Retro Cinema: "Georgia O’Keeffe" (1977)

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It is a major shame that Perry Miller Adato’s 1977 documentary “Georgia O’Keeffe” is no longer in circulation. An award magnet when it was first released – including a history-making Directors Guild of America Award for Adato, the first female filmmaker to win the honor – this production has yet to find its way onto DVD, although copies of a 2000 VHS issue can be located online.

“Georgia O’Keeffe” presents the iconic and iconoclastic artist in her own words. Her raconteur skills mirror her genius with the paintbrush – she is unpretentious, colorful, often playful and truly original in recalling her life and career. She speaks frankly and vividly about the unique environmental influences over the years, from the dusty Texas plains in her early work to the soaring metropolitan towers of her Manhattan residential years to the stunning New Mexico desert landscapes that ultimately defined her later life. She also casually reveals the very basic inspirations of her work: she began painting skulls, she explains, because there were no flowers to gather in the New Mexican desert, while she later explored floral shapes with intense magnification because she felt their beauty would be lost if they were painted as measured in their natural smallish sizes.

“Georgia O’Keeffe” has no narration, and the artist is occasionally prompted with cameras asked off-camera by Adato or Juan Hamilton, a sculptor who was her assistant in her later years. She is disarming in recalling critical consternation to her work. She calmly states that the animal skulls used in her work were never meant to symbolize death, and that she actually found their designs to be very lively. When inquired about the possibility that her floral paintings has sexual connotations, she barely conceals amusement in saying that people making such comments are talking about themselves and not her work.

O’Keeffe is also memorable in recalling her professional and personal relationship with Alfred Stieglitz. She notes that Stieglitz first put her work on display at his Fifth Avenue gallery without her knowledge (a friend who had possession to some of O’Keeffe’s drawings showed them to Stieglitz). O’Keeffe recalls that she wanted them removed, but was rebuffed. When asked by Adato why Stieglitz refused, she looks sternly at the filmmaker and replies, “You try arguing with him – and see where it gets you!”

O’Keeffe, who was pushing 90 when the film was shot, was a physical marvel on camera – at one point, she climbs a ladder to a rooftop. The film details her work in planning a book of her artwork, and the film is rich in offering as many of her classic paintings as possible.

Art critic Barbara Rose wisely points out that O’Keeffe represented the American spirit in her work – her paintings, with their bold approach to color and spatial perspective, have no stylistic precedent in any European school of art. Yet her personality is also fiercely American in the most positive concept of the American ideal – rugged, individualistic, focused, unpredictable and more than a little sexy. (Yes, even close to 90, O’Keeffe was more captivating and enchanting than women young enough to be her granddaughter.)

“Georgia O’Keeffe” is a wonderful documentary and it deserves to be revisited. Let’s hope some fine DVD label remembers this title and brings it back for another appearance.

“Georgia O’Keeffe”
1977, Documentary, 60 minutes
Directed by Perry Miller Adato

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