Twenty-seven years ago, people thought Charles Eldredge was a little crazy when he turned his attention to the work of Georgia O'Keeffe.
Then an art scholar in training, Eldredge grew to like the prolific American modernist, who at the time was in her 70s.
"People thought it was strange to be looking at an American artist," said Eldredge, the Hall Distinguished Professor of American Art at Kansas University, who just wrote a book on O'Keeffe. "And the fact she was a woman made it three times over an offense.''
But a 1970 retrospective of O'Keeffe's work at the Whitney Museum of American Art shot her critical reputation sky-high, and a 1986 exhibit at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., solidified her place in history. And Eldredge says he feels justified in his choice of artists.
"I certainly find this individual endlessly fascinating," Eldredge said.
ELDREDGE'S BOOK, called simply "Georgia O'Keeffe," is part of a series of folio-sized volumes on American artists published by the National Museum of American Art of the Smithsonian Institution and Harry N. Abrams Inc. Other artists in the series include Willem de Kooning, Mary Cassatt, Edward Hopper and Frederic Remington.
Eldredge, a former director of the National Museum, breaks O'Keeffe's life and work into nine chapters. They function as essays on aspects of her work, recounting events in her life and exploring the meaning behind her use of images and color.
"When we started the series, we wanted to identify an audience that wasn't being served either by treatments of the artist's life or technical discussions (of an artist's work) in journals," Eldredge said. "We designed them for a literate audience of non-experts.''
OVER THE years, the details of O'Keeffe's life sometimes have gotten in the way of her work, Eldredge said. Born in 1887 in Wisconsin, O'Keeffe received formal training in Chicago and New York and started her career as a teacher in South Carolina and Texas before she moved to New York. But her work caught the attention of famed gallery owner and photographer Alfred Stieglitz, and she held a landmark show of her work in 1917. She became one of the best-selling artists of her time.
She later married Stieglitz, who was many years her senior. He died in 1946.
"Stieglitz once said `I made that woman,' which was a strange, maternal thing to say," Eldredge said. "The irony of course is that after he stopped working she continued and outshown his own reputation."
BUT STIEGLITZ left an extensive photographic record of O'Keeffe at various stages of her life. Those dramatic, artful images helped feed O'Keeffe's reputation as a high priestess of art, much as Martha Graham became the high priestess of modern dance, Eldredge said.
During and after her marriage, however, O'Keeffe kept returning to the the countryside. In the American Southwest, she drew inspiration for her famous paintings of flowers, bones and desert scenes. These are the most familiar of her images: calla lillies whose sexual suggestiveness sent critics scurrying to their editions of Freud for some quick analysis.
After a major retrospective in 1946, O'Keeffe's work got lost amid the abstract-expressionist explosion of the '50s.
"THE '50S were the nadir of her critical reputation," he said.
She lived, however, to see her work rediscovered and appreciated in the 1970s and '80s, and she died in 1986 at the age of 98.
The potency of O'Keeffe's bold, accessible images bursts from the pages of Eldredge's book. Nature predominates in her work: Even her cityscapes show a flower growing in an apartment window or the sun pock-marking the face of a skyscraper, as if nature would win out over civilization.
The very openness of the images makes O'Keeffe seem too simple for art historians to contemplate, Eldredge said, although he disagrees passionately.
"Just recently I had a colleague say that O'Keeffe is everybody's first favorite artist," Eldredge said. "Then they grow up. Well, I haven't gotten past that stage yet.''
BUT THERE are other reasons O'Keeffe's work and life have taken hold of the American cultural imagination. Eldredge offers several.
"She gained acclaim in the '70s because she was the beneficiary of several events that came together," he said. "There was a renewed appreciation of the first generation of American modernists, and she was the last of her generation to survive, which made her a living relic. She was also an older person who was still producing, and as America began graying people paid increased attention to the great productivity of her life.
"Then of course she was seen in the first generation of the feminist movement, and she was acclaimed as a founding member of the movement, although she turned Gloria Steinem away from her door.''
BACK IN 1970, Eldredge had the chance to spend a couple of months with O'Keeffe as he was preparing his dissertation. It's a time he won't soon forget.
"She was a small but beautiful woman," Eldredge said. "She was of course in her early 80s, but I was struck by her wonderful wealth of complexity. She was a weathered woman who stood ramrod straight she stood at five feet, four inches. I was with her about six months prior to the Whitney opening and she was at a point when she was looking behind and ahead.
"She was looking ahead to the next challenge in her work, but she was also looking back at what she had done for the exhibit. So she was Janus-like, looking forwards and backwards. It was an unusual time in her life.''
THE BOOK took about three years to complete, Eldredge said. Next on his list of projects is a more thoughtful, evocative analysis of the works of O'Keeffe and other American modernists and a catalog exhibit designed to travel to Moscow, London and Tokyo.
"It's designed for overseas audiences," Eldredge said. "It's a challenge to provide enough background for them to understand her work.''
O'Keeffe always has stood slightly outside the mainstream of American art, Eldredge said. She's been difficult to classify in one genre or another. But her work has managed to keep Eldredge interested for 27 years and presumably will a long time thereafter.
"My initial impressions of her work have changed, as I've moved from my juvenalia to middle age," he said. "But it's a process that will be ongoing forever.''