Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 739

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...

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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 she exhibited in his renowned gallery. She admits to few if any human influences and reveals the need for her own artistic identity. In fact, at one point in her life she came to the conclusion that in order to be true to her own artistic vision she had to unlearn all that she had learned about art from people and books. To find her own vision, she had to trust her own intuition.

What is of particular interest in O’Keeffe’s book is her emphasis on several series of paintings, demonstrating graphically how she developed certain themes by gradually altering and condensing the compositions to attain greater purity. This simplification process produced final works that appear abstract but in fact are not; they are still related to recognizable visual experiences. Yet, because so much has been eliminated, the objects in the paintings are reduced to their organic structure. For example, a series of animal pelvic bones is introduced by a somewhat naturalistic composition; the bones eventually disappear, however, and only the space encompassing them remains.

The painter is especially adamant in her rejection of any obvious symbolism in her work, although she admits that her vision is biased by her feelings in the presence of nature, feelings that are curiously the only clearly subjective emotions that surface in the book. Her magnificent flowers are not, she assures the reader, the sexual evocations that they so often seem; they are carefully observed growing objects that have been deliberately enlarged in order to make them more readily visible and noticeable. Yet the fact remains that, magnified or not, these exotic, unfurling forms are at the same time lavishly sensuous and unmistakably precise.

O’Keeffe’s vehement denial of erotic content suggests how deeply opposed she was to any form of labeling, to any suspicion that her work may reflect her role as a woman. Yet, despite her penchant for direct confrontation, she has produced some very romantic paintings, and, whether deliberately or not, an equally romantic image of herself as a solitary seeker.

With O’Keeffe, color plays a dominant role—sometimes hard, clear, and offbeat, even vulgar, and sometimes tender and ephemeral. In her landscapes of New Mexico, color can be flamboyant and intense; it follows no rules. Yet, while her paintings communicate much about the wildness and willfullness of nature, they are also meticulously controlled.

What emerges from O’Keeffe’s book is her fierce determination to find herself, to be herself, and to express herself; she does this by discovering and uncovering the secrets of nature very much as if they were the secrets of her own nature. She totally identifies with her art and, in the process, continually strips away the unessential.

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