GEORGIA O'KEEFFE

TO HAVE A FRIEND TAKES TIME

Georgia O'Keeffe
Georgia O'Keeffe on the roof of her home at Ghost Ranch, New Mexico, 1967, by John Loengard

ESSAY

By Caitlin MacDonald

Hunched against a hollow high desert wind, as hard and bright as onyx, is the person of Georgia O’Keeffe. Ritual artefacts gather at her feet: her cacti and cannas, her skulls and horns and pelvic bones, her driftwood. We are left with afterimages of her cold, burning eye at the core of a flower and at the razor edge of bone. In the way of the witch, all matter is subject to alchemy under her hand. Bones become flowers in their softness, frailty, the sense that they are mid-undulation against the sky. She said once of these skeletons: “It never occurs to me that they have anything to do with death. They are very lively”. And in reverse, botanicals become bonelike. Their precise geometric folds recall the smooth curve of the scapula, the fine lines of cranial sutures, and the spiral of the cochlea.

‘Bones become flowers in their softness, frailty, the sense that they are mid-undulation against the sky.’

Georgia O'Keeffe
Georgia O'Keeffe, Pelvis II, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

There is an enduring tension between this sense of transfiguration in O’Keeffe’s paintings and the artist’s resistance to any attempt to displace her subjects with metaphor. Throughout a long life, she insisted that her paintings were not sly replacements (for the vulva, the curve of a waist or a breast). These images were intended to be themselves. For hours, O’Keeffe sat in meditation, mixing paints until she replicated the precise shade visible to her mind’s eye. She left a meticulous archive of 330 colours recorded on labelled cards. Exact measurements of pigment, resin, solvents, drying media, values of darkness and lightness, saturation, opacity, gloss, and grain were catalogued by the same spindly hand. Perhaps her resistance to flatly symbolic interpretations of her work is their denial of her method, a method which necessitated direct, careful observation of a subject, an encounter with a non-human thing.

‘…she insisted that her paintings were not sly replacements (for the vulva, the curve of a waist or a breast). These images were intended to be themselves.’

Georgia O'Keeffe
O'Keeffe's hand written colour cards, Georgia O’Keeffe Personal Property, Color Cards, 2001. Photograph courtesy of The Georgia O'Keeffe Museum.

In 1939, O’Keeffe wrote of her blooms: “Everyone has many associations with a flower – the idea of flowers. You put out your hand to touch the flower – lean forward to smell it – maybe touch it with your lips almost without thinking – or give it to someone to please them. Still – in a way – nobody sees a flower – really – it is so small – we haven’t time – and to see takes time like to have a friend takes time.” Perhaps this is the essence of O’Keeffe’s approach: seeing as a form of friendship with the other. In O’Keeffe’s work, the discipline of her method and style is utterly tender, possessed of religious devotion and insistent and loving observations. To see, to really see, is to take time. This is a tenderness. 

‘Still – in a way – nobody sees a flower – really – it is so small – we haven’t time – and to see takes time like to have a friend takes time.’

Georgia O’Keeffe, White Iris No.7, Oil on Canvas, 1979

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