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January 18, 2019

How to Look at Art: The most inspiring woman artist ever

Wouldn’t you? Wouldn’t you paint if you could? I never found a person who could teach me how to paint. They could tell me how to paint their paintings but they couldn’t tell me how to paint mine.”

This is Georgia O’Keefe ( 1887-1986 ), the first American modernist painter. Tate Modern gallery holds a major retrospective of her work in London until October 30. A farmers’ daughter, Georgia resolved to become a painter when she was 12; she remembered that very moment right into her old age. After school, she went to an art college in New York, and after that, to teach art in a Texas school. There, her art changed.

“I put the pictures I have done over the years in front of me and noticed all of them were done to please other people, and none to please me. So, I cleared it all away and started again. I decided to put on paper what nobody taught me.” She produced a series of new abstract drawings and sent them to her friend in New York. The friend took them to a top art impresario, Alfred Stieglitz, who exhibited them in his gallery (later, Stieglitz and Georgia got married).

Abstract but deeply human, the work blew traditional art out of the water and made O’Keefe a star. What is O’Keefe’s genius? It is her ability to abstract forms. She called it ‘a dream-thing I do’.

Sketching a natural form first, a landscape, for example, she would abstract it until her new bio-morphic forms represented a powerful emotion, as if to say, ‘This is not the world you know, but this is the world you think you know.’ She, like Russian artist Kandinsky once said, did not emulate nature but used it as a springboard to convey its ideas and emotions.

Georgia created a new visual language, and her audacity to embrace the new keeps inspiring us today. In 1929, in search of ‘space’, she went to New Mexico desert and was enchanted by it. There, she created some of her most stunning paintings.  

She painted some of its landscapes over and over again. Each painting was an experimentation, an exploration, going a step further. Becoming a ‘spirit of the place’, a ‘high priestess of the dessert’, she died at the age of 98, quick-witted and passionate about art to the end.


Alla Tkachuk founded Mobile Art School in Kenya. Become ‘Kenya Patron of the Arts’, contact Alla for more information on [email protected]

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