American / Look Back: Art History / Painting

Happy (day after your) 125th Birthday, Georgia O’Keeffe!

Georgia O’Keeffe, Blue Flower, 1918. Pastel on paper mounted on cardboard, 20 × 16 in. (50.8 × 40.6 cm). Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe, New Mexico; gift of The Burnett Foundation. © Private collection

Where’s the party? There actually is a party for her at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in New Mexico this year! If you live nearby, you can attend a number of events tonight and this weekend that celebrate the painter’s work where she spent the later years of her life.

What should you bring? She’s best known for her work with flowers and cattle skulls, but more generally she was interested in taking objects from nature and finding the beauty in their abstract patterns by examining them in close up fragments. So find something interesting from nature – a cool pebble, a pretty leaf, a feather.

And try not to … quote a Freudian psychological interpretation of her work to her. O’Keeffe consistently resisted the reading of her flower paintings as images as dreamy psychosexual images of feminine genitalia. But even if you’re not going to talk about it, keep it in mind: today, many critics and historians recognize O’Keeffe’s importance with respect to the course of feminism in the 20th century, inspired partly by the images.

Sky Above Clouds IV, 1965
Georgia O’Keeffe (American, 1887–1986)
Oil on canvas; 8 x 24 ft.
Restricted gift of the Paul and Gabriella Rosenbaum Foundation; gift of Georgia O’Keeffe (1983.821)
The Art Institute of Chicago
© The Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

When I was little, I loved flying. My family split it’s time between Atlanta in the US and Oxford in the UK, which meant that at least twice a year I would go on long international flights. And it was great – you used to be given little activity bags with colouring books and the badges with the wings on them. And on British airplanes they gave you these purple sweets that I used to love. But more than that, being on an airplane felt sort of cozy to me, like a little house in the air.

About halfway through the flight – it takes around eight hours – my dad would get up to stretch his legs and go to the back of the plane where they usually put an extra window. We would look through this together and – this was the days before there were little TV’s with flight trackers – he would guess where we were by the ground below.

When Georgia O’Keeffe was born, aeroplanes hadn’t been invented yet. She, like the other Modernists, lived through a period of terrific change at the start of the 20th century.

But in 1959, when she was in her 70’s, she made the first of several journeys across the world by air. In response to this experience she made several images of the clouds and the land seen from a plane window.

Her cloudscapes do the opposite of what her perhaps more recognized flower paintings do – in other words, rather than showing something abstract by looking at an object super up close, she shows so many clouds that they too become beautifully abstract in their repeating pattern.

She made several paintings in the end, but this is by far the biggest one. Made with the help of several assistants, she was well into her 80’s when she did it. The image is expansive, cool, dreamy and infinite.

What I love about this painting is that it shows a positive side to the relationship between humans, machines and nature. That’s not something you get much in modern art. Usually it’s humans smashing each other with machines, or humans smashing nature with machines or machines smashing humans in nature. But O’Keeffe’s work is both optimistic about air travel and respectful of the natural world.

What do you think? Do you like this painting? What do you see when you look at this? Do you see something other than a cloudy sky maybe? What would you paint if you had to reflect on your experience in a plane?

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