Georgia O'Keeffe wears too much white; she is impaled with a white consciousness. She has wished too large and finds the world altogether too small in comparison.
"Adventures in the Arts" (1921)
Her house here at the Ghost Ranch seems almost like one of her paintings spare, simple, ascetic; furniture covered with white linen; walls of ceilings totally white; a dinning room table, fashioned from plain sheets of plywood, also draped in white; hundreds of sun-bleaded white animal skulls scattered about. It is an all-white space surrounded by the pink of exterior adobe walls, the deep red hues of the mountain earth, and the rich, cloudless blue of a sky viewd from an elevation of 7,000 feet.
In summer, the artist too is in white. But now, because the golden cottonwoods have signaled the change of season, she wears black; a black skirt, black shoes, and a black jacket that allows a hint of white blouse to show through, perfectly starched, offsetting a silver brooch Alexander Calder made for her a half century ago. She sits in the courtyard of the house and cools herself with an oriental fan.
"You know, I've had this fan for 25 years," Georgia O'Keefee says. "It's still intact. Some things last a long time."
O'Keeffe will be 90 on Tuesday and to her it is a fact of little moment. She had been invited to Washington to watch a telecast of a public television special on her life that airs on her birthday, and she said no.
"I can't think of a worse way to spend a birthday, at a party in Washington," she says. "I rather be alone."
Instead, she agreed to go to Washington today, for a preview of the film at the National Gallery. It will also be shown Saturday at 2:30 at the AFI Theater.
"Don't misunderstand me," she says. "I have nothing against Washington itself. I love the museums. When I was there last fall, I walked from the Freer to the Lincoln Memorial. I was puffing by the last two steps. I don't think I'd get up to the top. And then I saw that beautiful head looming up there, and the last two steps were easy."
She still walks every morning, this woman Newsweek called "a seren mistress of the desert, a triumphant survivor of the American modernist revolution of the 1920s and '30s," a feisty artist whose iconoclastic vision of skulls clouds and desert sun have formed a mythology in oil of the American West. She gets up at 6 and heads off into the red hills with her two Chows, Jingle and Inca. And days are still spent painting (oils, and a recent return to watercolors), potting reading travel books and writing letters.
"So many letters," she says."Why do all these people care about me. They write, 'I admire you greatly. I do not wash to invade your privacy But - I am a painter and I will be in Abiquiu on Thursday and please answer this letter because this is the only reason I am making the trip.' How many letters like that can you answer? If something is important I put it on my desk and put a big black rock on top of it. Then I know to pay attention to it.
"What can you say to visitors, especially to aspring artists? 'Go home and work." Or else, 'Nobody's good at the beginning. I used to think that somebody could teach me to paint a landscape. I hunted and hunted for that person and finally found that I had to do it myself."
"O'Keeffe has little to say about the people she receives. Recently she was visited by Joan Mondale. She says she was "a nice woman." More recently she saw a woman writing a book on women artists.
"A silly topic." she says. "Write about women. Or write about artists. I don't see how they're connected. Personally, the only people who ever helped me were men."
If this sounds cantankerous, in fact it is the opposite; the wisdom of a woman who has come to terms with her life and is intensely satisfied with it. And of course she is savvy street savvy. If you can say that of a person whose home is the desert. "When she wants something, she makes people give it to her," her late husband, photographer Alfred Steglitz once said.
O'Keeffe has two houses: this on at the Ghost Ranch, which takes its name from a local legend of a strange woman said recurrently to appear with a child who never aged and Abiquiu House, an abandoned pueblo she bought in 1940 and restored. Abiquiu House is equally white, and even more spacious. It's extraordinarily neat, with boxes stacked on shelves and labeled in O'Keeffe's script: aprons, nightgowns, Polaroids, degrees. There are magazines all over: National Geographic, New West, the large-type edition of The New York Times. An L.L. Bean catalog sits on a deck. Her two newest paintings are hanging on a white wall, opposite a huge window that looks out over the Chama River Valley. Both paintings are of doors; doors white at the bottom, becoming gray at the top, and bordered on the sides by blue.
But O'keefee spends as much time as she can at the Ghost Ranch. The dirt road that leads to it passes several abandoned pueblos, and there's a pleasant irony in watching her white Mercedes slip past a sign announcing "ROAD CLOSED DEAD END," spitting up a plume of red dust.
"I've been here 1929," she says. "I've always had to work alone. People bother me. I lead the kind of life that I fit into. I can do everything I have to do better because I don't have anyone here to bother me. I'm always willing to be right here. It's good enough for me. If you weren't here, I'd just be sitting here myself, fanning myself with this fan. I'm not a city person."
O'Keefe says, "I grew out of the grass." She was born on a Wisconsin wheat farm in 1887, the daughter of Francis and Ida O'Keeffe, second of seven children, five girls an two boys (Her sister Claudia lives with her on and off, and looks after the well-maintained flower and vegetable garden in back of Abiquiu House.)
"My first memory is of the brightness of light," O'Keeffee writes in the introduction to a recent book of her paintings, "Georgia O'Keeffe," just issued in paperback by Penguin. "Light all around. I was sitting among pillows on a quit on the ground - very large white pillows. The quilt was a cotton patchwork of two different kinds of material - white with very red stars spotted over it quite close together, and black with a red and white flower on it. I was probably 8 or 9 months old. The quilt is partially a later member, but I know it is the quilt I sat on that day.
"The year I was finishing eighth grade, I asked our washwoman's daugther what she was going to do when she grew up. She said she didn't know. I said very definitely - as if I had thought it all out and my mind was made up - 'I am going to be an artist.'
"I don't know where that idea came from," O'Keeffe says. "I wasn't a favorite child. But I didn't mind. It left me quite free.
In 1902, the O'Keefes moved to Williamsburg, an dyoung Georgia was sent to the Chatham Episcopal Institute now Chathlam Hall.
"I spoke differently from the other people," she says. "I knew door was door. I knew it wasn't doe. They used to make fun of the way I talked. It went against my grain. But I knew my speech was all right. I started out not having any friends at all, but I didn't py any attention to it. They were still fighting the Civil War.
O'Keeffe went off to the Chicago Art Institute, and then enrolled in the New York Art Students League in 1907. In 1912, while visting her family, she enrolled a summer art course taught by Arthur Dow at the University of Virginia. O'Keeffe embraced Dow's theory of "filling space in a beautiful way," and stayed on to teach at the university for three years.
"Virginia was beautiful," she says. "I used to go walking through the hills, but eventually I felt like I knew every tree in the forest. And then in 1929 I came out here with Rebecca Strand (the wife of photographer Paul Strand) to visit Mable Dodge and I knew I had found my place. It was so big and broad. I fet that Virginia was tired in comparison.
But O'Keefee had long since abandoned Virginia. She had worked as a commercial designer in Chicago and taught in Texas, where a friend had seen some of her drawings and sent them off to Stieglitz in New York. It was then that he uttered his legendary. "Finally a woman on paper," and in 1916 hung O'Keffe's work in his trend-setting 291 gallery. O'Keffe heard about it and went to New York to get her drawings back. Instead she wound up moving to the city, and in 1924 she married Stieglitz.
"I was interested in what he did and he was interested in what I did," she says. "That's the best kind of a tie."
"But we were very different kinds of people. He loved having people around. There'd be people around the house all the time, and I'd have to take three weeks off to do a painting. And that's no way to be a painter. He was interested in a thousand things. He'd pull one book out and read it for 30 minutes and then stick it back and pull another one out. I think he was a great photographer. But he never bothered to build a darkroom. He used to work in the bathroom. And he worried all the time. He used to worry about me driving by myself. One winter I kept a car in the city just so I knew that I could get out. I fell like I served my time in the city. Oh, there were some things that I loved. Eating at Pearl's. Chinese cooking is thee best in the world.
"Stieglitz would never come out West. But every summer I'd pack my things in the car and head out here to paint.I used to love those drives. You never knew where you were going to sleep, and I'd always have my bedroom ready. Once I saw two elephants walking along the road in Kanss. It looked very funny. I had the right set of the car unbolted and I could put my easel up there and paint right in the car.Of course, cars used to have big windows them.
"One summer I had had a particularly good time painting. I just decided to take a barrel full of bones back to New York with me. I felt like I was bringing my solance back to the city."
Stieglitz died in 1946, and after spending three winters settling his estate, O'Keeffe moved to New Mexico permanently. While living in New York she had had to accept, for the most part, the pronouncements of art critics. Now she was finally able to ignore the people she so obviously disagreed with. As she observed after visiting Mont Sainte-Victoire on her first trip to Europe in 1956:
"How could they attach all those analytical remarks to anything Cezanne did with that little mountain? All those words piled on that poor little mountain seemed too much."
"When I moved out here I had been so busy with the Stieglitz estate, making so many decisions," O'Keeffe says. "I decided I didn't want to make any more decisions about what was good and what was bad. I burned 40 of my paintings here in one day, and I decided from then on never to correct and never to deny anything anybody said about me. The things the critics saw in my paintings. There was one 'Horse Skull with Pink Rose' (1931) that people read everything into. In fact a friend who was staying with me had left some blue pajamas on the table. I had laid a skull on it. I was upstairs and the doorbell rang and I was holding a rose. I came downstairs and I thought it would be silly to answer the door holding a flower, so I stuck it in the horse's eye. I had no great ideas about life and death. I just came back from the door and there it was waiting for me to paint it.
"You live out here and you become very aware to change. I don't know if it's my age, but somehow the '20s seem to have been a very exciting time to live through. I climb up that ladder onto the roof there, and I can just stare out at the hills. I've been known to spend weeks up there, looking at how they've washed into new shapes. You can go up there and feel how good the world is.
"The other day I was looking at some old photos of me that Stieglitz had made. Somebody is putting a book of them together. I looked at some of those photos and I thought, 'If that person were that age today, it would be a different person.' We do change so. And then I got up and walked past a mirror, and I had forgotten that my hair has turned white. I saw a person and I didn't know it was me."