The Real Georgia O’Keeffe: The Artist Reveals Herself in Vintage Documentary Clips

It seems to me that Geor­gia O’Keeffe tends to get pegged as a region­al South­west­ern painter or as the woman who paint­ed close-ups of flow­ers that look sus­pi­cious­ly like female anato­my, or both—a casu­al­ty of mar­ket­ing for the dorm-room set. As in many a stereo­type, there’s some truth in both over-sim­pli­fi­ca­tions, but O’Keeffe was, of course, much more, as she was more than the pas­sion­ate younger wife and fre­quent sub­ject of Alfred Stieglitz, though that is also a true and love­ly sto­ry. Like any artist—like any human being, perhaps—Georgia O’Keeffe does not reduce into a sin­gle por­trait.

But amid all the sim­plis­tic pop­u­lar­iza­tions of O’Keeffe, it’s nice to encounter her afresh as just her­self, speak­ing direct­ly to the cam­era about her life and work. In the doc­u­men­tary clip at the top, we’re treat­ed to sev­er­al min­utes of vin­tage footage of O’Keeffe in her New Mex­i­co sur­round­ings, inter­cut with inter­views with the much old­er artist rem­i­nisc­ing. The inter­view was shot in 1977, when O’Keeffe was near­ly 90, and for some rea­son, this image of her—as an aged, white-haired woman—also seems inscribed in the pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion. Per­haps this is because she only became famous some­what lat­er in life, and her fame only increased as she grew old­er.

In the clip above, see O’Keeffe dis­cuss anoth­er rarely-dis­cussed aspect of her career: her paint­ings of New York City, where she lived on and off for over two decades and where she fell in love with Stieglitz and joined his mod­ernist inner cir­cle. One rea­son that O’Keeffe’s New York paint­ings get neglect­ed is, per­haps, that the most rec­og­niz­able NYC scenes tend to look a bit dat­ed and gener­ic, while the best of them do what all of her best work does—simplify the sub­ject, elim­i­nate super­flu­ous detail, turn the moment into time­less form and col­or. Per­haps anoth­er rea­son O’Keeffe gets pigeon­holed as an artist of local col­or or veiled fem­i­nin­i­ty is one that she sug­gests her­self. She is said to have remarked, “The men liked to put me down as the best woman painter. I think I’m one of the best painters.”

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the full O’Keeffe doc­u­men­tary is not avail­able online, but these clips pro­vide ample insight into the reclu­sive artist’s mind and method. For more face-time with Geor­gia O’Keeffe, check out this short film of the 92-year-old artist show­ing off her beloved New Mex­i­co land­scapes.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Ansel Adams Reveals His Cre­ative Process in 1958 Doc­u­men­tary

Alfred Stieglitz: The Elo­quent Eye, a Reveal­ing Look at “The Father of Mod­ern Pho­tog­ra­phy”

Gertrude Stein Recites ‘If I Told Him: A Com­plet­ed Por­trait of Picas­so’

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Larry E Lawson says:

    I met Geor­gia on the grounds of Univ of Texas at El Paso, UTEP in 1 975. I think she was about 88 at that time. I was sta­tioned at Ft Bliss and tak­ing col­lege prep class­es there. She was remark­ably ener­gized and was so inter­est­ing. It was indeed an hon­or to meet her and talk art and paint­ing. Lau­ren janzen and James Drake, two oth­er artists from El Paso’s Art Dimen­sions Stu­dio was also present. I rent­ed stu­dio time there and com­plet­ed sev­er­al intaglio and oth­er edi­tions there. Geor­gia dis­played gen­uine inter­est in what we were doing at that time. I believe Lau­ren has also passed and James Drake is still active and wide­ly known in the print­mak­ing world.

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