Georgia O’Keeffe

By María Herreros; translated by Lawrence Schimel (SelfMadeHero)
ISBN: 978-1-914224-05-8 (TPB/Digital edition)

Georgia Totto O’Keeffe entered the world in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin on November 15th 1887, second of seven children born to a dairy farmer turned (failed) construction entrepreneur. Seized and overwhelmed by the artistic impulse before the age of ten, she overcame financial hardship to secure an impressive traditional artistic education which she promptly rejected in favour of finding her own path.

From 1917 and her first exhibition, to her death in 1986, she made art her way, most famously with series of paintings of flowers, buildings and ultimately desert scenes which became a catalyst of taste and part of global artistic culture. She is regarded as America’s first abstract artist and has been called The Mother of American Modernism.

Innocently controversial from the start, O’Keeffe increasingly sought to understand colour and shape via stark cityscapes and florid blossoms but had to endure censure and gossip over nude photos exhibited by her patron Alfred Stieglitz, and the indignity of having her flower paintings mansplained by critics – even female ones – who continuously likened them to female sexual organs.

Bored with saying “they’re just flowers” and self-important fools, she began a gradual, years-long process of quitting metropolitan civilisation for peace, contentment and endless inspiration under the big skies and vivid deserts of New Mexico.

Over a decades-long career. O’Keefe garnered international acclaim and many awards. These included an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree from the College of William and Mary (1938); election to the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a fellowship of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences(1966); receiving the M. Carey Thomas Award from Bryn Mawr College (1971) and another honorary degree (from Harvard in 1973) as well as the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1977), The National Medal of Arts (1985) and – in 1993 – posthumous induction into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

As you’d expect of a determined, driven professional woman of that period in that country, making extremely successful headway in a predominantly male preserve, her personal life was something of a trainwreck, but this compelling examination chooses to downplay those aspects.

Sensibly side-lining the more sensationalised moments of O’Keefe’s past in favour of tracing her accomplishments and victories, graphic biographer María Herreros has employed her painterly, primitivistic narrative style which liberally samples O’Keeffe’s copious canon of letters and idiosyncratic writings to bring us inside the head of a profoundly visual and arguably obsessive being.

Based in Madrid, but born in Valencia in 1983, Herreros is a modern multidisciplinary artist. She studied at the University of Fine Arts, San Carlos and since 2011 has combined high level commercial commissions with gallery shows, book collaborations and comics such as Viva la Dolce Vita, Marilyn tenía once dedos en los pies, and Paris sera toujours Paris. Her personal works explore human emotion, societal evolution and the concepts of beauty and normative states.

Although remaining primarily positive and inquisitive here, Herreros touches on O’Keeffe’s mental ill health issues, her Svengali-like attachment (later marriage) to older, already-married Fine Art photographer/gallery owner Stieglitz and her end-of-life companion John Bruce “Juan” Hamilton – both notorious age-inappropriate public scandals that Georgia casually, magnificently, ignored.

Via communications with Georgia’s close female friends and Stieglitz, Herreros takes us inside the painter’s mind, revealing the creative process and progress in navigating society, the public and the poison chalice of simply having to exhibit art to survive, while emphasising making the images she wanted to in places she truly loved which became her greatest joy and solitary citadels.

Less a biography than a carefully crafted appreciation and appraisal of a career and legacy by a fellow fully emancipated, self-determining female creator, Georgia O’Keeffe is a compelling and beguiling glimpse into the forces that shape art and artists.
Text and illustrations © 2021 by María Herreros. All rights reserved. Published by agreement with Astiberri Ediciones and Fundación Colección Thyssen-Bornemisza English translation © 2021 SelfMadeHero.