Finding Music in the Life and Paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe

by Nell Shaw Cohen

Written outside of NEC Coursework, Fall 2010–Spring 2011 

“You asked me about music. I like it better than anything in the worldcolor gives me the same thrill once in a long, long time . . .”

—Georgia O’Keeffe, 1915.[1]

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Georgia O’Keeffe, Blue and Green Music (1919)

Many of the works of American painter Georgia O’Keeffe (1898–1986) can be seen as visual expressions with a distinctly musical sensibility. The rounded, undulating forms in her paintings, which encompass both the abstract and the representational, suggest lyrical, contrapuntal textures, and her lush colors and subtly shaded contours create a rich and multifaceted harmonic effect. O’Keeffe made overt reference to music in a few of her abstract paintings: Music, Pink and Blue, No. 1 and No. 2 (191819) portray an abstract internal landscape of gentle, nuanced colors around an oval contour, and Blue and Green Music (1919) presents highly contrasting shades and shapes in a bold juxtaposition. Most of her other works may also be seen as possessing musical qualities, including her visions of landscapes or flowers, which border on the abstract. Black Place II (1944), one of many examples, conveys a procession of dark desert hills infused with a dynamism and sense of time that suggest musical flow.

As a composer, this aspect of O’Keeffe’s work has had an immense appeal for me. After my first visit to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico in 2004, I found myself mining O’Keeffe’s paintings as a source of inspiration in my music, and imagining a musical language or aesthetic that would relate to O’Keeffe’s visual world. While working on these projects, I wondered how music had influenced O’Keeffe’s work and life, and what her own experiences with music were like.

I had the opportunity to explore these questions further when I visited the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum for the second time in 2010, while shooting footage for a multimedia video piece relating to O’Keeffe’s New Mexico paintings.[2] Museum curator and prominent O’Keeffe scholar Barbara Buhler Lynes directed me to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum Research Center Library, where she pointed me to several resources on the subject, including an essay on O’Keeffe and music by a former curator for the museum, Heather Hole, written for a program by the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival,[3] and a complete log of the LPs found in O’Keeffe’s possession after she passed away in 1986. This essay, the list of musical recordings, and my tour of O’Keeffe’s home in Abiquiu, New Mexico helped to illuminate the role that music played in her life.

Ms. Lynes explained that O’Keeffe was influenced by synesthesia—the experience of “crossed senses,” i.e. hearing images or seeing sounds—as it had been explored in the art of European modernists such as Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944). These artists sought to find the equivalents of music in color and imagery, and to find a universal language in art that transcends the specificity of language or direct representation. Although I don’t see quite as many overt references to music in O’Keeffe’s work as in the work of painters like Kandinsky (e.g., his ten works titled Composition) or Paul Klee (e.g., paintings such as Harmony or Polyphony), many of O’Keeffe’s paintings (e.g., the aforementioned Music, Pink and Blue No. 1 and No. 2) seem to take a similar attitude towards the translation of aural moods and gestures into visual ones. According to Heather Hole, O’Keeffe had been influenced by one of her teachers at Teachers College of Columbia University, Alon Bement, who had played music in his classroom and directed the students to “draw what they hear.” From early in her career, O’Keeffe appreciated the abstract quality of music because it seemed somehow essentialized or pure, and freed from the superficial details of representational art.
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Music, Pink and Blue No. 2 (1919)

Once she had permanently settled in New Mexico in the late ’40s, O’Keeffe had a high-quality McIntosh stereo system installed in a peaceful and spacious room in her Abiquiu home. There she would lie in her favorite lounge chair, gazing beyond a wall-sized window at an elegantly framed salt cedar tree, and absorb recordings with full attention (as described by a guide on my tour of O’Keeffe’s Abiquiu home). She supported the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival early in its existence (during the latter decade or so of her life), and invited musicians to perform for her in her home, where she would listen to them, often with eyes closed. In Hole’s article, one of the musicians relates how she would listen with a striking intensity of focus.

O’Keeffe’s large library of LPs consisted primarily of classical music. Interestingly, she didn’t seem to listen to very much music by then-contemporary composers. Perusing the catalog, I spotted just one or two records each of Stravinsky, Hindemith, Gershwin, and Ives, as well as an Edith Piaf album and some odds and ends. Although she was friends with Aaron Copland and owned an LP of a performance that he conducted, she didn’t seem to be a fan of his music—despite the fact that today’s listener would likely consider her landscape paintings “Coplandesque” in their evocation of American pastoral sensibility, or a classically American earthiness and simplicity of language.

Above all, O’Keeffe collected music of the 18th and 19th centuries—Beethoven, Schumann, Haydn, Bach, etc, and surprisingly to me, a quantity of Monteverdi madrigals, sacred music and operas (including multiple recordings of the opera “The Coronation of Poppea”)—which were relatively obscure at the time she was listening—as well as Verdi and Wagner operas. Although O’Keeffe is associated with the Modernist and Abstract movements in visual art, it seems natural that her musical tastes reflected the lush, lyrical, conventionally emotive quality of earlier music, rather than the harmonic and rhythmic explorations of the early-to-mid 20th century. As Music, Pink and Blue No. 1 and No. 2 demonstrate, the shapes in her paintings tend to be rounded and flowing, the colors rich, and her paintings are often strikingly passionate and direct in their emotive quality—yet always balanced, elegant, and poignant in simplicity, like a Classical sonata or Romantic Lied.

Given O’Keeffe’s appreciation of music, I can’t help but wonder why she herself did not try her hand at music. She had played the violin early in life, and she wrote that considered singing to be “the most perfect means of expression.” Yet she chose to pursue visual art, and never swayed from that path throughout her life. Perhaps she was able to enjoy music in a more profound way as an observer than as a participant. Perhaps her native artistic language was inevitably a visual one, and she was best able to express the musical impulses that resonated with her through her artwork.

[1] From a letter to close friend Anita Pollitzer written in 1915. Coburn, Marcia Froelke. Quoted in “Georgia O’Keeffe In Her Own Words: The Letters Of Georgia O’Keeffe Paint a Portrait of the Woman Beneath the Myth.” Chicago Tribune 15 Nov. 1987.

[2] For more about my video The Faraway Nearby: Georgia O’Keeffe and the New Mexico Landscape, visit http://www.thefaraway.org.

[3] Program archived at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum Research Center Library.

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2 comments

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