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Lasting Impressions

March 09, 1986

First memories make lasting impressions. For Georgia O'Keeffe, it was the impression of light as she sat on a pile of pillows heaped on a quilt on the grass, and of the cloud-like shape of the pillows themselves. For others first seeing the canvases of this woman whose life spanned virtually all of modern art, it is often the quality of the light in her paintings, the clarity of the image, the rendering of the ordinary in some extraordinary fashion. Dead at 98 in her beloved New Mexico, Georgia O'Keeffe was one of those rare artists who will be remembered for her contributions in many milieus and many media.

A bleached animal skull, a sensuous flower, the desert in its lionine shades--these were O'Keeffe's artistic trademarks. She was truly an American, not a European, artist. First she painted Manhattan skyscrapers while living in New York with her husband and mentor, photographer Alfred Stieglitz. On his death she made her home in simplicity in Abiquiu, N.M., in an adobe house amid surroundings that she constantly put to canvas. As a young woman she was the subject of about 500 of her husband's most famous, and at the time notorious, photographs. As an octogenarian she wrote a best-selling autobiography and cooperated on a film about herself and her work.

It is difficult to compress into a few words the effect that Georgia O'Keeffe had on her own times. She and Mary Cassatt before her stand out among the leaders of American art, male or female, but they especially demonstrated that women could compete equally and with distinction in a field dominated to this day by men. Even more powerful than that, perhaps, was her demonstration through her own life that people should do what they want to do when they can do it. She was true to her goal to paint what she wanted to paint, and American art is the richer for it.

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