1950–1959: New Mexico
In the 1950s, O’Keeffe’s art was no longer considered avant-garde: the spotlight had shifted to other artists, mostly those who painted in abstract expressionism. Although she still exhibited at the Downtown Gallery in Greenwich Village, New York, her work was overshadowed. However, O’Keeffe no longer needed to exhibit her artwork every year to support herself, and she therefore spent longer periods of time in New Mexico, eventually living there permanently. With her duties to manage Stieglitz’s estate and her responsibilities in managing her own work, O’Keeffe spent much time dealing with agents and other managers. Furthermore, she received much criticism for the manner in which she executed Stieglitz’s will, scattering his collection across the United States in major institutions while he had preferred leaving the collection together as a tribute to modern American art. Realizing that this was not possible, O’Keeffe attempted to distribute the paintings in a wise manner, choosing diverse galleries and museums.
Not surprisingly, O’Keeffe was left with little time to paint, and therefore did not produce a large output during the 1950s. The paintings she did produce focused on a different subject matter than her previous works: primarily trees. Works such as Winter Trees (1950) portrayed trees with a new spiritual dimension. O’Keeffe also began to catalog her own work and, while looking back at her past productions, produced many paintings which mirrored older ones. From the Plains (1919) became brighter in From the Plains II (1954). O’Keeffe was clearly aging, however, as was her eyesight, and her new work reflected this different perception.
When O’Keeffe had moments to herself, she was satisfied with her greater isolation and began to produce art recognizing her own patterns of inspiration and impulse. Whereas she had earlier felt the pressure to constantly produce art, now she became more relaxed and waited for ideas to germinate and grow naturally in her mind. After conceiving a painting, she would make a preparatory drawing, and then searched for and prepared the appropriate colors. She painted continuously once she had the correct colors, and rarely stopped. Even for larger paintings, which took multiple days, she typically remained isolated until the painting was finished. Although many of her paintings satisfied her, she struggled with a few, leaving them unfinished or constantly reworking them.
On the whole, O’Keeffe’s painting had been a reflection of her life, her work coming from her inner need to express herself. The best record of her life is her art and the visible differences in emotion that characterize different pieces. O’Keeffe’s art confronted her own experiences and her memories of these experiences. The 1950s were a time, then, during which Georgia looked back to her earlier works and built upon them. All her work, however, remained guided by her spirituality and formed by her distinct use of color and line.
During the spring, when dust storms were common in New Mexico, O’Keeffe frequently traveled to foreign places such as Mexico and Europe. In Mexico, she found much akin to her surroundings in New Mexico, but was nevertheless enthralled by the beauty of the environment she found there. For many years, artists were drawn to Europe, especially to France, but O’Keeffe never felt the urge to travel there repeatedly, being instead fascinated by the environment in Mexico. During one trip to Europe in 1953, however, she toured the famous art museums of France and Spain. She typically looked at other artists’ works with a highly critical eye, so she was surprised to enjoy the paintings of Goya. She identified with the Catholic spiritualism of Spain, seeing its resemblance in New Mexico. She was even drawn to return to Spain, but never returned to France. Her other travel experiences included Asia, with stops in Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Afterward, she continued her journeys around the world by stopping in India, parts of the Middle East, and then Rome, where she found everything to be vulgar, especially the cherubs in the Vatican.
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