Not only is Georgia O'Keeffe renowned for her pioneering artworks showcasing close-up abstract representations of flowers, but she is also famous for her unique interpretations of the landscape of the American Southwest. As one of the first visible female artists, O'Keeffe entered the art community in 1916, at a time when modernistic trends prevailed. Her ability to observe these trends while still remaining true to her own artistic vision stands as one of her most enduring contributions to the world of art.
As a female artist who rose to prominence in a male-dominated avocation, O'Keeffe challenged gender distinctions. Not content to merely capitalize on the novelty of a feminine perspective, O'Keeffe toyed with established notions of gender. According to Katy Deepwell, author of "Women Artists and Modernism," O'Keeffe was "attracted to the strolling flâneur/dandy as a figure for [her] own artistic positioning as [a modern voyeur] standing on the sidelines, looking at a world where the viewer assumes new and ever-changing relationships to the objects of her desire." Thus, not only was O'Keeffe one of the first celebrated female American artists, but she also creatively redefined sexual norms by means of her artistic statements.
During her annual visits to New Mexico from 1929 to 1949, O'Keeffe produced artworks that studied the stark landscape of the American Southwest. O'Keeffe was not interested in portraying the barren New Mexican landscape as a soul-crushing expanse of territory, but rather was committed to examining a timeless harmony that appeared to exist between this environment and the organisms that inhabited it. For example, in her 1938 painting "From the Faraway, Nearby," O'Keeffe renders a gigantic animal skull resting triumphantly upon a Southwestern horizon, bathed in pastel hues contained in a blue sky and pinkish-gray mounds of earth. In this particular instance, O'Keeffe's vision avoids moribund pretensions by granting the sun-bleached skull a position of prominence upon the landscape, suggesting an undaunted circle of life.
Producing pieces of art that were neither works of realism, surrealism, or pure abstraction, images that abound in O'Keeffe's output are arguably symbolic in their essence. "For O'Keeffe, whose pictorial language comprises a harmonious synthesis of abstraction and objectivity, abstract representation frequently provides the means of coming closest to the truth she seeks to express," observes Britta Benke in her study "Georgia O'Keeffe, 1887-1986: Flowers in the Desert." Among her works, the influential flower painting "Black Iris No. II" (1926) qualifies as a prime example of O'Keeffe's method of abstract representation. The iris depicted by O'Keeffe in this work is barely a natural representation of an actual flower. Instead, she paints a dream vision of a flower, created for the purpose of eliciting an emotional response from viewers.
Avoiding close association with popular artistic movements of her time, O'Keeffe proved that an individual artist could put her own inimitable spin on the modernist style. Her paintings and sculptures, though influenced by a prevailing modernist trend, were not bound by conventional modernist assumptions. Thus, she was less influenced by groundbreaking exhibits such as the 1913 Armory Show than she was by nuances of the Southwestern American landscape.
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