Archive for November 6th, 2021

Style Is Character

Georgia O'Keeffe Sky Above Clouds IV

Georgia O’Keeffe- Sky Above Clouds IV, 1965

I recall an August afternoon in Chicago in 1973 when I took my daughter, then seven, to see what Georgia O’Keeffe had done with where she had been. One of the vast O’Keeffe ‘Sky Above Clouds’ canvases floated over the back stairs in the Chicago Art Institute that day, dominating what seemed to be several stories of empty light, and my daughter looked at it once, ran to the landing, and kept on looking. “Who drew it,” she whispered after a while. I told her. “I need to talk to her,” she said finally.

My daughter was making, that day in Chicago, an entirely unconscious but quite basic assumption about people and
the work they do. She was assuming that the glory she saw in the work reflected a glory in its maker, that the painting was the painter as the poem is the poet, that every choice one made alone– every word chosen or rejected, every brush stroke laid down or not laid down– betrayed one’s character. Style is character.

— Joan Didion, Georgia O’Keeffe

This anecdote opens the essay Georgia O’Keeffe that is included in author Joan Didion‘s 1979 book of essays, The White Album. I can only imagine the wonder in the eyes of her daughter along with the awe and the questions it inspired, on seeing O’Keeffe’s huge painting– it’s 8 feet high by 24 feet wide!– in a large open space.

It raises an interesting question: Is style character?

That’s a tough question. I am not positive it holds true for all artists across the spectrum of artistic disciplines but, for the most part, I would like to believe this is true if the style of the artist is genuine and true to their self.

Determining what is genuine and what is contrivance is another question.

I think the reaction of Didion’s daughter is one reliable indicator of authenticity. There is something about the reaction of a child to art that I trust implicitly. Their perception is still unclouded and intuitive and they usually don’t yet feel the need to categorize or rate everything that they come across. They have an ability to see things clearly that I sometimes think we lose in adulthood.

They just react on a gut level, quickly and decisively, to some inner intuitive cues.

In my experience, I generally am most pleased with my own work when it catches the eye or mind of a child. It’s perhaps the purest form of validation, letting me know that the work speaks on an emotional level.

But is this, the style that speaks to that child, character?

I can’t say for sure. I know a number of artists for which this holds true and I believe it is true in my own case.

Or at least I want to believe that. A person can’t attest to their own authenticity without some form of bias. That puts it out of my hands.

But I hope so. My intention for my work has always been to be transparent and open, for it to be an expression of my character, for better or worse. It is work that is meant to communicate. Or so I hope.

I don’t know that an artist’s work can ever fully mask the strengths or deficiencies contained in their character.

For myself, I am okay with that. I am willing to be judged because I know that few will be as critical of my work and my character as myself.

As Georgia O’Keeffe said:

To create one’s world in any of the arts takes courage.

And don’t we all aspire to have courage?

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