She turned seashells into galaxies and petals into monuments. The distant sandstone hills summoned by her paintings seem as near and soft as the wrinkles of one's hand. The strangest thing about her art is its demolishment of scale. She made the tiny vast as if the difference did not matter. Georgia O'Keeffe, the painter, who died yesterday in Santa Fe at the age of 98, also conquered time.
"Light Coming on the Plains," the watercolor landscapes she produced with assurance in 1917, were no less advanced than the oils she made later. Her art did not improve. Her resolute integrity, her voluptuary terseness, her absolute disdain for shifting art world styles, was apparent from the start.
She was a beauty at 16. And a stunner in her nineties. She would look into your eyes as if you were not there, as if she were examining a bit of sun-bleached antler, or a pebble, or a stretch of far-off sky. Her poise could make you shake.
The void did not distress her, nor did distance, nor did death. The dry bones that she collected walking through the desert become, in her paintings, once again alive. In 1917, she discovered the Southwest. "That was my country," she explained. "Terrible winds and a wonderful emptiness."
"Art in New Mexico, 1900-1945: Paths to Taos and Santa Fe," the admirable exhibition that, by strange coincidence, goes on view this morning at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American Art, includes a number of her pictures of sun-washed sandstone cliffs and blank adobe walls. They reach beyond the landscape. They are American, and western, but the spirit that informs them is almost oriental. Other painters from the cities, when visiting New Mexico, found the brightness of the light there, the bigness of the sky, the gorgeousness of everything, almost overwhelming. "You always have to look at it," complained Stuart Davis. But O'Keeffe was not bothered. She detected as much vastness, as much meaning, as much color in the pebble in her hand.
She called a painting she completed in 1937 -- it shows an antlered skull floating above mountains, conquering the heavens -- "The Faraway Nearby."
She often painted bones. "Bones," she wrote, "seem to cut sharply to the center of something that is keenly alive on the desert even tho' it is vast and empty and untouchable -- and knows no kindness with all its beauty."
She did not need enormities. Little things sufficed. In 1945, she bought a ruined house in Abiquiu, New Mexico. It was not the emptiness around, or the wondrous view of mountains, that made her chose the property. It was the darkness of the door.
It was a double door, black wood, set deep into a wall, a wall that has no windows. O'Keeffe has painted that dark door in snowtime and in summer. "That door is what made me buy this house," she said to Mary Lynn Kotz, the Washington writer, in 1977. "I waited 10 years to get the house, because of that door. I used to climb over the wall, just to look at that door."
She rebuilt the house by hand. "I never wanted to make it look Spanish, or Indian, or anything like that," she remarked to Calvin Tompkins in 1974. "I wanted it to be my house." When he visited her studio there, only three pictures were on view, a 1950 O'Keeffe abstraction in black and white and blue, her 1971 "Black Rock" -- and an old print by Hiroshige, that most Japanese of masters, a snow scene in three panels. When Tompkins paid his visit, it was concealed by a cloth as if it were an icon in an Oriental shrine.
The floor of O'Keeffe's studio was carpeted in white.
She almost always dressed in white, and if not white, in black.
Vanity had nothing to do with it. She was the opposite of vain. When young, she was surrounded by the hottest art scene going. When she first met Alfred Stieglitz, the photographer and seer, in New York, in 1916, she greeted him in anger. A friend of hers had sent him a small group of her drawings. "Finally, a woman on paper," was his first impression. Without asking her permission, he installed them in his gallery at 291 Fifth Avenue. But now the artist glared at him. The drawings must come down.
Stieglitz talked her out of it. "He was a good talker," she explained.
They became lovers two years later. They must have been the best known couple on the art world. Their friends included Ansel Adams, Arthur Dove, Charles Demuth, John Marin and Brancusi, who, on seeing O'Keffe's art, exclaimed, "There is no imitation of Europe here; it is a force -- a liberating, free force." O'Keeffe and Stieglitz married in 1924. They remained married until his death in 1946.
Obsessively he photographed her dark unsmiling eyes, her slender hands, her face. In those extraordinary portraits -- now in the collection of the National Gallery of Art -- she sometimes seems a queen, she sometimes seems a waif. Stieglitz was her champion, her husband and her dealer. Yet in her autobiography of 1978, his name is barely mentioned -- although she does recall one visit to 291: "It was a day with snow on everything. I remember brushing snow off a little tree by the railing as we walked up the steps of the brownstone."
A black door made of wood, a whitened bone, the snow, a sunflower, a lily -- small things always caught her eye. To O'Keeffe they were not small.
Late in her long life she made a tour of Greece. "The island women, knowing the travelers would be chilly, had their handmade sweaters spread out on the shore to sell," she told Kotz. "They were lovely, knit of loose, very sharp wool. In the little museum behind the Parthenon, I saw those same weaves, on the early statues of women . . . same sharp wool. What a discovery! I was so pleased with that discovery -- to see the same patterns over the centuries, but I didn't tell anyone. If you travel alone, with a group -- you don't talk about things with anyone."
She always kept her silence. When viewers said her flowers were hymns to femininity, O'Keeffe remained mute. She hated wordy explanations. She had studied as a girl with the theorist Arthur Dow, a man who loved the Orient. She said the art that she loved best "of course" was Chinese painting: "I'd still say it's the best that's been done."
"I hear from so many people who love my work," she told Kotz. "The other day I had the nicest gift. It was a letter from a woman who said I had changed her life. She enclosed a dried milkweed pod in her letter. And the nice thing was that she gave no return address. Her gift was for me not to feel I had to take time to answer."
Her paintings have been called flower pieces, landscapes, still lifes and abstractions. But she hated such divisions. She said, "I paint what I see."
"I'd always had exceptional eyesight," she said when she was 90. "Exceptional. I could read the tiniest type. Or see the tiniest tree on the mountain."
A few years later she went blind.
But she did not cease working. Her eyesight gone, she turned to modeling in clay.
The paintings that she left, like the flowers she examined, the bones that she admired, the stones that she collected, force quiet meditations. She was among the most intensely spiritual painters of her age, and her age is not yet over. Her pictures sometimes dance with swerves and flame-like curvings. But all of them are centered. Her art is aimed at timelessness and peace.