Georgia O'Keeffe: The Art of Desolation
Texas Tech University’s Jack Becker and Paul Carlson delve into Georgia O’Keeffe’s years in the Texas Panhandle in their new book, “Georgia O’Keeffe in Texas: A Guide.”
By Summer Chandler
The warm wind rushes down the east side of the Rocky Mountain range, bursting onto the plains of Northwest Texas, scraping a layer of fine dust away from the dry terrain and pushing it into the air. The land is desolate – unbroken by even the suggestion of a hill; the only geographical feature of note is the Palo Duro Canyon, a deep gouge hollowed out by time and wind.
The beauty of the area can be a hard sell. It’s easier to see the brown, flat earth, scorched in the summer and bleak in the winter when the harsh cold has stripped away even the green-gray grasses native to the Panhandle of Texas. But, instead of greys and browns, Georgia O’Keeffe painted from a palette full of the rich red of canyon walls at sunrise, the bold yellow, orange and pink tones that fire up the sky at sunset, the velvety blue of the sky that looms over the vast prairies.
“There are a lot of biographies on Georgia O’Keeffe. Some of them are really good, but they don’t give a lot of space to her time in the Panhandle,” said Paul Carlson, professor emeritus of history at Texas Tech and one of the authors of the recently published book, 'Georgia O’Keeffe in Texas: A Guide.'
“The longest piece was in a huge, 600-page biography and it had 25 pages on her time in the Panhandle. Those years were important to development because, for some strange reason, when she got out to Amarillo, she liked it from when she first got off the plane.”
Love at First Sight
It was 1912 when she saw the land as the plane descended from the clouds. At the very edge of the frontier, the region was only just emerging from its pioneer past.
“The streets were dusty when it didn’t rain and a muddy mess when it did,” Carlson said. “But O’Keeffe liked the stark plains and flat windswept land. She liked to take long walks and she took a lot of themes and ideas and subjects that she would paint later from her time in the Panhandle.”
Carlson is not, as one might assume from the subject matter of his latest book, an art expert or art historian. Rather, Carlson has written histories about the towns of Lubbock and Amarillo, the Plains Indians and cowboys, and topics ranging from slavery to the sheep and goat industry in Texas.
During a trip to Santa Fe with co-author Jack Becker, an associate librarian with the Texas Tech University Libraries, the pair spied a slim 50-page book about O’Keeffe and her time in New Mexico. Carlson had read about O’Keeffe’s time in the Texas Panhandle while doing research for a book on the history of Amarillo. Becker and Carlson began discussing the idea of a book about her time in the region and collaborated on the project.
Becker said the project taught him as much about the art world as it did about O’Keeffe.
“I’d heard of (O’Keeffe), but I wasn’t as familiar with her work as I am now, obviously,” Becker said. “It was fairly painless to write and really pretty fun. It took longer to get it published than to actually write. But, I didn’t know that much about art so I was learning about that as I was writing it.”
Jack Becker, an associate librarian with the Texas Tech University Libraries, said he learned as much about art and the artistic process as he did about O'Keeffe during his research.
Both Carlson and Becker say they developed an admiration for O’Keeffe as they researched her life, despite – and in some ways because of – her quirks.
“She was her own woman. She was a feminist before there was such a thing,” Carlson said. “She kept her own name (after marrying) and that was in the 1920s – she just did what she wanted to do. She dressed in manly clothes and did it despite the snickers in Canyon and Amarillo that she was a strange person.”
Becker described an encounter he had with a woman while at Ghost Ranch, the location of her first home in New Mexico. While sitting at a table, Becker said he told a group of people who were discussing O’Keeffe that he wasn’t sure he would have liked O’Keeffe had he known her.
“And at this table was a woman who turned around and said, ‘I knew Georgia O’Keeffe and she was a nice person. I know why you say that though, she had a very standoffish demeanor,’” Becker relayed.
Becker said he believes her less-than-approachable manner was probably related to the number of people who had many demands on her time.
“Working hard was important to her. She lived a long time and produced art well into her 70s,” Becker said. “She created more than 2,300 pieces of artwork.”
Carlson said that even in her art, O’Keeffe went her own way. She continued to paint in her signature style and colors during the Great Depression even as other artists turned away from abstract expressionism.
An Unconventional Woman in Art and Life
Paul Carlson, professor emeritus of history at Texas Tech, set out to focus on O'Keeffe's often overlooked time in the Texas Panhandle.
O’Keeffe didn’t only assert her independence in her art and style of clothing, she was unconventional in her marriage as well. O’Keeffe’s marriage to Alfred Stieglitz – which was punctuated by long separations and both confirmed and suspected affairs by both parties – would likely be considered progressive even by today’s standards. But Carlson believes that Stieglitz found in O’Keeffe a muse and was instrumental in her financial success as an artist.
“I think the thing about their marriage is that he recognized her art from the first black and white charcoal drawings he saw. She never caught on (in the art world) until the time he put her in his gallery. And between her paintings, he hung photos of her in various stages of undress,” Carlson said. “From then on she was on her way to being a success.”
Stieglitz’s inclusion of these photographs was fairly bold for the time period and may have led to much of the speculation regarding O’Keeffe’s work and the assertion that her work was highly sexualized.
“She always denied those claims, but the first critics said, about her charcoal drawings, ‘All these say is that this is a woman who wants to have a baby,’” Carlson said.
Despite what critics may have said about her work and the rumors her persona sparked in rural Amarillo and Canyon, O’Keeffe’s legacy as an artist has endured. Becker said that he believes she wasn’t especially bothered by what others may have thought of her.
“She dressed plain because she was working with color all of the time. It was part of her persona that she lived sparsely. Vacant walls, hardly any furniture,” Becker said. “And, you know, I think she liked being a little eccentric, too.”
Editor's note: "Georgia O'Keeffe in Texas: A Guide" is available for purchase at the on-campus Barnes & Noble and on Amazon.com.