Through heteronormative and gendered interpretations of her artwork, Georgia O’Keeffe’s queerness has been nearly obliterated from art history
It is only in more recent years that any serious attention has begun to be paid to the work of women artists and even more recently that I’ve seen exhibitions exploring work by queer artists. In fact, the work one of the best known and most accomplished artists of the twentieth century, Georgia O'Keeffe, has been increasingly documented, while her queer identity has not.
Historically, O’Keeffe’s work, life and relationships were viewed through a distinctly gendered lense – something that O’Keeffe did not support. She once said: “Men put me down as the best woman painter… instead I think I’m one of the best painters.” Through heteronormative and gendered interpretations of her artwork, O’Keeffe’s queerness has been nearly obliterated from art history.
‘Queerness’ is an inherently complex term that continuously changes to fit with cultural and political developments. For some, what is queer about an image is not exactly what it depicts, but instead what becomes visible in the work when looked at through a queer lens.
To take into consideration O’Keeffe’s queerness when exploring her art, we are able to reveal elements of her work that have otherwise been hidden, especially as her work has consistently been viewed through a heterosexual lens.
It is said that when photographer Alfred Stieglitz first saw O’Keeffe’s works, he pronounced: “At last! A woman on paper!” setting in motion a strictly gendered and subjective approach to O’Keeffe as an artist.
This gendered statement spread like wildfire, and by the time of O’Keeffe’s first exhibition in 1916, critics such as Henry Tyrell were pronouncing statements such as: “Miss O’Keeffe looks within herself and draws with unconscious naïveté what purports to be the innermost unfolding of a girl’s being, like the germinating of a flower.”
In this 1916 exhibition of O’Keeffe’s abstract charcoal drawings, there were absolutely no flowers. In fact, O’Keeffe’s first flower paintings, Red Canna and Inside Red Canna, were created in 1919, almost immediately after Stieglitz released his nude photographs of O’Keeffe to the public.
From this point, Stieglitz and O’Keeffe engaged in a tumultuous relationship that would span the rest of their lives. Stieglitz’s photographs reference ideas of Madonna, Venus, dancer, and temptress – beginning with photographs of O’Keeffe’s hands and slowly moving down her body. Through these images, Stieglitz manipulated interpretations of O’Keeffe as artist and woman, to object and muse of heterosexual desire.
“Men put me down as the best woman painter… instead I think I’m one of the best painters.” – Georgia O'Keeffe
Almost everything written about O’Keeffe during the early 1920s regarded her work as distinctly feminine (and, unquestionably, heterosexual). However, it is also at this time that O’Keeffe first retreated to the iconic Luhan ranch in New Mexico along with her companion, and future lover, Beck Strand.
Mabel Luhan, Beck, and O’Keeffe, while all married, were part of a circle who rejected the traditional heteronormative relationships and had several affairs with both men and women. This new environment proved to be a source of endless inspiration for O’Keeffe where, physically free from Stieglitz (who was back in New York waiting for her return), she embraced the ability to refocus her identity and career.
While in New Mexico, O’Keeffe became close to Mable’s husband, Tony Luhan, and he introduced her to the Puebloans of New Mexico. In Puebloan culture, gender and sexuality were not considered rigidly linked. Within the rich philosophy of Native American New Mexico, men with ‘effeminate’ physical attributes were known by names with ‘feminine’ associations, such as ‘Mujerado’ (loosely meaning ‘womaned’), ‘Go-qoy-mo’ (meaning ‘effeminate person’), and ‘Kowina’ (meaning ‘men-women’).
These individuals were considered extremely important members of the Native American New Mexico community, and O’Keeffe saw that in the Puebloan culture, fluid notions of gender and sexuality were not only accepted but also respected.
”The apparent invisibility of O’Keeffe’s queer identity is part of the long history of non-heteronormative art, in which there has been a strong sense of denial – until now.”
This led O’Keeffe to paint and draw katsina tithu or katsina dolls. However, the cultural traditions in New Mexico influenced not only her work, but also her personal life, as she explored her sexuality through affairs with (among others) Tony Luhan, Beck Strand, and even Frida Kahlo.
O'Keeffe's flower paintings from this period carried forward what is often called a ‘sister-arts tradition’, with a mix of feminism, queer eroticism, crafts, and artisanal practices. In 1931, O'Keeffe painted The White Calico Flower, after Beck Strand’s work on the same subject matter.
However, in order to fully understand the context of The White Calico Flower, it is necessary to view O'Keeffe as a queer woman – as without her relationship with Beck Strand, the painting may never have been created. The images created by both women at this time speak to a floral imagery that is symbolic of an awareness of so-called ‘feminine subject matter’ but also their blossoming relationship.
O’Keeffe’s affairs with women were an important aspect of her life, yet one that continues to be hidden from the public. Queerness resides not only in the domain of sexual activity, but also in how the art is made, and the kinds of relationships between people and art that such work fosters. The apparent invisibility of O’Keeffe’s queer identity is part of the long history of non-heteronormative art, in which there has been a strong sense of denial – until now.