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Big cities, as well as deserts, inspired her lyrical images

In many ways, Georgia O'Keeffe, who passed on earlier this month at the age of 98, was bigger than life. She was a strikingly beautiful woman of extraordinary character, and an artist of uncommon talent and sensibility. She was loved and admired as few creative figures have been in America; served as role model for hundreds of women painters and sculptors at a time when the art world was totally dominated by men; maintained a highly successful career for nearly 70 years; and fashioned some of the most lyrical and evocative images of nature produced in the United States during the 20th century. Above all, she was independent and original, willing only to do what she deemed worthy or appropriate, and ready to speak out whenever the occasion demanded it. Success came early, thanks to the efforts of photographer and art dealer Alfred Stieglitz, who exhibited her first important works, large charcoal abstractions that evoked the patterns and rhythms of natural forms, at his famous avant-garde gallery ``291'' in 1916. Fully aware of her special qualities, Stieglitz advised her to abandon the college teaching career she had begun, and to move to New York in order to concentrate exclusively on her painting. She agreed -- as she also did to his marriage proposal in 1924 -- and remained not only one of his gallery's star attractions, but his favorite model as well.

Although she quickly became a member of America's small, inner circle of avant-garde modernists, she had few stylistic affinities with Marsden Hartley, John Marin, Charles Demuth, or Arthur Dove. Where they generally kept one eye cocked on what was happening in Europe, O'Keeffe had hers firmly set on the shapes and patterns of what she saw in the cities and rural communities of, first New York, and then New Mexico. It wasn't long before her name became identified with handsome and startlingly novel paintings of stylized skyscrapers, oversized plant forms, stark white animal skulls played against brilliant blue skies, softly voluptuous hills and valleys, and dramatically simplified adobe buildings set within the deserts and before the mountains of the Southwest.

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Her formal approach was cool and streamlined, and depended to a large extent on the dramatic interplay of simple, frequently bulky silhouettes and a few subtly reiterated curves. Her color could be as precisely calculated and blatant as that of a travel poster or calendar illustration, or as delicate and warm as that of an autumn leaf. She did wonderful things with solid, coal-like blacks, with greens that were freshly and gloriously green and not merely tinted that color, and with tiny touches of red, yellow, or purple used as accents to give life to images that otherwise were largely monochromatic or somewhat bleak.

She had a special knack for turning her viewers' perceptions inside-out. Monumental ``abstractions'' and complex ``landscapes'' became, upon closer inspection, the inner workings of tiny plants or flowers, the delicate veinings of leaves, or the ragged striations of rocks. Small, ordinary objects became gigantic forms, dwarfing entire mountain ranges and endless desert vistas, and acquiring in the process, something of the look and aura of sacred icons. And indeed, that was as good a way as any to describe some of her canvases, for one could not help noting how reverential or celebratory so many of them were, nor how quietly respectful of nature's wonders a few of her finest pictures caused one to feel.

O'Keeffe's involvement with nature became even more pronounced after her move to New Mexico in 1949. Although physically isolated from the art world in her adobe home in Abiquiu, she continued to work as steadily as ever and to exhibit with increasing success -- if not always to critical acclaim -- throughout the United States. Artistic fashions came and went with bewildering frequency, but she remained unerringly true to her nature-oriented vision and to her painterly methods of making what she saw and loved visible to others.

Her large retrospective at the Whitney Museum in 1970, when she was 83 years old, revived critical interest in her work and overwhelmingly verified her credentials as the ``grand old lady'' of American art. Honors came from every direction, from museums and academic institutions and, in 1977, from the nation in the form of the Medal of Freedom.

All this did not deter her from her work, however. She continued to paint, to see visitors -- many of whom viewed their trip to Abiquiu as a form of pilgrimage -- and to serve as a major source of inspiration for younger women eager to compete equally as artists with men. She was so loved and admired, in fact, that it became increasingly difficult to write critically -- or even objectively -- about her art without being accused of gross insensitivity or worse. All this was a great pity, of course, for her work could -- and can -- stand on its own without reference to her sex.

If some critics, including myself, felt she was less than great as a painter, it was not without a very real respect for her greatness as a deeply committed, creative human being and for her genuine accomplishments as an artist. She was very special, and I know of no one who thinks otherwise.

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