IDA O’keefe: life and oblivion in the shadow of a sister
When you hear the name O’keefe, who comes to mind? Most likely, Georgia. Her sensual flowers in pastel colors and bright paintings of desert landscapes have become iconic. But what if you were Georgia O’keefe’s sister and wanted to be an artist? Would you be able to abstract from its influence and create your own original images? Artist IDA O’keefe (1889 — 1961) for many decades lost in the shadow of his more famous sister — and only now receives its own recognition.
Georgie was only two years older than IDA, but their characters are separated from each other at a distance of light years. The first purposefully built his career: studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, the League of student artists in new York and at the Teachers College of Columbia University. She studied craft and mechanics — technique, perspective, shadows, charcoal, oil, watercolors, the virtuoso brushstroke of William Merritt chase. She plunged into a new philosophy and new ideas, swimming in the radical currents of the first decades of the XX century.
Alfred Stiglitz, portrait of IDA Ten Eyck O’keefe (1924). National gallery of art, Washington
During the Christmas holidays of 1915, Georgia — in deliberate isolation — created a series of abstract drawings that first identified her as an artist. A friend showed these works to Alfred Stiglitz, a well-known art dealer and photographer from new York. As you know, he said, ” Finally, a woman on paper.” Georgia knew Stiglitz, the gallerist, but he had never heard of her before, and he first became acquainted with her work. This is what gave the artist seriousness and importance.
Unlike her, IDA was slow and indecisive. Like her other sisters, she learned to draw at school and then studied privately. In 1913 she taught drawing in Virginia elementary schools, but in 1918 she decided to change careers. IDA moved to new York to train as a nurse. The O’keefe sisters were close, and she saw Georgia often. Stiglitz, who at that time was already the husband and gallery owner of the elder, tried to flirt with the younger, but she reasonably insisted on friendship. Surrounded by artists, IDA in 1925 decided to return to drawing, although she still earned as a nurse.
IDA O’keefe, the Royal oak in Tennessee (1932). Source: artnet. News
An artist’s life requires discipline and commitment — if you don’t believe in yourself, no one will. Work for IDA had to become a place in everyday life on Perov; she had to find her idea and convince the world of its importance. By 1925, Georgia had been living with such persistence and discipline for almost 20 years. IDA had never had such qualities. At nursing school, the superintendent noted that she “will never be a sustainable leader; she works best under someone else.”
Perhaps IDA found guidance in her sister’s work. In 1927, Georgia curated an exhibition at the Gallery of opportunity in Manhattan that included IDA’s paintings. Two of them were still lifes with exaggerated flowers and fruits, painted in a smooth, flawless brushstroke. Although IDA often showed works under her middle name Ten Eyck, everyone knew she was O’keefe.
Alfred Stiglitz, portrait of the O’keefe sisters (1924). National gallery of art, Washington
In 1931, IDA continued her studies at Columbia University Teachers College, where she studied under Charles Martin. He taught the theory of dynamic symmetry, in which geometric lines are superimposed on realistic shapes to create architectural images. They hint at classical prototypes of harmony.
Under this influence, IDA created a series of works depicting lighthouses. They are semi-abstract, consist of geometric lines and curves, the palette of paintings is limited. The best of them are clean and powerful strict images, where contrasting rays of light and shadow are used to create meditative compositions. They don’t look like Georgia’s work — IDA stepped boldly out from behind her. However, the younger sister’s other modernist works clearly resemble the older sister’s-an enlarged mushroom, a carved American Indian pipe and a smoothly curved tree against a background of low mountains. The glow, the simplified shapes, the rich colors and the selection of objects all suggest Georgia.
IDA O’keeffe, paintings from the series “Lighthouses”. Photo: Clark Institute of art
At the end of 1932, several O’keefe women were working at the Delphic Studio in new York city-Katherine, Georgia’s younger sister, and their grandmothers. Catherine was a gifted Amateur who began writing with Georgia in Wisconsin in 1928. She also followed her sister, borrowing her subjects and style — lush, exaggerated plants in fabulous flowers. In March 1933, the Studio exhibited several paintings by Catherine, and in April organized a solo exhibition of IDA. With their beacons, she confidently entered the territory which is not mastered her famous sister. Georgia wrote stylized architectural forms, but never used the language of dynamic symmetry, did not mix geometric and realistic forms. IDA herself became a recognized artist. And it came at a time of devastating events in Georgia’s life.
In 1927, Stiglitz began a public affair with the beautiful dark-eyed Dorothy Norman, who was younger than Georgia. She helped him in the gallery and posed for the camera. In the new show, which Stiglitz organized in early 1932, visitors everywhere looked at the face of Dorothy. Georgia was dethroned from the pedestal of the Muse.
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In the spring of that year, she was invited to create a mural for Radio city music hall. Stiglitz, as a dealer, forbade her to take the order, but Georgia would not listen to him. He publicly raged about her professional infidelity while continuing to cheat on her as a spouse. Due to delays in construction, O’keefe could not get to work for a long time. And on the day when was finally able to start, found that the canvas is peeled from the Shoten. It was like a message from the universe: any chosen path is blocked. It seemed to her that she was being destroyed both as an artist and as a woman.
IDA O’keeffe, “a variation on the theme of lighthouses VI” (1931-32). Source: artnet. News
Georgia began to get depressed. She could neither eat nor sleep, she had a fear of water, she imagined buildings falling on her. In February 1933, she was hospitalized with psychoneurosis. Stiglitz, who played a role in the disaster, was allowed to visit his wife only once a week.
Just then Catherine’s exhibition ended, and IDA’s was to begin.
Georgia had always been a leader among the sisters. “She was a Queen… and we all loved her,” Catherine said. The younger ones were loyal subjects, but now it seemed they were beginning to claim the throne. Georgia has won recognition as an artist through years of study, the development of ideas, the difficult struggle in finding his own voice. She has created her own style and vocabulary of luscious shapes and fabulous colors. Her sisters didn’t earn any of it, but suddenly they were being presented on a par with her. Georgia had been betrayed in her marriage; now she was betrayed in her professional sphere by her own sisters. She looked like a marathon runner whose rivals had taken a shortcut on the subway and were running alongside her.
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Georgia was furious. She did not keep in touch with Catherine for four years (but then sent her an apology letter). Catherine herself had given up painting altogether. IDA refused to stop drawing or exhibiting her work, but after several years and several shows, she left new York for good.
The two never reconciled. IDA did not regain the clarity and strength she put into the lighthouse series, and for the rest of her career switched between different styles and materials. She lived in small towns in the Midwest, earning as an artist, art teacher, designer, and sometimes nurse. She showed her work in local salons and once won a blue ribbon at a country fair.
IDA O’keefe, stargazing in Texas (1938). Dallas Museum of art
In 1938, IDA wrote an intriguing picture-grisaille ” stargazing in Texas.” Flat, dizzying perspective and illuminated sky capture the viewer. Strange frozen figures, as if struck by lightning, create a mysterious, emotionally filled mood. However, none of the styles of the artist did not linger attention. She was energetic and talented, but timid and indecisive, never trying to delve into developing her own ideas or trying to find her own voice.
IDA O’keeffe, “a variation on the theme of lighthouses II” (1931-32). Source: The Dallas Standard
IDA O’keeffe, “a variation on the theme of lighthouses IV” (1931-32). Source: New Yorker
It is said that IDA claimed that she would have been famous if she had “her own Stiglitz.” But other dealers exhibited her work — but the paintings did not find such a powerful response, as Georgia. Fans of the younger sister say that her work was hampered by constant travel and hard day’s work. But Georgia had a day job, too, and she kept creating. In fact, it was then that she created a number of the most original works. She never wrote for local art exhibitions, but only for the new York avant-garde world.
The difference between sisters was not in circumstances, and in essence. Stiglitz gave Georgia a start, but it was her work that made her successful — original, sincere, hard-won images stunned many viewers. Throughout her long career, the artist rarely wavered in her loyalty to ideas and created more than two thousand works.
IDA O’keefe, The Fish (1935). Private collection