Nov

11

The first daughter in a Wisconsin family of dairy famers with seven children, Georgia O’Keeffe (November 15, 1887 – March 6, 1986) had decided she wanted to be an artist by the age of ten. What she did become — what she made herself with the sheer power of passion and grit — was not merely an artist, but an art pioneer celebrated as the Mother of American Modernism.

O’Keeffe pursued her childhood vision with unrelenting focus and dedication, from her early instruction by a local watercolorist to her studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago to her participation in New York’s Art Students League, where she was mentored by William Merritt Chase. But her journey wasn’t a straight upward trajectory to success. In the autumn of 1908, shortly after winning the Art Students’ League’s William Merritt Chase still-life prize for an oil painting titled Dead Rabbit with Copper Pot, she became disillusioned with the art world, believing she’d never be able to set herself apart from the sea of sameness under the mimetic tradition, which had been the basis of her training. She abandoned painting altogether and spent four years as a commercial artist in Chicago, but eventually returned to painting, in large part thanks to the influence of Arthur Wesley Dow’s radical ideas about making art.

In the autumn of 1915, O’Keeffe created a series of charcoal drawings, which captivated photographer Anita Pollitzer. Pollitzer took them to New York to show them to her good friend, the prominent photographer and modern art champion Alfred Stieglitz. Stieglitz fell in love with the paintings, which he exhibited in his legendary 291 gallery, then fell in love with O’Keeffe. The two, twenty-three years apart in age, began living together in New York in 1918, married in 1924, and remained together until Stieglitz’s death in 1946. Their magnificent love letters are among history’s greatest romantic correspondence.

In 1929, O’Keeffe started spending her summers painting in New Mexico and became intensely interested in the local landscape and culture, which began dominating her art and went on to inspire some of her most famous paintings. She moved there permanently in 1949 and continued working for more than three more decades, even after she suffered macular degeneration, which left her nearly blind.

More than a century after reconstructionist Maria Mitchell became the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, O’Keeffe became an Academy Fellow. She received the prestigious National Medal of the Arts, which reconstructionist Adrienne Rich is the only person to date to have declined), as well as the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor bestowed upon an American citizen, one also awarded to reconstructionist Margaret Mead.

O’Keeffe lived to be ninety-eight, sustained by an ethos perhaps best captured in a 1922 New York Sun article that quoted her:

It is only by selection, by elimination, and by emphasis that we get at the real meaning of things.

Aug

12

Japanese-American sculptor Ruth Asawa (January 24, 1926—August 5, 2013), San Francisco’s beloved “fountain lady” nicknamed after her extraordinary public fountains, is as celebrated for her mesmerizing wire sculptures as she is for her relentless advocacy of the arts. Having experienced the worst of the human spirit first-hand during WWII, as a teenager banished to an incarceration center for Japanese Americans, she rose to behold its best.

Asawa, one of seven children born to Japanese truck farmers in Southern California, overcame devastating adversity to attend the legendary Black Mountain College under the mentorship of Buckminster Fuller and Josef Albers, alongside such creative luminaries as avant-garde composer John Cage, choreographer Merce Cunningham, and artist Jasper Johns. In 1968, she co-founded San Francisco’s Alvarado Arts Program, which pairs public school students with professional artists, parents, and teachers to explore the joys of sculpture, dance, theater, and the visual arts, and went on to serve on the California Arts Council, President Carter’s Commission on Mental Health, and the National Endowment for the Arts committee.

In an oral history interview conducted by Paul Karlstrom in 2002 and included in The Sculpture of Ruth Asawa: Contours in the Air, Asawa recounts an anecdote in which Fuller came upon a young Japanese man protesting at an airport and told him not to waste his time protesting but to redirect his energies toward something constructive instead, echoing Bertrand Russell’s timeless wisdom on construction vs. destruction. Asawa remarks of Fuller’s philosophy, with which she wholly identifies:

Rather than protesting for nothing, for going out in the street with banners … a young person with an idea should be working on that idea instead of fighting what he doesn’t believe in. And I think that kind of … activism is wasteful. And it’s better to be working on an idea. And building on that than to breaking down and protesting something that exists.

Instead, Asawa’s own brand of activism consisted of relentlessly democratizing art, a mission she articulates with beautiful simplicity:

Art is for everybody. It is not something that you should have to go to the museums in order to see and enjoy. When I work on big projects, such as a fountain, I like to include people who haven’t yet developed their creative side — people yearning to let their creativity out. I like designing projects that make people feel safe, not afraid to get involved.

Though Asawa remains best-known for her magnificent wire sculptures, her genius lies not in identifying with a particular material but in pushing a material beyond the boundaries of imagination, bending it into breathless whimsy. The essence of her spirit springs to life in her closing remarks from the Karlstrom interview:

Whether it’s a craft or whether it’s art. That is a definition that people put on things. And what I like is the material is irrelevant. It’s just that that happens to be material that I use. And I think that is important. That you take an ordinary material like wire and you make it, you give it a new definition. That’s all.

May

20

Few artists have done more to reconstruct the course of contemporary culture than Patti Smith (b. December 30 1946). Celebrated as the “Godmother of Punk,” her musical influence reverberates across acclaimed artists from Garbage to Morrissey to Madonna, and Michael Stipe famously cited her as the core inspiration for founding R.E.M. As a poet and visual artist, she has explored with lyrical poignancy issues of irrepressible urgency, ranging from foreign policy to mortality.

Among Smith’s greatest feats it the systematic demolition of the the perilous and artificial divide between “high” and “low” culture. In 1978, her song “Because the Night” from the groundbreaking album Horses reached #13 on the Billboard 100 chart; in 2010, her remarkable memoir Just Kids earned her the National Book Award. William Blake and Arthur Rimbaud have inspired much of her music, which has moved generations of hearts and bodies across dance floors and mosh pits. In 2005, she was named a Commander of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Minister of Culture; in 2006, she brought down the house at CBGB’s with an extraordinary 3½-hour masterpiece of a performance. The following year, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Allen Ginsberg once bought her a sandwich in the East Village after mistaking her for “a very pretty boy.”

In the decades between Horses (1975) and Banga (2012), Smith recorded nine other studio albums, delivered countless poetry readings, and authored a number of books, including the breathtaking The Coral Sea, which chronicles her grief over the loss of her onetime lover, lifelong friend, and comrade-in-artistic-arms Robert Mapplethorpe.

In Just Kids, which documents how Smith found her creative voice during her early life with Mapplethorpe when both were aspiring artists in New York City, she articulates the singular duality of her muse:

It’s the artist’s responsibility to balance mystical communication and the labor of creation.

May

13

For more than half a century, poet and essayist Adrienne Rich (May 16, 1929 — March 27, 2012) explored with equal parts courage and conviction such complex cultural phenomena as identity and ideology, gender and politics, oppression and freedom. The recipient of numerous honors, including the National Book Award for Poetry, two Guggenheim fellowships, and a MacArthur “genius” grant — Rich is celebrated as one of the most influential poets of the twentieth century.

For Rich, art was as much a tool of creative expression as it was a vehicle for empathy, for expanding one’s understanding of the world beyond the limits of the individual. In a 2005 conversation at the Kelly Writers House, she articulates her ethos with a beautiful definition of art:

One of the great functions of art is to help us imagine what it is like to be not ourselves, what it is like to be someone or something else, what it is like to live in another skin, what it is like to live in another body, and in that sense to surpass ourselves, to go out beyond ourselves.

Rich’s own life was anything but ordinary. In 1953, she married Harvard professor Alfred Haskell Conrad, who fathered her three children. Over the decade that followed, her career exploded, in the process catapulting her into a spurt of personal growth, self-discovery, and political awakening. In 1970, stifled by the institution of marriage, Rich divorced Conrad. In 1976, she met and fell in love with Jamaican-born novelist and editor Michelle Cliff, who became her lifelong partner and inspired Rich’s Twenty-One Love Poems (1977), her first literary exploration of lesbian desire and sexuality, later included in one of her most celebrated works, The Dream of a Common Language (1978). The two remained together for thirty-six years, until Rich’s death in 2012. In a lamentable manifestation of the current failings of marriage equality, as of this writing, her Wikipedia entry still lists Conrad as her only spouse.

In 1997, in protest against the growing monopoly of power and the government’s proposed plan to end funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, Rich famously became the first and only person to date to decline the prestigious National Medal of Arts, the highest honor bestowed upon an individual artist on behalf of the people of the United States, previously awarded to such luminaries as Ralph Ellison, Georgia O’Keeffe, John Updike, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, and fellow reconstructionist Maya Angelou.

But despite the strong undercurrents of political and sociocultural commentary, Rich’s work was driven first and foremost by the irrepressible stirrings of her inner life. She reflected in an interview:

A poem can come out of something seen, something overheard, listening to music, an article in a newspaper, a book, a combination of all these… There’s a kind of emotional release that I then find in the act of writing the poem. It’s not, ‘I’m now going to sit down and write a poem about this.’