Intentional SparsenessGeorgia O’Keeffe and the Question of Aesthetics
1. “Why do you think there’s this recent fascination with Georgia O’Keeffe?” Carolyn Kastner, curator of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, asked me this summer. It was an unexpected start to our conversation. The question isn’t about relevancy. O’Keeffe is inarguably one of the most significant artists of the 20th century. Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1 sold in 2014 for 44.4 million USD, breaking Sotheby’s auction record for the most expensive single piece of artwork by a female artist ever sold. The question is the slight refocus of the lens: the attention is now on O’Keeffe the woman — her style and design sensibility as a requisite component of an ‘aspirational’ aesthetic.
2. Photos: a) O’Keeffe dressed all in black, sitting in her adobe living room; an Eames lounger sits in the background. b) O’Keeffe out in her sun drenched courtyard talking to her dogs, a cow’s skull mounted on the adjacent wall. c) O’Keeffe opening the curtains of her studio, light cascades across a supply table made from repurposed plywood; a recycled aluminium paint can functions as a makeshift planter.
3. Intentional sparseness. Attention to quality and function. The search for simplicity. Discipline. Kastner uses these words repeatedly. They are cornerstones of the O’Keeffe dogma. Simultaneously, these same phrases describe the modern, post-Marie Kondo aesthete, toeing the line between self awareness and cliche depending on their context.
4. Bumping along a dirt road on the way to O’Keeffe’s home in Abiquiú, I’m not expecting to be moved. I’m too familiar with what the space represents from a two dimensional standpoint: the shapes, the shadows. The object placement, the layered refinement.
5. “I can’t live any other way. My house in Abiquiú is pretty empty; only what I need is in it. I like walls empty.” Georgia O’Keeffe
6. In the mid-1940s, O’Keeffe renovated her colonial era house in Abiquiú. The 464 m2 compound was originally in ruins, but steadily became a vessel for bringing her to a landscape that fundamentally altered the way she worked. Tracing her work, there’s a direct line: the skyline out her window, the brushstroke on her canvas. Inside, she bought nice things, cared about provenance (many of her friends were designers), and didn’t unnecessarily clutter her space. She was creative by necessity. She was practical — specific frugality, specific spending.
7. Gardening, homemade yoghurt, Noguchi lanterns, bare studios, Calder mobiles, built in shelving, quality stereo systems, no visible wiring.
8. Sometimes I consider personal ‘aesthetic’ as a contemporary currency. Our aesthetic choices serve as a barometer of self awareness in decisions that reflect intentional minimalism; to opt out of excesses is clear twenty-first century privilege. But who is the arbitrator as to what is truly a beautiful life?
9. “Where I was born and where and how I have lived is unimportant. It is what I have done with where I have been that should be of interest.” Georgia O’Keeffe
10. It’s easy to feel something out here, when you’re miles from anything and all you see is sky, rock, gradient. Out here I want to be O’Keeffe, or the type of person who’d have this breakfast nook, who’d hang her herbs to dry, who’d abandon expectation, and move into isolation. I am a vessel for the muse.
11. No cameras are allowed inside the house, so I take a picture with my phone of Georgia’s rock collection outside instead.
12. In the living room there’s some built-in seating along the adobe wall. In the middle, O’Keeffe dug a slot to display a dead rattlesnake. Reconsider your objets d’art.
13. “You get whatever accomplishment you are willing to declare.” Georgia O’Keeffe
14. I wonder: Do I want to have this life, or do I just want to be the type of person who does exactly what she wants, with unwavering, arrow straight dedication to independence and vision? For as beautiful as O’Keefe’s home is – a design beacon hatched in the middle of nowhere – it’s actually just the byproduct of opting out of one thing, and into something else. I don’t want to live in O’Keeffe’s house. I want the assuredness and vision to articulate my own idea of the perfect place.
15. “I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing that I wanted to do.” Georgia O’Keeffe