Georgia O'Keeffe

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I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn't say any other way — things I had no words for.
I have things in my head that are not like what anyone taught me — shapes and ideas so near to me,so natural to my way of being and thinking.

Georgia O'Keeffe (15 November 1887 - 6 March 1986) was an American modernist painter. O'Keeffe has been a major figure in American art since the 1920s. She is chiefly known for paintings in which she synthesizes abstraction and representation in paintings of flowers, rocks, shells, animal bones and landscapes. Her paintings present crisply contoured forms that are replete with subtle tonal transitions of varying colors, and she often transformed her subject matter into powerful abstract images.

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  • (1926) School and things that painters have taught me even keep me from painting as I want to (during 1916). I decided I was a very stupid fool not to be at least paint as I wanted to and say what I wanted to when I painted as that seemed to be the only thing I could do that didn’t concern anybody but myself.. ..I found that I could say things with colour and shapes that I couldn’t say in any other way things that I had no words for.
    • foreword in the catalogue of her show at the Anderson Galleries in New York, 1926, written by O'Keeffe on request of Stieglitz


  • (1930) I know I cannot paint a flower. I can not paint the sun on the desert on a bright summer morning but maybe in terms of paint color I can convey to you my experience of the flower or the experience that makes the flower of significance to me at that particular time.
    • Letter to William Milliken (1930); quoted in Portrait of an Artist: A Biography of Georgia O'Keeffe, p. 128 (1981) by Laurie Lisle


  • (1939) A flower is relatively small. Everyone has many associations with a flower - the idea of flowers. You put out your hand to touch the flower – lean forward to smell it – maybe touch it with your lips almost without thinking – or give it to someone to please them. Still – in a way – nobody sees a flower – really – it is so small – we haven’t time – and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.. ..’So I said to myself – I’ll paint what I see – what the flower is to me but I’ll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it – I will make even busy New Yorkers take time to see what I see of flowers: ‘Well – I made you take time to look at what I saw and when you took time to really notice my flower, you hung all your own associations with flowers on my flower and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower – and I don’t.
    • text in the Exhibition catalogue: An American place, 1944


  • (1944) So, probably.. .. when I started painting the pelvis bones I was most interested in the holes in the bones – what I saw through them- particularly the blue from holding them up in the sun against the sky as one is apt to do when one seems to have more sky than earth in one’s world.. ..they were most beautiful against the Blue – that Blue that will always be there as it is now after all man’s destruction is finished.
    • her contribution in the Exhibition Catalogue: An American Place, 1944


  • (1974) The meaning of a word – to me – is not as exact as the meaning of a colour. Colours and shapes make a more definite statement than words. I write this (1974, fh) because such odd things have been done about me with words. I have often been told what to paint.. ..I make this effort (in words) because no one else can know how my paintings happen.
    • foreword of ‘Some Memories of Drawings’, Georgia O’Keeffe, Vikingpress, New York 1976


  • (1974) I don’t really know where I got my artists idea. The scraps of what I remember do not explain to me where it came from. I only know that by this time (the eight grade’s year, fh) it was definitely settled in my mind (going to be an artist, fh)…
    • Some Memories of Drawings, by Georgia O’Keeffe, Vikingpress, New York 1976


  • (1974) On the way I stood a moment looking out across the marshes with tall cattails, a patch of water, more marsh, then the woods with a few birch trees shining white at the edge on beyond. In the darkness it all looked just like I felt. Wet and swampy and gloomy, very gloomy. In the morning I painted it. My memory of it is that it was probably my best painting that summer (Art Students League, New York 1913/14, fh).
    • Some Memories of Drawings, by Georgia O’Keeffe, Vikingpress, New York 1976


  • (1974) Those perilous climbings (with her sister Claudia in the Palo Duro Canyon, 1916, fh) were frightening, but it was wonderful to me and not like anything I had known before. The fright of the day was still with me in the night and I would often dream that the foot of my bed rose straight up into the air – then just as it was to fall I would wake up. Many drawings came from days like that, and later some oil paintings.
    • Some Memories of Drawings, by Georgia O’Keeffe, Vikingpress, New York 1976


  • (1974) Bement (her art teacher, fh) told me things to read. He told me of exhibitions to go and see (around 1917, fh).. ..the two books that he told me to get were Jeromy Eddy ‘Cubists and Post-impressionism’ and Kandinsky ‘On the Spiritual of Art’.. ..It was some time before I really begun to use the ideas. I didn’t start at until I was down in Carolina – alone – thinking things out for myself.
    • Some Memories of Drawings, by Georgia O’Keeffe, Vikingpress, New York 1976


  • (1974) Later I had two green ones (alligator pears, fh) – not so perfect. I painted them several times (around 1920, fh) when the men didn’t think much of what I was doing. They were all discussing Cézanne, with long involved remarks about the ‘plastic quality’ of his form and colour. I was an outsider. My colour and form were not acceptable. It had nothing to do with Cézanne or anything else. I didn’t understand what they were talking about why one colour was better than another.. ..Years later when I finally got to Cézanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire in the south of France, I remember sitting there thinking, ‘How could they attach all those analytical remarks to anything he did with that mountain?’ All those entire words piled on top of that poor little mountain seemed too much.
    • Some Memories of Drawings, by Georgia O’Keeffe, Vikingpress, New York 1976


  • (1974) The clean clear colours were in my head (of a Shanty farm, fh) But one day as I looked at the brown burned wood of the Shanty, I thought ‘I can paint one of those dismal-coloured paintings like the men. I think just for fun I will try – all low-toned and dreary with the tree besides the door.’ In my next show (around 1923, fh) ‘The Shanty’ went up. The men seemed to approve of it. They seemed to think that maybe I was beginning to paint.. ..that was my only low-toned dismal-coloured painting.’
    • Some Memories of Drawings, by Georgia O’Keeffe, Vikingpress, New York 1976


  • (1974) I painted ‘the Shelton with Sunspots’ (New York) in 1926. I went out one morning to look at it before I started to work and there was the optical illusion of a bite out of one side of the tower made by the sun, with sunspots against the building and against the csky. I made that painting beginning at the upper left and went off at the lower right without going back.
    • Some Memories of Drawings, by Georgia O’Keeffe, Vikingpress, New York 1976


  • (1974) I find that I have painted my life, things happening in my life – without knowing. After painting the shell and shingle (1926, fh) many times, I did a misty landscape of the mountain across the lake, and the mountain became the shape of the shingle – the mountain I saw out my window, the shingle on the table in my room. I did not notice that they were alike for a long time after they were painted.
    • Some Memories of Drawings, by Georgia O’Keeffe, Vikingpress, New York 1976


  • (1974) After I had been in Canada painting the wide white barns along the Saint Lawrence river, I thought how different the life of the Canadian farmer was from life in Cebolla. So I painted (in 1945, fh) the Cebolla church which is so typical of that difficult life. I have always thought it one of my very good paintings, though its message is not as pleasant as many of the others.
    • Some Memories of Drawings, by Georgia O’Keeffe, Vikingpress, New York 1976


  • (1974) There are people who have made me see shapes – and others I thought of a great deal, even people I have loved, who make me see nothing. I have painted portraits that to me are almost photographic. I remember hesitating to show the paintings, they looked so real to me. But they have passed into the world as abstractions - no one seeing what they are.
    • Some Memories of Drawings, by Georgia O’Keeffe, Vikingpress, New York 1976


  • (1974) ..I don’t remember where I picked up the head – or the hollyhock. Flowers were planted among the vegetables in the garden between the house and the hills and I probably picked the hollyhock one day as I walked past. My paintings sometimes grow by pieces from what is around.. ..I have used these things to say what is to me the wideness and wonder of the world as I live in it.
    • Some Memories of Drawings, by Georgia O’Keeffe, Vikingpress, New York 1976


  • (1974) It is surprising to me to see how many people separate the objective from the abstract. Objective painting is not good painting unless it is good in the abstract sense. A hill or tree cannot make a good painting just because it is a hill or a tree. It is lines and colours put together so that they say something. For me that is the very basis of painting. The abstraction is often the most definite form for the intangible thing in myself that I can only clarify in paint.
    • Some Memories of Drawings, by Georgia O’Keeffe, Vikingpress, New York 1976


  • (1974)The unexplainable thing in nature that makes me feel the world is big fat beyond my understanding – to understand maybe by trying to put it into form. To find the feeling of infinity on the horizon line or just over the next hill.
    • Some Memories of Drawings, by Georgia O’Keeffe, Vikingpress, New York 1976


  • I hate flowers — I paint them because they're cheaper than models and they don't move!
    • As quoted in Portrait of an Artist: A Biography of Georgia O'Keeffe (1981) by Laurie Lisle, p. 180

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  • I feel that a real living form is the natural result of the individual's effort to create the living thing out of the adventure of his spirit into the unknown — where it has experienced something — felt something — it has not understood — and from that experience comes the desire to make the unknown — known ... I in some way feel that everyone is born with it ... but that with most of humanity it becomes blasted..one way or another.


  • I have things in my head that are not like what anyone taught me — shapes and ideas so near to me, so natural to my way of being and thinking..


  • Mr. Stieglitz: If you remember for a week why you liked my charcoals that Anita Pollitzer showed you and what they said to you — I would like to know if you want to tell me. I don't mind asking — you can do as you please about answering. Of course I know you will do as you please. I make them just to express myself — things I feel and want to say — haven't words for. You probably know without my saying it that I ask because I wonder if I got over to anyone what I wanted to say.


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