Georgia O’Keeffe may have found her heaven in New Mexico, but she discovered her religion in Texas.
I’m speaking figuratively, of course, since O’Keeffe was not a churchgoer. From the fall of 1916 to early 1918, as a young professor at West Texas State Normal College (now West Texas A&M University) in the Panhandle town of Canyon, the painter reveled in being progressive and different. She danced, went to movies, rode with men in fast cars—well, as fast as cars could be, bouncing on dirt roads or no roads across the plains—and kissed a lot of guys. She was not shy about standing on a porch in the rain, wearing nothing but a loose kimono; or dressing in front of an open window when she knew she was being watched; or lying on the plains at night, gazing up at the stars, with a young football player.
We know this from alluring letters O’Keeffe wrote to the most important man in her life, her future husband Alfred Stieglitz, and other loved ones back east. Much of this correspondence was published last year in Amy Von Lintel’s book Georgia O’Keeffe’s Wartime Texas Letters (Texas A&M University Press). Von Lintel presents just the outgoing mail, to keep the focus on O’Keeffe as a strong-willed, intelligent woman at a time when women couldn’t yet vote in Texas. “Why of course I feel free—it never occurred to me to feel any other way,” the artist wrote, even as she coyly played to Stieglitz as his “little girl of the Texas Plains.”
More important, the letters expose the rapture that the budding Modern abstractionist felt as she bathed her soul in the Panhandle’s desolate landscape. Texas is where O’Keeffe learned to see, in a way no one else could. “Last night I loved the starlight—the dark—the wind and the miles and miles of the thin strip of dark that is land—it was wonderfully big—and dark and starlight and night moving,” she wrote in October 1916. Her letters revisit this theme repeatedly. “The wonderful stretch of the bare line at sunset—the stars—a train that I watched like a star on the horizon—it’s great to watch it moving such a long time—it never came close enough to be anything but a little line—the wrestle of the day—the emptiness of the night—and I like it all so,” she wrote that December.
Collection of the McNay Art Museum, Bequest of Helen Miller Jones. Copyright Georgia O’Keeffe Museum/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
By March 1917, when she was 29, she had found her fluid, abstract visual vocabulary and produced her first important watercolor. Evening Star, with its windswept red swirl on a field of dark, pooled blue, was a breakthrough. “It’s big and it looks like Hell let loose with a fried egg in the middle of it,” she wrote. “I feel as though I’ve burst and done something I hadn’t done before.”
O’Keeffe often painted …….