Georgia O’Keeffe’s Grey Lines with Black, Blue and Yellow, c.1923, is a painting full of movement that captures the New Mexican skyscape and reminds us, as we adjust after lockdown, that we’ll be moving again soon too.
Georgia O’Keeffe’s most ktenic painting sits above the desk in my new normal workspace, liberated from its former incarnation as my partner’s home office, now book-strewn, full of plant pots and attempts at re-growing spring onions in various stages of success. I don’t think he minds too much. This space also doubles as our spare room, vacant for the longest period of time since we moved in two and a half years ago. Grey Lines with Black, Blue and Yellow (c.1923) is propped up on a shelf, its blues highlighted by the illustrated postcard of Marrakech’s Jardin Majorelle sitting next to it.
I have seen the real painting, at O’Keeffe’s retrospective at the Tate Modern in 2016. I went on my own, the weekend before I started a new job. I wandered around the rooms for hours, reading every description, taking in every photograph, peering up close at every painting. I took myself for lunch afterwards and sat at the table writing about O’Keeffe as I ate, my postcards propped up against the pepper grinder. Other carefully chosen postcards were sent to friends, with pithy O’Keeffe quotes scribbled on the backs. I love this painting. I love its colours; colours that a good friend of mine painstakingly matched to the real painting when she worked at Tate. I love that this little postcard transports me to the (excellent) Art Institute of Chicago, on a trip last year to visit another friend, where we stood admiring O’Keeffe’s gigantic Sky Above Clouds IV suspended above the stairs. I love O’Keeffe’s art as much as everyone else does; when Jimson Weed, White Flower No. 1 sold for $44.4 million in 2014, it made her the highest-selling woman in the art world (though $44.4 million was not enough for her to rank in even the top fifty highest selling artists once male artists were included…).
On the subject of being a woman in the art world, O’Keeffe’s own husband declared her flower paintings as reminiscent of female genitalia, and despite her own constant denials, it’s a declaration that has followed her work since the 1920s and doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Defending her work against others’ interpretations of it, O’Keeffe said, “well – I made you take time to look at what I saw and when you took time to really notice my flowers you hung all your own associations with flowers on my flower and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower — and I don’t.” But it’s the movement in her paintings that I notice the most. The flowers so magnified that their waves flow off the canvas, the clouds moving across the bright blue New Mexico sky, the mountains rolling across the horizon. Even her paintings of bones sandblasted clean by the desert aren’t still. The desert moves around them, and the bones become windows, bleached by the sun.
Grey Lines with Black, Blue and Yellow is a reminder. We see what we want to see. But this little postcard version is a reminder too, of other places outside of the room where it sits above my desk, and of other people. It’s the memory of simple things like solo lunches in restaurants, writing postcards, and of whirlwind city breaks for art galleries and architectural river boat tours. In this uncertain isolation, Georgia O’Keeffe’s words on fear – “I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do” – echo in my mind. Our enforced stillness is just a pause. We’ll be moving again soon.
About Terri-Jane Dow
Terri-Jane is a writer based in London. She’s the editor of literary journal, Severine, and has previously written features and fiction for Chicago Review of Books, Oh Comely, Restless, Dazed, Dear Damsels, and Jellyfish Review, among others. Find her on instagram @terri_jane, or on twitter @terrijane. You can find more of her writing at terrijanedow.com
This piece was commissioned as part of Postcards in Isolation
In times of loss and separation, art can be a source of inspiration, solace and connection. In her self-conceived series, Postcards in Isolation, writer and editor Rochelle Roberts has turned to the art on her bedroom wall to reflect on the difficulties quarantine and social distancing presents. Looking at artists as disparate as Claude Cahun, Dorothy Cross, Eileen Agar and Dorothea Tanning, Roberts has explored the sadness, uncertainty and joy of life in lockdown, and demonstrated how art can help us grapple with such feelings. As a guest editor for Lucy Writers, Roberts has opened up the series to other writers. See here to read the series so far.