keeffe: The Alfred Stieglitz Collection in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011, books.google.com/books?id=yluLVzM0etIC&printsec=frontcover&hl=en#v=onepage&q&f=false. 191.

[3] “Georgia O’Keeffe Paintings, Bio, Ideas.” The Art Story, www.theartstory.org/artist/okeeffe-georgia/.

[4] Drohojowska-Philp, Hunter. Full Bloom: the Art and Life of Georgia O’Keeffe. W.W. Norton, 2006, Internet Archive, archive.org/details/fullbloomart00droh/mode/2up. 272.

[5] Drohojowska-Philp, Hunter. Full Bloom. 272.

[6] Messinger, Lisa Mintz. “‘Georgia O’Keeffe’:” MetPublications, www.metmuseum.org/art/metpublications/Georgia_O_Keeffe_The_Metropolitan_Museum_of_Art_Bulletin_v_42_no_2_Fall_1984#about_the_title. 21.

[7] Messinger, Lisa. “Georgia O’Keeffe (1887–1986).” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/geok/hd_geok.htm (October 2004)

[8] Stockwell, Margaux. “Black Iris III and the Flower as Symbol in O’Keeffe’s Painting.” Singulart Magazine, 24 Sept. 2019, blog.singulart.com/en/2019/09/24/black-iris-iii-and-the-flower-as-symbol-in-okeeffes-painting/.

[9] Drohojowska-Philp, Hunter. Full Bloom. 266.

[10] GEORGIA O’KEEFFE EXHIBITION OF OILS AND PASTELS JANUARY 22- MARCH 17, 1939. , O’Keeffe Museum, 1939, www.okeeffemuseum.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/taketimetolooksource.pdf.

[11] Messinger, Lisa Mintz. “‘Georgia O’Keeffe’” 21.

[12] Messinger, Lisa Mintz, and Magdalena Dabrowski. Stieglitz and His Artists. 199.

[13] Messinger, Lisa Mintz, and Magdalena Dabrowski. Stieglitz and His Artists. 199.

[14] Drohojowska-Philp, Hunter. Full Bloom. 274.

[15] Drohojowska-Philp, Hunter. Full Bloom. 266.

[16] Stockwell, Margaux. “Black Iris III and the Flower as Symbol in O’Keeffe’s Painting.”

[17] Drohojowska-Philp, Hunter. Full Bloom. 274.

[18] “Georgia O’Keeffe: The Making of the Artist, 1887–1950, and After.” The Library of Congress, www.loc.gov/collections/georgia-okeeffe and-alfred-stieglitz-correspondence/articles-and-essays/georgia-okeefe-timeline/?loclr=blogpoe%22+%5Ct+%22_blank+https%3A%2F%2Fwww.theartstory.org%2Fartist%2Fokeeffe-georgia%2F.

[19] GEORGIA O’KEEFFE EXHIBITION OF OILS AND PASTELS JANUARY 22- MARCH 17, 1939. , O’Keeffe Museum, 1939, www.okeeffemuseum.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/taketimetolooksource.pdf.

[20] Messinger, Lisa Mintz. “‘Georgia O’Keeffe’” 21.

[21] “Georgia O’Keeffe: The Making of the Artist.” The Library of Congress.

[22] Messinger, Lisa Mintz. “‘Georgia O’Keeffe’” 21.

[23] “Georgia O’Keeffe: The Making of the Artist.” The Library of Congress.

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