Georgia O’Keeffe has long been one of our favorite artists, and her work is undergoing a major reconsideration. This year, the Tate Modern, in London, is holding Britain’s largest retrospective of her work ever, placing her squarely in the pantheon of the 20th Century’s most important painters. Dawn Tripp recently published a fascinating and highly readable novel, Georgia, about O’Keeffe’s formative years as an artist in New York. We had a chance to interview Dawn, who gave us a captivating insight into why Georgia not only still resonates, but feels more important than ever.
Tell us a bit about the novel.
The main story of the novel spans 1917 to 1933; the years of her east coast life when she first met Alfred Stieglitz. When she was older, living in the southwest, she would often distance herself from that period of time. But, to me, those years she spent with Stieglitz in New York were a kind of crucible for her: that was when her art was first recognized, when she fell in love, craved a child, and had her heart broken. Those were the years when she became famous, nearly lost what mattered to her most, and resolved never to compromise again. In New York, she made almost unthinkable sacrifices in her life, and she also made key innovations in her art.
In many ways, those were the years that forged her greatness. Not because of what Stieglitz or anyone else did to her or for her, but for how she met and overcame the gender bias and the challenges she faced, and for how she went on to shape the direction of her art and life on her own terms. That, to me, makes her story intensely relevant to women and artists today and that will make her story relevant years from now.
Q: What about Georgia O’Keeffe continues to resonate? Especially now?
It’s been thrilling to see how her story, and the choices she made for her life and her art, have been so deeply meaningful to women who’ve read the novel. O’Keeffe was always fiercely independent from the time she was a child. But during her years in New York, her strength galvanized into something more enduring, because of the challenges that she faced, fought, and worked through. I feel like women have the unique ability to fall apart in order to put ourselves back together in a stronger, more inimitable, and indomitable way. That’s the kind of transformation that she went through during that period of time. O’Keeffe understood that strength isn’t just about reserve. True strength is about being open to a full range of human emotion.
I didn’t realize until I finished the novel how universal her experience felt: that experience of moving through what other people are telling you you are or should be, and then determining that who you’ll become, is something that can only come from deep inside of you. That freedom to live life, and express yourself artistically and emotionally, and that includes a sense of unique personal style. I’m 47 now, and I feel like it’s the most exhilarating time, because I have so much ownership over my own life and the direction of it.
Q: Did writing this book change you?
Usually when I finish a book, I’m done. But I do feel like O’Keeffe – her life and her strength- are actually more with me now since I’ve finished the book. I was changed as a result of spending so much time in her story and in her world, and in the evolution of her art and strength and spirit.
Q: O’Keeffe had a real sense of color — did that play into her sense of style?
Her colors were so alive in her work. She had such a passion for color. That was a driving force always in her art. She said, “I paint because color is a significant language for me.” She did have a really keen, distinct fashion sense. In certain photographs, she almost looks like an abstract piece of art herself. She was very attuned to color and line and contrast and form, but she rarely wore colors. Particularly as she got older, she wore almost exclusively black and white.
Q: When did you decide you wanted to write about Georgia O’Keeffe?
In 2009, when I saw an exhibit of her abstractions at the Whitney Museum in New York. Her abstractions were paired with Stieglitz’s photographs of her, clothed and nude, along with excerpts of their letters. That show was a revelation. I wanted to know: who was the woman who made these works? These are gorgeous, radically new abstract forms. She was making them in 1915 at age 27, when very few other American artists were bold enough to be exploring the abstract language of art. I realized here’s this woman who is so well known, and yet at some level there’s so much about this corner of her life – this span of time in her experience that’s barely known at all. That split was so intriguing to me.
Georgia, by Dawn Tripp, is available on Amazon.com.