I took my first art history class when I was a high school sophomore. Looking back almost 30 years, the picture that first comes to mind from many slide lectures is one by Georgia O’Keeffe. It was an image of an expansive New Mexico mesa with a white cow skull floating in a blue sky above the desert hills. I didn’t know anything about New Mexico and cow skulls, but the picture projected on the enormous screen mesmerized me. I strained to concentrate on my art teacher Mr. Lindsay’s description of the painting as he spoke over the hum and rattle of an old slide projector. The combination of his enthusiasm for the subject and O’Keeffe’s mysterious and fantastical painting spurred my enduring interest in art.
Today the name “Georgia O’Keeffe” evokes a flurry of images for me. Some of my favorite works are her early watercolor abstractions, which she first exhibited in 1917 at Alfred Stieglitz’s gallery, 291. Then, I think immediately of the black-and-white photographs Stieglitz made of her. For 30 years he obsessively photographed O’Keeffe’s face, hands, and torso, creating a voluminous catalog of more than 300 portraits. One of these portraits—Stieglitz’s “Hands and Thimble,” 1920—appeared on a postage stamp in 2002 as part of the Masters of American Photography pane.
After they started a relationship together, she and Stieglitz lived and worked in New York City, and at the Stieglitz family’s summer house at Lake George, New York. During this time, she painted scenes of Manhattan, including pictures of the skyscrapers she observed from the window of their apartment at the Shelton Hotel.
In the 1920s, she painted canvases featuring her most recognizable and memorable subject: flowers. “Red Poppy,” which O’Keeffe painted in 1927, was featured on a U.S. postage stamp in 1996 (ten years after her death at the age of 98.)
The flower paintings reveal her fascination with form and color. These are not highly detailed botanical renderings; rather, O’Keeffe carefully selected a flower—a poppy, petunia, or jack-in-the-pulpit, say—and reduced the plant to its most basic form in order to create a bold abstraction, often eliminating minute details of the flower’s natural design. More often than not, her paintings are evocations instead of literal transcriptions of a flower. For me, the pleasure of looking at some of the flower paintings comes in the back-and-forth between appreciating her dramatic use of color and examining the abstraction to determine the precise flower being depicted.
In 1929, O’Keeffe visited friends living in Taos, New Mexico. She was profoundly affected by New Mexico’s desert landscape and Native American culture. She returned each year until she moved there permanently in 1949.
The New Mexico paintings bring to mind O’Keeffe’s fascination with nature, the landscape around her houses at Abiquiu and Ghost Ranch, and the famous tabletop silhouette of Cerro Pedernal, one of her favorite subjects. The painting that I first saw in high school—a magical and transporting still life unlike any other in the history of art—comes from this period in O’Keeffe’s creative life.
The flower paintings, however, have special resonance for many of her admirers. Their beauty appeals to a broad audience.
Art Director Derry Noyes collaborated with designer Margaret Bauer to create the 1996 stamp honoring O’Keeffe. Noyes acknowledged that the abstract nature of O’Keeffe’s flower paintings challenged the diminutive stamp format dimensions. “The sensuousness and color of ‘Red Poppy’—a drop-dead gorgeous painting—was perfectly readable at stamp size. The bonus, of course, is that the color just pops off the envelope.” Bauer’s particular challenge was to add the typographic elements—the familiar and necessary “USA” and denomination—to the stamp without undermining the painting’s integrity and stark beauty. “Margaret was the mastermind behind the typography treatment.”
“It’s my all-time favorite stamp design,” Noyes added.
Alfred Stieglitz photograph © The Art Institute of Chicago