Following more or less a chronological format, O’Keeffe reminisces about those visual experiences, largely related to nature, from which her work stems. Unfolding flowers, fluctuating light on adobe walls, coiling rivers seen from airplanes, bleached bones scattered in the desert—all these images are her characteristic source material. Yet the simple language that the artist uses to describe those experiences can be deceptive. Her words operate on two levels: first, as detailed descriptions of her reactions to the natural world around her, and second, as clues to the alterations and selections that transform that natural world into art.
For O’Keeffe, immediate contact with nature is the touchstone for her art. Yet it is never merely plants, rocks, shells, bones, mountains, and rivers that fascinate her; it is their transmutation by variations in distance, color, angle, and by such immediate circumstances as the time of day, the slant of the sun, and the slightest atmospheric nuance. Added to these natural inspirations are the artist’s own associations, rendering it difficult to separate artistic vision from the personality of the artist.
In O’Keeffe’s paintings, human beings are nonexistent, although occasionally they are suggested by the presence of architecture. Her stark barns, New Mexican churches, and geometric Manhattan skyscrapers are less related to a nostalgia for people than to a preoccupation with the environment that these structures occupy. Like her pictures, O’Keeffe’s book has little to do with people. From the earliest years, she looks back on herself as a loner who was laboriously finding her way through personal trial and error.
She mentions her husband, Stieglitz, only rarely and mentions even less frequently the group of artists with whom...
(The entire section is 739 words.)
In the first few pages of her autobiography, O’Keeffe clarifies her reasons for writing the book. Rather than leave her life and work for critics or biographers to analyze, argue over, and decipher, once before she died she wanted to control how her life and work was presented to the public. It was she—at the age of almost ninety when the book was published—who selected the 108 paintings represented in the volume, and it was she who wrote the commentary on how the artistic vision of each of these paintings was inspired and executed. As she states, “No one else can know how my paintings happen.”
Yet there is always doubt that an artist can explain his or her own work objectively. By reading O’Keeffe’s book, however, the reader can sometimes learn more from the artist herself than from critics and historians. It is often as much what artists exclude as what they include that is revealing, and this also holds true for O’Keeffe.
O’Keeffe probably did not set out to write a new kind of autobiography, but she did. Georgia O’Keeffe will remain a classic in the field of artistic autobiography for some time to come because of its appeal to a wide variety of people—young and old, artistic and nonartistic. Its straightforward approach to the subject of artistic creation and the simple, even understated language is unusually refreshing. This style makes O’Keeffe’s life and work accessible in a way that would not be possible in a heavily footnoted, jargon-laden treatment of the subject. O’Keeffe wrote like she lived and like she painted—with simplicity, elegance, and honesty.