We would be remiss to talk about Modernism without showcasing the women who helped pioneer the movement. One woman in particular, the luminary artist Georgia O’Keeffe, earned herself the nickname the “Mother of American Modernism.” Today, we honor her contributions to Modernism by diving deep into her life and work.

The Life of Georgia O’Keeffe

Born in 1887 in a farmhouse in Wisconsin, Georgia O’Keeffe decided at an early age (10) to become an artist. In 1905, she began her serious formal art training at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). She later denounced formal education, feeling too constricted by the strict guidelines that art should imitate what was found in nature. 

It wasn’t until 1912 that O’Keeffe discovered the work of Arthur Wesley Dow, and was inspired by the way he uniquely interpreted subject matters, rather than following traditional modes of artistic creation. From there, O’Keeffe gave permission to herself to experiment in forms that furthered her self-expression and development of style. 

Georgia O’Keeffe, Series 1, No 8, 1917. Public Domain.

The Work of Georgia O’Keeffe

Georgia O’Keeffe is best known for her abstract oil paintings, including many close-ups of flowers. Though many muse the flowers were a symbol for female anatomy, O’Keeffe rejected that interpretation often. Her work was concerned with emphasizing shape and color to illuminate small details.

In 1929, O’Keeffe moved to New Mexico, attempting to escape the socially and artistically oppression of her fame. Partly inspired by a desire to shake Freudian affixations of meaning to her work, and greatly inspired by the native landscape, there O’Keeffe painted New Mexico landscapes and images of animal skulls. 

O’Keeffe’s desert escape and reinvention of inspiration mirrors that of Optima’s own journey, when we expanded to Arizona. We know just how transformative the arid landscape, surprisingly lush desert greenery and culture of the southwest can influence one’s creative scope.

Even in her southwestern escape, O’Keeffe remained heavily in the public eye. Featured in one-woman retrospectives at both the Art Institute of Chicago and the The Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan in the 40’s, O’Keeffe became the first woman to ever have a retrospective at the latter. The next three decades saw her style and subject focus evolve, but it was a quiet period until in 1970, when the Whitney Museum of American Art held a retrospective of her work and brought back buzz. 

While O’Keeffe died in 1986, critical acclaim and love for her work remains. In 2014, her 1932 painting Jimson Weed sold for $44,405,000 — more than three times the previous world auction record for any female artist — demonstrating the art world’s acknowledgment of O’Keefe’s unapologetic vision and pioneering a style.