The enigmatic aura surrounding the iconic painter, Georgia O’Keeffe, continues to confound scholars and enthusiasts alike, casting her as both one of the most photographed and yet profoundly mysterious figures of the 20th century.
Questions swirl like a tempest: Was she an ever-watchful guardian of her own image, turning down the illustrious Louvre? Did her canvas harbor more than just vibrant blooms, perhaps veiled symbolism? Did the relentless attention that enveloped her art bewilder her?
Delving into the recesses of her personal life, one cannot escape the intrigue of her rumored romantic entanglement with a man 58 years her junior—should this be lauded or decried?
The exhibition “Georgia O’Keeffe, A Life Well Lived
Photographs by Malcolm Varon,” gracing the hallowed halls of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico until October 31, endeavors to unravel these enigmas through an exclusive collection of hitherto unpublished photographs. These captivating glimpses capture O’Keeffe in the twilight of her remarkable life.
The inception of these portraits itself speaks volumes about her reclusive disposition. In 1977, a writer from Art News ventured to craft a retrospective on the artist’s life. However, upon his arrival at the Ghost Ranch compound in Abiquiú, New Mexico, O’Keeffe confessed her inability to provide current photographs. Enter photographer Malcolm Varon, a local resident, who embarked on a mission that would result in over 70 vivid images of O’Keeffe, set against the backdrop of her New Mexico existence. These photographs stand as among the rare glimpses into the artist’s later years, as she passed away in 1986 at the age of 98.
Varon’s role in this narrative was not that of a confidant but rather a professional on assignment, meticulously cataloging O’Keeffe’s oeuvre for an exhibit at the Guggenheim Museum. Yet, their interaction transcended the professional sphere, with Varon’s lens capturing the artist in moments of unguarded authenticity. These images unveil an O’Keeffe marked not by iconic aloofness but by an inviting demeanor, a poised posture, and a hidden wellspring of mirth.
The significance of these photographs extends beyond their subject
for they are bathed in vibrant color—a rarity in a predominantly monochromatic sea of O’Keeffe portraits. This chromatic departure even echoed in O’Keeffe’s attire, as she seldom strayed from her signature black and white robes. She once quipped that embracing color would leave her with no time for her cherished art.
The stories surrounding O’Keeffe often depict a no-nonsense, reserved persona. However, Varon’s lens paints an alternative narrative, a testament to his unique photographic approach. Rather than passively capturing candid moments, he coaxed organic emotional responses by providing directions, thereby revealing the authentic essence beneath the public facade.
Surprisingly, O’Keeffe was no stranger to the camera herself. Contrary to her perceived reticence, she became the subject of numerous photographic portraits during her lifetime. Her husband, Alfred Stieglitz, immortalized her in over 300 photographs spanning two decades, including a series of daring and contentious nudes. O’Keeffe, in retrospect, marveled at viewers’ responses to these provocative works.
Beyond Stieglitz, the obsession with unraveling the real Georgia O’Keeffe persisted
LIFE magazine graced its cover with her presence in 1968, captured within the confines of her New Mexico abode. In 1979, the irrepressible Andy Warhol rendered her image in a series of diamond dust prints.
The intricate dance between O’Keeffe and photography played a pivotal role in shaping her public persona, especially in her later years. Varon surmises that her subdued public image stemmed from her desire to distance herself from Stieglitz’s provocative nudes and the ensuing public scrutiny. Her quest was to shed the sexualized connotations and allow her art to shine untarnished.
In retrospect, her enduring mystique as a recluse and an icon was, perhaps, a byproduct of her elevated celebrity status—a persona she meticulously crafted to deflect attention from herself and refocus it on the profound depths of her artistic creations.