PRINT January 1988


INGRID SISCHY What interests me about Georgia O'Keeffe: One Hundred Flowers is that these paintings are among the least private works of art I've ever seen. They're so open, as are the famous early photographs O'Keeffe's husband Alfred Stieglitz took of her, not at all like the isolated hermit figure she became.

NICHOLAS CALLAWAY At this time in her life O'Keeffe laid herself bare, literally, emotionally, and artistically. Then, in later years, she became reclusive to the same degree that she had opened herself up early on.

I.S. It must have taken every drop of imagination and technology while on press to achieve this sensation of newly pressed flowers—or, more accurately, of newly pressed reproductions of paintings of flowers, giant ones and minikins. It looks like the kind of project that became an obsession.

N.C. There is definitely an aura of obsession about this book, in part because there is an obsessiveness about the work itself. And we had to be obsessive because in many ways the book did not want to be done. We had to pull many of these blooms out of the ground by their roots. We wanted the book to have a feeling of, “Here, this is for you”—in the same way that you hand someone a bouquet.

I.S. What do you mean when you say the book didn't want to be done?

N.C. Eventually, O'Keeffe didn't want the works to be fully seen. She made sure that the flower paintings were dissociated from their erotic context, from their emotional context, from their biographic context. About two hundred canvases, almost a quarter of her total output, were flowers, but until this book only 12 to 15 flower images had been well-known. In addition, about half of these paintings are in private collections, many of them widely scattered, many of them forgotten and out of circulation. Their owners are deeply attached to them, and feel very private about them.

I.S. Do you think O'Keeffe's turning herself inside out in her paintings for all the world to see left her so vulnerable that having to bear the stare just got too much?

N.C. Well, we know that she exerted very tight control over what would be exhibited, and in what context it would be seen. She was a brilliant, some might say ruthless, editor of her own work, as was Stieglitz, of course, who spent a great deal of his career as an editor—of works for exhibitions, of magazines, as well as of his own photographs. I think O'Keeffe began to retreat as a response to the intensity of peoples' reactions to her and her art. And it was the flowers that elicited some of the strongest responses. They were unleashed so radically, so spontaneously, so completely, that it was really humanly necessary for her to try to control what could have become overwhelming. But the brouhaha was true of other works too—for example, after her show at Stieglitz's 291 gallery in 1917, one of the critics remarked, “All these pictures say is ‘I want to have a baby.'” Now we're talking about completely abstract paintings here, not the flowers, which came several years later.

I.S. Do you know how she responded to that critic?

N.C. According to the Laurie Lisle biography, O'Keeffe did want to have a baby then. But there is so much about what really went on in O'Keeffe's life, and in her emotions and in her mind and in her heart, that we won't know until her correspondence with Stieglitz— it's several thousand letters—is unrestricted, which won't be until the next century. She later developed a stock response to critics which she used again and again when things were being read into her work. She would say something like, “When people read into my paintings, they're really talking about their own affairs.” Which is often true of how we respond to art. But at the same time she is quoted, in a newspaper interview of 1924, as saying “Wise men say it isn't art! But what of it, if it is children and love in paint.”

I.S. The over-the-top luxury of the book is what first crosses it over from a nice gift for an art-loving relative to a book you crave yourself. It's something very deep and passionate in coffee-table-book drag. So I don't feel I'm being Pollyanna when I venture that something beyond a Georgia O'Keeffe book's salability made Alfred A. Knopf and Callaway Editions get together and do this.

N.C. Even though book publishing today is close to the bottom of the media ladder in terms of the number of people it reaches, it is still one of the most effective means of communication. I brought the idea to Knopf because I felt it would be an interesting experiment to see if a small independent book-producer like ourselves could join forces with the preeminent quality trade-book publisher, Knopf, to make a book that could be one of those rare combinations of high quality and high quantity. Also, part of the idea was that the book would be released in different countries simultaneously. O'Keeffe, curiously, is as little cultivated abroad as she is revered here. So the book is also being released by copublishers in the UK, France and Switzerland, Germany, Scandinavia, Australia, and Japan.

The book was a large-scale undertaking for any publisher, and it was very expensive to produce. The danger, of course, is luxury for its own sake, which happens a lot today as a marketing strategy. But this book is rendered in a form that reflects that quality in the work itself, which is luxurious and sensual. And certain editorial decisions were made for the sake of communicating the work as directly as possible. These can work both for the benefit and to the detriment of commercial success. For example, the fact that we decided to make the plate section wordless can be for some a distinct disadvantage. Because there is no text in the body of the book to help you, you have to really look. (And then if you want information, you can read the list of plates at the end or on the bookmark.) But much of the world gains access to visual images through words, rather than reading images themselves as language. Generally speaking, this is true of critics and journalists. Schedules and deadlines are so short that it isn't feasible for them to take a lot of time to look and think. This is not intended as a criticism; I think it's simply fact. It means that people in the media often must be satisfied with information in prepackaged form—an introductory essay, jacket-flap copy, a press release. Again and again, in media coverage of O'Keeffe, you see the same blurbs regurgitated.

Back to the luxury of the book. O'Keeffe's work has always had a special affinity for reproduction—her paintings love the printed page. They're virtually printogenic. So, in approaching a book of her work, you have a great responsibility to translate the work eloquently, as well as a special opportunity. This is an extraordinarily important body of paintings historically and artistically. And it seemed that there would probably never be an exhibition of these paintings. In all likelihood, they will never be assembled in one place. The book is probably the only form in which they will ever reach the public.

I.S. So this is a hybrid of book and exhibition, and you as the editor and copublisher are in a sense also the curator. How did you find these pictures, and what was your experience in tracing them?

N.C. Well, there's something in the work that has the quality of both treasure and talisman. There is an energy poured into it by the artist, and radiating outward from it, which just draws people like a magnet. And it drew me like a magnet. Tracing and getting the works was a combination of being archeologist, detective, and arms negotiator. This work, at its deepest levels, is intensely private. And one of the first things that struck me was the extent of the attachment that existed between the people who own these works and the objects themselves. It went far beyond the usual pride of possession. Several of the private collectors are the original owners of the paintings. To find these people 60-odd years later gives one a wonderful sense of history, and it also gives one an intimate view of the relationship that can exist between the artist, the work, and the collector. In addition, I was surprised to learn how many of these paintings are in public collections, as well as how few of them were actually on view or had been reproduced. Given the nature of O'Keeffe's work as a crowd-drawer—and every museum, and every museum shop, in America knows it—it's perhaps another indication of the intimate quality of this work that it is often kept under wraps. Also, of course, there is the classic problem of museums that such a small proportion of their collections can be displayed.

I.S. Did you ever meet O'Keeffe?

N.C. Yes. I tell that story in the book's afterword. I was studying art at Harvard, in 1973, when a professor told me that O'Keeffe was coming the next day to receive an honorary degree. Both O'Keeffe and Stieglitz were heroes of mine as a student. Stieglitz's composite portrait of O'Keeffe, the idea of trying to express over an extended period of time a relationship through a suite of images instead of in a single photograph—to me, this was an amazingly forward-looking and compelling idea. And I was awestruck by the prospect of having an opportunity to see O'Keeffe in the flesh. The next day I went down to the florist and bought one of my favorite flowers—a peony, which is to me the most beautiful, the most regal of flowers. And I went back to Harvard Yard, where there were thousands of people. I worked my way through the crowd to the procession. The flower was my ruse, my way to get in there, but it was also my expression of admiration.

As the procession passed, there she was. I stepped out and handed her the flower. And she reached out her hand immediately, she didn't miss a beat; she just took the flower and kept walking. The rhythm of it was wonderful. And this momentary encounter meant a tremendous amount to me. My ability to give back to her something of what she'd given me, and to see her, was heavenly. It really was.

The next summer I decided to take a trip to the Southwest to photograph. In large part, of course, I was inspired by O'Keeffe's paintings of the desert. So I wrote to her. I told her I was the person who had given her the flower that day a year before. She was already famous for being reclusive and not responding to fan letters, but a giant card arrived, handwritten by O'Keeffe, which said I should call her. I did, and I spent the day with her, which was wonderful. But I forgot that entire episode until the book was almost done, and the memory came back, like a bubble rising to the surface. Obviously the book had started then, in that moment.

I.S. What else set you on this track?

N.C. In 1983, after publishing Alfred Stieglitz: Photographs & Writings with the National Gallery of Art, I was even more curious about O'Keeffe. I began to delve into her work and in the process started seeing references to paintings that were unknown to me. So, in 1984, I made a trip to the Beinecke library at Yale, where there is extensive unpublished documentation which O'Keeffe donated. Looking through the newspaper clippings about her show, and the exhibition lists, I realized there were hundreds of paintings that were not known, and that a great many of them were flower paintings. I'd only seen 15 or so of them before. I was fascinated to know where the rest might be. I felt that these paintings, assembled together, might have an amazing cumulative impact.

One of the wonderful discoveries for me as I located the paintings, and I hope it will be the same for the viewer of the book, is to be able to see the evolution of an idea, or a theme, or a flower, through a succession of works. Three paintings of petunias from 1925, for example, fitted together so naturally when they were assembled that it was like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle falling into place. I'm told that O'Keeffe tended to work in streaks. So these might have been done one right after the other, or within a matter of weeks. She tended to get hooked on a certain flower and follow it through.

I.S. How did you approach the difficult issues of color, scale, and fidelity in the book?

N.C. We tried to maintain relative scale. Size and scale are so important in these paintings, and we tried to preserve some sense of them. We knew that the book would stand or fall on its color, because these paintings are as much about color as they are about their subject matter. Of course, in translating from one medium to another, you are making something different. Because your starting point is the photographic transparency, the quality of the photography is crucial. So we commissioned one photographer, Steven Sloman, to travel to 65 different locations and photograph almost all of the paintings. Very few people realize how virtuoso O'Keeffe's technique was, and how varied; Sloman tailored the lighting, the exposure, and the development of each transparency to render the particular qualities of color, texture, and surface of each painting. Next, we went to the Nissha Printing Company, in Kyoto, Japan. Not only are they technically unsurpassed but they bring to their work a sensitivity finely attuned to esthetic subtleties. I think they felt a real affinity for O'Keeffe's work, which is a kind of confirmation of her own affinity for the arts of China and Japan throughout her life. In many ways, there is a lot of Kyoto in the book.

I.S. In addition to your research, what other ways did you learn what you needed to know?

N.C. First of all we had the privilege of working with Doris Bry, who is the foremost authority on O'Keeffe and who was O'Keeffe's representative, assistant, and close friend from the mid '40s to the mid '70s. She has an unparalleled knowledge of O'Keeffe's color and form, and she has an extraordinary eye. Miss Bry was important to this book at all stages, from being a consulting editor, to helping us find a few key unknown paintings, to working with us in Kyoto on supervision of the printing. In addition, we were fortunate to have the benefit of the participation of nearly all parties connected with O'Keeffe—relatives, her estate, as well as galleries, museums, and of course the private collectors.

I.S. It strikes me that in addition to the obvious erotic content of this work there are other major explorations going on here—the exploration of abstracting, for example, particularly in questions of scale, cropping, zooming, enlargement. These are also photographic questions.

N.C. Indeed. Part of the brilliance of the work is how O'Keeffe synthesized so many different things in a unified, seamless way. Perhaps one reason why she ultimately left this part of her work behind was her frustration at the superficiality of people's reactions to it. And it is too bad, because the paintings have many layers of meaning. But these are easily missed, partly because flowers as a subject are easy to admire in a superficial way. But what could be more difficult than making paintings of flowers that are as deep as flowers really are?

O'Keeffe incorporated what was going on in the new painting that was being exhibited by Stieglitz, both the American and the European avant-garde. Perhaps above all she transmuted into painting the innovations of the photographers of the Stieglitz circle. The work isn't a precursor of photorealist painting; it is brilliantly and uniquely a synthesis, taking photographic concepts and incorporating them in a painterly way. O'Keeffe herself said that flowers are relatively small, and if she were to paint them as she saw them, she would paint them small, and no one would notice them. So she said to herself that she'd paint them big, so that everyone would have to notice them, even busy New Yorkers. That was a photographic idea—or a cinematic idea as well. In fact, to the word “photographic” we should add the word “cinematic,” because she used a number of cinematic techniques too. I don't know whether or not she was conscious of them as such, but you see montage, zoom, enlargement, cropping, fade-ins, and fade-outs over and over again in O'Keeffe's paintings.

I.S. I'm fascinated by how she reversed the relationship between photography and painting that was so prevalent then. In those days of photography, much of the medium's conventions were deeply influenced by painting; O'Keeffe seems to have gone in the opposite direction. (She was not the first to do this, of course, it had been going on since the invention of photography, as Peter Galassi demonstrated in his exhibition “Before Photography: Painting and the Invention of Photography” at the Museum of Modem Art in 1981.) O'Keeffe is another painter who took from photography. But there's something like antiobjectivity in these pictures. One almost wants to call this expressionist work. I'm not going to go that far, but this work obviously puts a premium on subjectivity. However, you also sometimes get the sense of an enormous emptiness. Like many images of passion, the pictures may not necessarily be made because of what is there, but because of the desire for what isn't.

N.C. Certainly in both Stieglitz's photographs of O'Keeffe and in O'Keeffe's paintings of the time, a critical element is desire. And I do think there's something sad about these works, as well as the great passion and love that they show. They're about the desire to possess and inhabit the loved one, and of the ultimate inability to do so. But they are also about the power and the strength of desire, and its disappearance. A comment of the research editor on the book, Sandy Arrowsmith, I think is fascinating—she said that the images of skulls that O'Keeffe painted in the 1930s reminded her of Stieglitz's face. And it's true. The bone beneath the skin in Stieglitz was so prominent, so strong, that he had a skull-like cast to his face, especially as he got older. And he was already 60 when he married O'Keeffe, in 1924.

I.S. Flowers themselves, of course, can be associated with death. Did Stieglitz take pictures of flowers, and did O'Keeffe herself take photographs?

N.C. I don't know of a single flower picture that Stieglitz made. Otherwise, the two worked on many of the same motifs. O'Keeffe did take a handful of photographs, but only after Stieglitz died, as far as 1 know. I don't know of any photographs of flowers. Nor did she paint from photographs—she used real flowers, artificial flowers, and memory. I've always found it poignant, in fact, that her last great flower series of the early 1930s was painted for the most part from artificial flowers. Those paintings are the ones that begin to combine flowers with animal skulls.

The skull paintings are the way O'Keeffe first really began to try to express her ecstasy over the New Mexico desert when she went to Taos for the first time, in 1929. Some of her greatest flower paintings are from that first summer in New Mexico: Black Hollyhock, Blue Larkspur and White Flower. When she went back to Lake George, in upstate New York, she felt she needed to bring something of New Mexico with her. She had found the bleached bones lying in the desert, and for her they were the perfect symbols of the place. So she sent them back in a wooden barrel. (Stieglitz, incidentally, was furious over the shipping bill.) She stuffed the crevices of the barrel with the calico and silk roses that the Hispanic people of the Southwest put on gravestones. And the story she told is that back at Lake George one day, someone knocked at the door. She was sitting looking at these skulls and flowers but she got up to answer, and absentmindedly stuck one of the flowers in the eye socket of the skull. There was that shock of recognition. As she said, the rose in the eye looked pretty fine.

The skulls were the beginning of the desert as her primary motif, which eventually more or less replaced the flowers in her iconography. The last flower painting is actually in 1950, but the flowers as a body of concentrated work really end in 1932. Which is when O'Keeffe had a breakdown, and her life changed. That change altered the subject, the style, and the emotion of her painting.

I.S. Did her use of color change with her changes?

N.C. In the flower paintings between 1918 and 1932, O'Keeffe explored just about every imaginable color and every color combination. She was a great chromatic innovator, I think; her color sense just seemed to explode from her. The flower paintings are as much about color as they are about anything else. O'Keeffe herself said that she didn't know whether it was color or the flower that she was trying to convey.

In the flower paintings, she went to Mars and back, colorwise. In the white flowers of 1930 to 1932, and particularly in The White Calico Flower, 1931, and The White Trumpet Flower, 1932, it's as if she went beyond color—as if the logical end of all color exploration were whiteness. There are some brilliant black and white paintings from the mid '20s; the great series of three “Black Petunia & White Morning-Glory” paintings is in blacks and whites. (They also deal with photography, by the way—they're almost a meditation on the essence of photography.) And it's interesting that she began her mature work in black and white, by working in charcoal. I'm speaking about the abstractions of 1915 and 1916.

One of my favorite O'Keeffe quotes is her remark about Stieglitz having a much more refined color sense than she did. Of course, he only photographed in black and white. But I think for anyone who is a photographer, or for anyone who draws, or is a printmaker, there is that appreciation of the infinite gradations of tone from pure black to pure white. Stieglitz, of course, knew the tonal scale as well as anyone. And O'Keeffe loved it too.

I.S. Do you think Stieglitz disagreed with O'Keeffe's turn away from the flowers as a focus? Or do you think that in a way he liked her cooling her own expression of such powerful eroticism, so that the world would experience her sexuality through the frame of his pictures, and through his image of their relationship?

N.C. Clearly Stieglitz admired and nurtured O'Keeffe's art and creativity and obviously he loved her madly. But either as part of loving her, or in spite of it, he also exploited her and felt ambivalent about her success; he was both responsible for and in a way dependent on her success. She was his star artist and his star model—that had to cause problems of ego and independence for both of them.

At his best, Stieglitz was a great artist and impresario; at his worst, a windbag and a wheeler-dealer. And when he met O'Keeffe, in 1916, he was at the darkest point in his life. Many of the European artists he had exhibited were embroiled in World War I. Financially, he was virtually ruined. He had to close his 291 gallery. (In fact his first exhibition of O'Keeffe was his last exhibition at the gallery.) There were 37 subscribers left to the magazine he published, Camera Work; he sold hundreds of back copies of the magazine, as well as of the review 291, to a scrap-paper dealer for ten cents a pound. He later turned that into a great story about the purity of art, into a kind of dadaist gesture, but there was also a good deal of sheer desperation in it. The portraits he took from 1914 to 1917 reflect his state of mind—they are as dark and brooding as Beethoven's late quartets. They are works of great beauty and sadness.

Also, Stieglitz had been married for 20-odd years to a woman he no longer loved. Then O'Keeffe came into his life. And of course it transformed him, inspired him, he fell in love with her. And she fell in love with him, too. And she needed him, too: she was an art teacher wondering whether she was going to spend the rest of her life in Texas and South Carolina, unknown and poor. Each fulfilled what the other needed. It was a dovetail joining.

So when Stieglitz adored O'Keeffe through his photographs, he was both celebrating and advertising his love for her. He broadcast this illicit relationship to the world and invited the public to look on as voyeur. And she willingly allowed that to be done. Revealing to the world your most intimate feelings and experiences is like holding out a bottle of springwater to someone dying of thirst in the desert—people are naturally going to reach out for it. I've felt for a long time that O'Keeffe was the precursor of the media star of today, of the whole cult of personality that is so much a part of our society. She became the Greta Garbo of the art world. Both she and Garbo incited the public's fascination and then retreated into their exile. In a way, Stieglitz's pictures of O'Keeffe are the antecedents of Playboy, People, and Entertainment Tonight all rolled into one. And Georgie and Al were the Liz and Dick of their day.

People, incidentally, reviewed the book. They called it “ostentatious perfectionism.” I loved that phrase—I can't think of better words to describe the work itself. Or to describe flowers themselves.

If in the early years of their relationship Stieglitz liberated and fulfilled O'Keeffe in many ways, by the 1930s I think O'Keeffe realized that for her self-preservation and her growth as a woman and as an artist, she had to spend most of her time away from him. In the last public statement of her life, in the preface to the book of photographs of her by Stieglitz, published in 1978, O'Keeffe summarized her relationship to Stieglitz as follows: “His power to destroy was as destructive as his power to build—the extremes went together. I have experienced both and survived. . . . There was a constant grinding like the ocean. It was as if something hot, dark, and destructive was hitched to the highest, brightest star.” And there you are.

I.S. And there we are. People magazine's phrase “ostentatious perfectionism” is kind of perfect because it covers the spectrum of what we've been talking about. Sometimes, I must admit, with some of O'Keeffe's lesser works, there is a splash, but not the juice that makes your eyes want to drink. These weaker, more self-satisfied paintings are the kind of O'Keeffes that could end up as sheet patterns. But the word “ostentation” also covers the idea that everything is on display. The braveness of emotion, of color, of picture-making that we see in these paintings is because she gave everything. And everything can sometimes be an emptying out so complete that it looks deceptively like nothing. To me, that is what happens in the most ostentatiously high moment of the paintings in this book: the moment when you see her going beyond all expectation is not all the pinks and flame reds and purples, and is, in fact, the blacks and whites you were talking about earlier.

N.C. Stieglitz always referred to O'Keeffe in terms of her whiteness. But he was also fascinated throughout his life by black, especially women in black. And O'Keeffe almost always dressed in black—or in white. Interestingly, after attempting to interpret nearly the entire spectrum of O'Keeffe's color in the course of printing the book, we found that the white paintings were the most difficult of all to reproduce. They were the ones that were the most elusive. It was almost as if they were resisting us emotionally, making us work to get them. When I was handed the first copy of the book in Kyoto I was astonished that anything that looked so simple and peaceful and beautiful as black and white could have caused so much headache and heartache. And it somehow seemed a perfect metaphor of O'Keeffe's world from beginning to end.

I.S. And of course of our world.