Author’s Note: Nearly all of the poems in Pelvis with Distance are in some way a response to either a painting or a photograph. These images, following the order of the poems in the collection, can be found below.
“In the Canyon I (Arrival)”
In June 2012, I lived alone in a primitive cabin tucked away in a canyon in Abiquiu, NM, the area in which O’Keeffe spent the final 30 years of her life. The majority of these poems were written there.
“Red Barn in Wheatfield”
Born in 1887, O’Keeffe spent her childhood in rural Sun Prairie, WI with four sisters and two brothers. She thought of herself as an artist from an early age and wrote she had always had “things in my head that are not like what anyone has taught me—shapes and ideas so near to me” (O’Keeffe O’Keeffe accompanying illustration 1, Blue Lines, n.p.).
“Alfred Stieglitz at 291 (First Encounter)”
One of the most innovative and famous photographers of the twentieth century, Alfred Stieglitz also ran New York City galleries instrumental in introducing to the U.S. many of the premiere avant-garde European artists of his day, giving artists including Brancusi, Duchamp, Matisse, and Picasso their first American shows.
While studying at the conservative Art Students League, O’Keeffe and her classmates visited Stieglitz’s gallery to see what their instructors considered a “controversial” exhibit of drawings by the sculptor Auguste Rodin. O’Keeffe found her first encounter with Stieglitz intimidating, and wrote, “I very well remember the fantastic violence of Stieglitz’s defense when the students with me began talking with him about the drawings. I had never heard anything like it, so I went into the farthest corner and waited for the storm to be over” (Lisle 47-48). She was 21; he, 45 and married, with a young daughter.
“Untitled (Dead Rabbit with Copper Pot)”
O’Keeffe was trained in the classical style, which valued imitation over innovation. While studying at the Art Students League, she won a top prize for her painting of a rabbit, rendered in a style similar to that of her instructor William Merritt Chase. Outside influences are also apparent in the works described in the poem, “Untitled (Arm)” and “Untitled (West Lawn of University of Virginia).”
While teaching in South Carolina, O’Keeffe wrote, “It was in the fall of 1915 that I first had the idea that what I had been taught was of little value to me except for the use of my materials as a language . . . I decided to start anew—to strip away what I had been taught—to accept as true my own thinking. This was one of the best times of my life” (O’Keeffe O’Keeffe accompanying illustration 1, Blue Lines, n.p.).
In a letter to Stieglitz on February 1, 1916, she wrote, “. . . Words and I—are not good friends at all except with some people—when I’m close to them and can feel as well as hear their response—I have to say it some way—Last year I went color mad—but I’ve almost hated to think of color since the fall went—I’ve been slaving on the violin—trying to make that talk—I wish I could tell you some of the things I’ve wanted to say as I’ve felt them” (My Faraway One 4).
“No. 8—Special (Palo Duro Canyon with Spiral)”
After her time in South Carolina, O’Keeffe taught at the West Texas State Normal College in Canyon, TX. Venturing into the nearby Palo Duro Canyon with her sister, O’Keeffe wrote they “sometimes had to go down together holding to a horizontal stick to keep one another from falling. . . Those perilous climbs were frightening but it was wonderful to me and not like anything I had known before” (O’Keeffe O’Keeffe accompanying illustration 5, Painting No. 21, n.p.). Though many of the paintings inspired by Texas were painted after her return to New York, the sounds of Canyon were still with her. “The cattle in the pens lowing for their calves day and night was a sound that had always haunted me,” she wrote. “It had a regular rhythmic beat like the old Penitente songs, repeating the same rhythms over and over all through the day and night. It was loud and raw under the stars in that wide empty country” (O’Keeffe O’Keeffe accompanying illustration 3, From the Plains, n.p.).
“To Find You (Georgia O’Keeffe Museum)”
References the show “Georgia O’Keeffe and the Faraway: Nature and Image,” which ran May 11, 2012 to May 5, 2013. O’Keeffe’s quote is from the documentary film Georgia O’Keeffe: A Life in Art.
“Coney Island, 1917”
After being escorted from Canyon, TX, to New York by the photographer Paul Strand at Stieglitz’s behest, O’Keeffe met up with Stieglitz for the second time. On June 20, 1917, O’Keeffe wrote to her friend Anita Pollitzer about a trip to Coney Island with Alfred Stieglitz for Decoration Day (now known as Memorial Day). She wrote only, “It was a great party and a great day—” (Cowart 163).
“Nude Series VIII”
In 1917, O’Keeffe painted her only extant self-portraits. During this time, her exchange with Stieglitz grew more charged. In July, she wrote, “I undressed—painted again on myself—I guess that excited me—my head full of wheels again” (My Faraway One 176).
Earlier in their correspondence she had written, “I put this in an envelope—stretched—and laughed—/It’s so funny that I should just write you because I want to—I wonder if many people do.—/You see—I would go in and talk to you if I could—and I hate to be completely outdone by a little thing like distance—” (My Faraway One 5).
“Music—Pink and Blue II”
In 1918, Stieglitz cobbled together enough financial support for O’Keeffe to quit her teaching job in Texas and move to New York for a year to paint. She moved into his niece Elizabeth’s studio and, though he was still married, Stieglitz almost immediately moved in to the studio with her. Painted in that first year of living with Stieglitz, the “Music” series strove to translate music into “something for the eye” (O’Keeffe O’Keeffe accompanying illustration 14, Music—Pink and Blue I, 1919, n.p.).
Later, on May 16, 1922, O’Keeffe wrote to Stieglitz from York Beach, ME, “It even seems to be my only memory of you—two bodies that have fused—have touched with completeness at both ends making a complete circuit . . . The circle with two centers—each touching the other . . .” (My Faraway One 368).
“In the Canyon III (Love)”
The letter from O’Keeffe to Millay is quoted in Nancy Milford’s Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay (341).
“Self-Portrait in Absentia”
The first epigraph is from O’Keeffe’s introduction to Georgia O’Keeffe: A Portrait by Alfred Stieglitz. Thanks for many of the observations in this poem go to Anne Middleton Wagner’s analysis of this image in her brilliant book Three Artists (Three Women): Modernism and the Art of Hesse, Krasner, an O’Keeffe (93-95).
“Georgia O’Keeffe (Half-Naked, in White)”
Stieglitz’s early photos of O’Keeffe—erotic, many of them nudes—shaped much of the critical and public perception of her work for decades to come, sexualized and sexist perceptions she resented and pushed back against.
“Lake George, 1922”
Stieglitz’s family had a home in Lake George, NY. At first, O’Keeffe viewed the house as a retreat; later, as a crowded inconvenience that impinged on her time to paint.
“Alfred Faces the Camera, Georgia Turns Away”
A brief account of their wedding is given in Full Bloom: The Art and Life of Georgia O’Keeffe (Drohojowska-Philip 241-242). Though they were married for 22 years, O’Keeffe kept her own name, saying, “I had a hard time hanging onto it, but I wasn’t going to give it up. Why should I take someone else’s famous name? So when people would say ‘Mrs. Stieglitz,’ I would say ‘Miss O’Keeffe’” (Dorothy Seiberling, “Horizons of a Pioneer,” Life, March 1, 1968, p. 52).
“The Shelton with Sunspots”
In 1976, O’Keeffe wrote, “I painted ‘The Shelton with Sunspots’ in 1926. I went out one morning to look at it before I started to work and there was the optical illusion of a bite out of one side of the tower made by the sun, with sunspots against the building and against the sky. I made that painting beginning at the upper left and went off at the lower right without going back” (O’Keeffe Some Memories n.p.).
In August 1926, troubled by Stieglitz’ flirtation and possible infidelities with several young women at Lake George, O’Keeffe left to stay with friends in York Beach, ME. They continued to write and, “concerned that there was ‘a black ugly wall’ between them,” Stieglitz went to York Beach, where he and O’Keeffe discovered a “newfound sense of love and commitment” (My Faraway One 368).
“An American Place Exhibition Catalogue (The Flower Paintings)”
The text in plain font was written by O’Keeffe for the exhibition catalogue “Georgia O’Keeffe,” a show at An American Place, January 22-March 17, 1939 (Archives of American Art, Whitney Museum Papers, roll N679, frame 168). She painted the majority of her flower paintings in the 1920s, in an attempt to create work to which sexual interpretations could not apply. This strategy backfired; the magnified flowers touted as erotic masterpieces.
“Sent in the Summer I”
After first visiting New Mexico in 1929 as the guest of Mabel Dodge Luhan, O’Keeffe began to regularly spend her summers in New Mexico. While this time marked a period of intense productivity for her, these extended absences placed a great strain on her relationship with Stieglitz.
During her initial visits, O’Keeffe first painted close views of objects like trees, as though not quite ready to open herself to the overwhelming expanse of the high desert landscape.
“From the Faraway, Nearby”
Marsden Hartley, the painter, poet, and essayist, wrote to Stieglitz of his visit to New Mexico, “This country is very beautiful and also difficult . . . it is not a country of light on things. It is a country of things in light, therefore is a country of form, with a new presentation of light as problem,” (Charles Eldredge, Julie Schimmel, and William Truettner, Art in New Mexico. New York: Abbeville, 1986. P. 333).
“In the Canyon VI (Hallucinations)”
The epigraph of the quote by Susan Stewart is via the artist/maker Ann Hamilton, speaking with Krista Tippett for the radio show “On Being” (“Ann Hamilton—Making, and the Spaces We Share,” February 13, 2014).
“Sent in the Summer II”
The fact that O’Keeffe not only bought a car on her own but kept that fact from her husband for over a month was an anomaly for this time, representing her extreme independence.
“The Grey Hills”
O’Keeffe wrote and spoke often of using her car as a traveling studio. The anecdote about the bees is adapted from an extended reminiscence about her visits to the Black Place when she had to choose between wilting in the heat of her closed car and getting stung by inquisitive bees (O’Keeffe O’Keeffe, accompanying illustration 59, Grey Hills II, n.p.).
“Sent in the Summer III”
(My Faraway One 452-462)
While Stieglitz was pleading with O’Keeffe to return and pressuring her with threats of suicide, he was embarking on an affair with Dorothy Norman, a woman in her mid-twenties, forty-one years his junior. Of their relatively open marriage, O’Keeffe wrote to Stieglitz in 1934, “The difference in us is that when I felt myself attracted to some one else I realized I must make a choice—and I made it in your favor. . . . You seemed to feel there was no need to make a choice” (Collection of O’Keeffe Museum Research Center).
“Road to Pedernal”
Pedernal Mountain was visible from O’Keeffe’s Ghost Ranch home. Of it, she often joked, “It belongs to me. God told me if I painted it often enough, I could have it” (Lisle 295).
O’Keeffe said she based this painting on a vision she had after waking from anesthesia. Yet, the pinprick of haloed light against a black backdrop has always reminded me the headlights of a car on one of the many dark lonely roads in the southwest.
“Pelvis with Distance”
In the exhibition catalogue for her 1944 show, O’Keeffe wrote, “. . . when I started painting the pelvis bones I was most interested in the holes in the bones—what I saw through them—particularly the blue from holding them up in the sun against the sky as one is apt to do when one seems to have more sky than earth in one’s world . . .they were most beautiful against the Blue—that Blue that will always be there as it is now after all man’s destruction is finished” (O’Keeffe O’Keeffe, accompanying illustration 74, Pelvis III, n.p.).
In the circle of blue above the mountain in this painting, there is the faint chalked outline of Pedernal Mountain, visible only when seeing the painting in person.
“July 13, 1946”
O’Keeffe was in Abiquiu when Stieglitz suffered a stroke on Wednesday, July 10, 1946. She arrived in New York to find him in the coma in which he remained until his death early Saturday morning, July 13, 1946 (Lisle 335-336).
“Sent July 10, 1946”
The envelope of O’Keeffe’s final letter to Stieglitz.
“A Black Bird with Snow-Covered Red Hills”
About this painting, O’Keeffe wrote, “One morning the world was covered in snow. It became another painting . . . a black bird flying, always there, always going away.” (O’Keeffe O’Keeffe accompanying illustration for A Black Bird with Snow-Covered Red Hills, n.p.). O’Keeffe biographer Hunter Drohojowska-Philp called this painting a “hidden portrait of Stieglitz,” speculating that the stylized crow soaring above the hills alluded to one of O’Keeffe’s nicknames for Stieglitz, “Old Crow Feather” (419).
“The White Place in Shadow”
O’Keeffe first began painting what she referred to as “The White Place” on a camping trip there in 1940. After Stieglitz’s death, she was reticent in sharing her grief and in response to most expressions of sympathy she “merely acknowledged that it was a time of change for her, that she was learning to be alone in a new way” (Lisle 337).
“In the Canyon IX (Loneliness)”
Dropping in on a class at Teachers College, Columbia University, O’Keeffe saw Alon Bement instruct his students to interpret music through charcoal drawings. She said, “This gave me an idea that I was very interested to follow later—the idea that music could be translated into something for the eye, the idea of lines like sounds,” (O’Keeffe O’Keeffe accompanying illustration 14, Music—Pink and Blue I, 1919, n.p.).
“In the Patio IV (Black Door)”
Though O’Keeffe already owned a home at Ghost Ranch, she had an eye out for a second home in which she could grow her own fruits and vegetables. About her first trip to what eventually became her Abiquiu House, she wrote, “As I climbed and walked about in the ruin I found a patio . . . with a long door on one side. That wall with a door in it was something I had to have. It took me ten years to get it—three more years to fix the house so I could live in it—and after that the wall with a door was painted many times” (O’Keeffe O’Keeffe accompanying illustration 82, Patio with Black Door, 1955, n.p.).
“Sent August 4, 1950”
William Howard Schubart, one of Stieglitz’s nephews, managed O’Keeffe’s finances for several years (Cowart 254).
“In the Patio VIII (Green Door)”
The O’Keeffe epigraph is from a letter to William Howard Schubart, July 25, 1952 (Cowart 263). O’Keeffe describes listening to the weeklong Easter celebration in a letter to William Howard Schubart on April 6, 1950 (Cowart 251).
“Composite [Self-]Portrait as Wise Desert Elder”
Examples of later photographs: “Georgia O’Keeffe on Her Roof,” John Loengard; “Georgia O’Keeffe,” Yousuf Karsh, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Accession No. 67.543.38, “Georgia O’Keeffe, Ghost Ranch, New Mexico,” Arnold Newman
The epigraph is from John Loengard’s Georgia O’Keeffe: At Ghost Ranch (5-7).
“Georgia O’Keeffe by Alfred Stieglitz (Composite Portrait)”
In Stiegltiz’ photos of her, O’Keeffe was many things. As described in the poem, here she is an androgynous dandy, a cowled scowler, an unheaded torso.
The epigraph is from O’Keeffe’s introduction to her curation of Stieglitz’s portraits of her, Georgia O’Keeffe: A Portrait by Alfred Stieglitz. She went on to write, “His idea of a portrait was not just one picture. His dream was to start with a child at birth . . . As a portrait it would be a photographic diary.”
“Sky Above Clouds IV”
Writing about her paintings of the Radiator Building in New York, she said, “When you live up high, the snow and rain go down and away from you instead of coming toward you from above. I was never able to do anything with that. There were many other things I meant to paint. I still see them when I am in the Big City” (O’Keeffe O’Keeffe accompanying illustration 20, Radiator-Building—Night, New York, n.p.).
“Once in Her Eighties Georgia Attempts a Joke”
O’Keeffe was frequently displeased with critics, who often applied Freudian interpretations and reductively emphasized her work as an expression of feminine sensibility and/or repressed female sexuality. In a letter to Mitchell Kennerley, who directed several of her exhibitions, O’Keeffe wrote, “The things they write sound so strange and far removed from what I feel of myself. They make me seem like some strange unearthly sort of creature floating in the air—breathing in clouds for nourishment—when the truth is that I like beef steak—and like it rare at that” (Cowart 170-171).
“Like an Early Blue Abstraction”
The painting was done by O’Keeffe and John Poling, a gardener who later helped her with paintings. The epigraph is from Jill Krementz’s New York Social Diary about an exhibition of O’Keeffe’s abstractions at the Whitney Museum of American Art, September 17, 2009-January 17, 2010.
“May 6, 1986”
Though O’Keeffe lived in Santa Fe in the last years of her life, the bells rang from St. Thomas the Apostle in Abiquiu on the evening her death (Lisle 437-438). She was cremated and her ashes were scattered, in accordance with her wishes, from the top of Pedernal Mountain.
*This is a compilation of images already available online. My thanks to all image providers.