I confess, way back when as a student of American Modernism, I was never much interested in Georgia O’Keeffe. I was supposed to be. She was the lone, out-there, woman painter of America; could boast a whole slew of nude portraits of herself by Alfred Stieglitz; and from my view in the 1970s, in a newly bloomed age of Feminist awareness, she stood out for her independence and self-determination. But, to me, the script of woman against the world seemed to be too perfect; a movie of the day waiting to be made (and starring Joan Allen and Jeremy Irons, it just was).
But then, years later, I connected with O’Keeffe while, oddly enough, doing research on Man Ray. Man Ray was also an American, also an aspiring modernist, an outsider (in his case Jewish, an American artist who preferred Dada to the Ash Can School) who rather than trying to work his way into the Stieglitz circle that besides O’Keeffe included John Marin, Arthur Dove, Alfred Maurer, and Paul Strand, decided to throw his lot in with Marcel Duchamp and move to Paris. And there in the early 1920s he began making one-of-a-kind photograms by placing objects directly on to photo sensitive paper and exposing them to light. He called them Rayographs (Man Ray was never modest about promoting himself) and his new Paris friends described them as “paintings with light.”
Back home in America his critics called them bunk. Except for Georgia. Among the several artists responding to the question, “Can a photograph have the significance of art?” for the December 1922 issue of MSS magazine, O’Keeffe acknowledged that the best photographers were those who did not separate photography from other media. And it was she who mentioned Man Ray as a “young painter of ultra modern tendencies and of varied experiments . . . who seems to be broadening the field of work.” She thought Man Ray’s work “showed real promise.”
And that’s when Georgia got me. As an artist, she shaped herself by standing out against prevailing fashion. As Barbara Lynes writes in her click! commentary, O’Keeffe developed silent strategies to counter what she considered misconceptions of herself and her work. Like Man Ray—who throughout his career used self-portraits to underscore what he felt to be appropriate interpretations for his art—she managed to create both art and persona based on images. It was a demonstration of visual literacy that the rest of the 20th century—until Andy Warhol—would work to catch up with. There are thousands of photographs of artists in the Archives of American Art. What do they tell us about framing the idea of art?
Merry Foresta is the Former Director of the Smithsonian Photography Initiative.