How Georgia O'Keeffe's bones link heaven to earth
On the anniversary of her death, we look back at O'Keeffe's near-abstract animal bone paintings
Georgia O’Keeffe, who died on this day 6 March, in 1986, is best known for the way she combined Magritte-style surrealism with an appreciation for the hard landscape and nature of New Mexico. In our Phaidon Focus book on the artist, the writer and art history professor Randall Griffin describes such paintings as O’Keeffe’s 1931 work Cow’s Skull: Red, White, and Blue as “a pure and cohesive distillation of American culture, enriched by an unexpected dissonance.”
Yet these lovely, deathly skull works did not cover the full extent of the artist's interest in skeletal forms. Indeed, her paintings are perhaps more interesting, and more transcendental, after O’Keeffe did away with the skulls and used the bone as a kind of viewfinder.
“In the 1940s, O’Keeffe’s paintings of floating skulls gave way to depictions of pelvises and the horns of rams and goats, alongside a renewed interest in abstraction, one that would dominate her late output. These pictures are more abstract than the skulls, often with little or no sense of context,” writes Griffin. “They are still paeans to the enduring, but works such as Pelvis with Distance I and Goat’s Horn with Red present bones as, almost literally, a lens or aperture through which to view the world.”
As a framing device, bones worked both physically and symbolically. “During World War II, O’Keeffe wrote that ‘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,’” Griffin writes. “‘They were most wonderful against the blue – that blue that will always be there as it is now after all man’s destruction is finished.’"
In this way, Griffin concludes, "O’Keeffe transmuted bones into numinous portals linking earth and heaven." And those portals remain with us, over three decades after her death.