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Passion's Flower

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The farmer’s daughter painted her way to riches

AN ARTIST WAS PICKING QUIETLY AT her lunch in the Columbia University cafeteria on a spring day in 1916 when a fellow student interrupted to ask if she was the “Virginia” O’Keeffe whose work was on view at a Manhattan gallery. Stunned to hear her work had been hung without her permission, O’Keeffe stormed off in a fury to confront the studio’s owner.

“I am Georgia O’Keeffe,” she announced to Alfred Stieglitz, 52, the proprietor of the 291 gallery and one of America’s most revered photographers. “I want you to take my drawings off the wall.” Unsure that the 28-year-old understood the genius of her drawings, he argued, “You don’t know what you have done.” “Certainly I know what I’ve done,” she snapped. “Do you think I’m an idiot?”

Thus began one of the most storied personal and professional collaborations in the history of American art. O’Keeffe gained a savvy entrepreneurial champion in Stieglitz. He in turn found a future wife blessed with rare beauty and artistic vision. Passionate, mysterious and self-contained as the artist herself, O’Keeffe’s paintings of calla lilies, skulls and stark New Mexico landscapes would make her one of America’s most recognized artists.

Today, 11 years after her death at 98 in 1986, O’Keeffe is as popular as ever, The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in downtown Santa Fe has drawn large crowds since it opened this summer, The artist’s adobe home and studio in Abiquiu, N.Mex., will soon be given to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. And a couple of movie scripts based on O’Keeffe’s life are being shopped around Hollywood.

A master at self-promotion, O’Keeffe would have been publicly disdainful of, if privately amused by, all the attention. “Where and how I have lived is unimportant,” she once wrote. “It is what have done with where I have been that should be of interest.”

When farmer’s daughter O’Keeffe was growing up near Sun Prairie, Wis., in the 1890s, there was scant reason to believe that she might become an important artist. But her mother, Ida Tot-to O’Keeffe, was determined that her four daughters and two sons be exposed to as much culture as possible. The girls received private drawing and painting lessons, and in eighth grade, oldest daughter Georgia declared, “I am going to be an artist.” O’Keeffe got her first glimmer of how she would pursue her goal at a Dominican convent school near Madison, when a teacher held up a Jack-in-the-pulpit and asked students to examine the wildflower closely. “It was certainly the first time my attention was called to the outline and color of any growing thing with the idea of drawing” or painting it,” O’Keeffe recalled.

Hard times struck the O’Keeffes in 1903, when they sold their farm and moved to Williamsburg, Va. Her father, Francis Calixtus O’Keeffe, would ultimately impoverish the family with such harebrained schemes as manufacturing hollow cement blocks.

By 1905, following her high school graduation from the Chatham Episcopal Institute in Virginia, O’Keeffe had enrolled in the Art Institute of Chicago. A couple of years later she transferred to the Art Students League in New York, where she was nicknamed “Pat,” suggesting both her fierce Irish wit and her androgynous appearance. During this period she met Stieglitz for the first time when she visited his gallery with a group of fellow students who engaged the autocratic photographer in a heated theoretical debate. For an indifferent O’Keeffe there was, she once said, “nothing to do but stand and wait.”

After leaving school she worked as a commercial artist for Chicago ad agencies before taking an assignment supervising art for schoolchildren in Amarillo, Texas. There, she came in touch with her beloved Southwest. Solitary by nature (“I’m not really a mixer”), she thrived on long walks down country roads, becoming mesmerized by the sun-bleached landscapes. “It was loud and raw under the stars in that wide empty country,” she later said.

O’Keeffe would leave teaching behind not long after a friend took her charcoal drawings to Stieglitz on New Year’s Day 1916. “At last,” he exclaimed, seeing the work he would exhibit without consent, “a woman on paper.” The exhibit, which Stieglitz persuaded her to leave up, launched her career. By the spring of 1917, O’Keeffe was shuttling between the Southwest and New York, where Stieglitz showed her work a second time and began photographing her. At his urging, a few months later she moved permanently to Manhattan. With $1,200 borrowed from the photographer, according to early accounts, she started painting in a little back room on 59th Street, and he continued making his frankly erotic portraits of her. It wasn’t long before Stieglitz left his wife of three decades and wed O’Keeffe in 1924. The business side of their newly minted franchise also thrived. He circulated a phony press release saying her works sold for thousands. Stieglitz also secretly promoted Freudian interpretations of her erotically shaped flowers. “He knew exactly what he was doing,” says Sharyn Udall, a Santa Fe art historian, but “they pretended to be shocked.”

Their relationship often seemed less manageable. In the late 1920s, when O’Keeffe began visiting New Mexico, Stieglitz had an affair with a beauty some 40 years his junior, the wife of a Sears, Roebuck heir. O’Keeffe, who during this period allegedly had at least one lesbian affair, subsequently lost her self-confidence and was hospitalized briefly for depression. Her recovery marked a psychological and artistic turning point. Where once Stieglitz had played Svengali, Udall says, “she now took back her own authority.”

After having an affair with Jean Toomer, the African-American author of Cane, she wrote to Stieglitz, “I am not sick anymore. Everything in me begins to move.” She set off for New Mexico and Ghost Ranch, a libertine dude ranch for millionaires. After Stieglitz began suffering from heart disease, she returned periodically to New York to oversee his care until he died in July 1946.

O’Keeffe entered the last major phase of her life three years later, when she moved to Abiquiu, a Hispanic village west of Taos. There, at the foot of the Jemez Mountains, she built an aerie out of an adobe ruin. Despite her reputation as a cantankerous recluse, she paid for community projects, bought the village baseball uniforms and took a maternal interest in 10-vear-old Jacobo Suazo, her gardener’s little brother, whom she once even tried to adopt. “My mother,” recalls Suazo, now 62, “got upset and said, ‘My son is not a tortilla to give away.’ ”

A suspected (but never prosecuted) Communist in the early 1950s, O’Keeffe was embraced in the 1960s by the feminist movement as a symbol of independence and charismatic old age. In 1973, already going blind, she turned even more heads when she took in a 27-year-old potter who asked for work and bore an uncanny resemblance to the young Alfred Stieglitz. She started Juan Hamilton off pruning hedges, but he was soon helping her complete her well-received 1976 autobiography. “She got a kick,” says art historian Ellen Bradbury, “out of the idea that she was providing a little cocktail party talk.” When she died, Hamilton became heir to her $70 million estate—an inheritance reduced after it was contested by a niece and nephew.

Survived only by an aged sister, she died virtually alone in a Santa Fe hospital on March 6, 1986. O’Keeffe would have despised any attempt to portray her as tragic. After all, she once said she would die with only one regret, “that I will not be able to see this beautiful country anymore.”