Georgia O'Keeffe, Spring, 1922, Oil on canvas , 35-1/2 x 30-3/8, The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, New York, Bequest of Mrs. Arthur Schwab (Edna Bryner, class of 1907), © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum/Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Georgia O'Keeffe, Red & Orange Streak, 1919, Oil on canvas , 27 x 23", Philadelphia Museum of Art, Bequest of Georgia O’Keeffe for the Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1987, Photograph by the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Georgia O'Keeffe, Abstraction White Rose, 1927, Oil on canvas , 36 x 30", Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe, New Mexico, Gift, The Burnett Foundation and The Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation, © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum/Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe: A Portrait, 1918, Gelatin silver print , 9-1/2 x 7-3/4", The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 93.XM.25.32, © J. Paul Getty Trust.
Georgia O'Keeffe, Series I, No. 4, 1918, Oil on canvas , 20 x 16", Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich, Gift of The Georgia O'Keeffe Foundation, © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum/Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Georgia O'Keeffe, Series I, No. 8, 1919, Oil on canvas , 20 x 16", Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich, Gift of The Georgia O'Keeffe Foundation, © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum/Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Georgia O'Keeffe, Untitled (Abstraction/Portrait of Paul Strand), 1917, Watercolor on paper , 12 x 8-7/8", Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe, New Mexico, Gift, The Burnett Foundation, © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum/Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York.
1071 Fifth Avenue
Peter Norton Family Galleries,
Georgia O'Keeffe: Abstraction
September 17, 2009-January 17, 2010
While true that Georgia O’Keeffe has entered the public imagination as a painter of sensual, feminine subjects, she is nevertheless viewed first and foremost as a painter of places and things. Even O’Keeffe’s canvasses of architecture, from skyscrapers of Manhattan to adobe structures of Abiquiu, come to mind more readily than numerous works — throughout her career — that she termed abstract.
The artistic achievement of Georgia O’Keeffe is freshly examined in Georgia O’Keeffe: Abstraction. While O’Keeffe (1887-1986) has long been recognized as one a central figure in 20th-century art, the radical abstract work she created throughout her long career has remained less well-known than her representational art. By surveying her abstractions, Georgia O’Keeffe: Abstraction repositions O’Keeffe as one of America's first and most daring abstract artists.
Including more than 130 paintings, drawings, watercolors, and sculptures by O'Keeffe as well as examples of Alfred Stieglitz’s photographic portrait series of O’Keeffe, the exhibition has been years in the making. The curatorial team, led by Whitney curator Barbara Haskell, includes Barbara Buhler Lynes, the curator of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum and the Emily Fisher Landau Director of Georgia O'Keeffe Museum Research Center; Bruce Robertson, professor of history of art and architecture at University of California, Santa Barbara; Elizabeth Hutton Turner, professor and vice provost for the arts at University of Virginia and guest curator at Phillips Collection; and Sasha Nicholas, Whitney curatorial assistant. The exhibition is accompanied by an illustrated catalogue with essays by organizers, selections recently unsealed Stieglitz-O’Keeffe correspondence, and a contextual chronology of O’Keeffe’s life and work.
This exhibition is the first to examine O'Keeffe's achievement as an abstract artist. In 1915, O'Keeffe leaped into the forefront of American modernism with a group of abstract charcoal drawings that were among the most radical creations produced in the United States at that time. A year later, she added color to her repertoire; by 1918, she was expressing the union of abstract form and color in paint. First exhibited in 1923, O’Keeffe’s psychologically charged, brilliantly colored abstract oils garnered immediate critical and public acclaim. For the next decade, abstraction would dominate her attention. Even after 1930, when O’Keeffe’s focus turned increasingly to representational subjects, she never abandoned abstraction, which remained the guiding principle of her art. She returned to abstraction in the mid-1940s with a new, planar vocabulary that provided a precedent for a younger generation of abstractionists.
Abstraction and representation for O’Keeffe were neither binary nor oppositional. She moved freely from one to the other, cognizant that all art is rooted in an underlying abstract formal invention. For O’Keeffe, abstraction offered a way to communicate ineffable thoughts and sensations. As she said in 1976, “The abstraction is often the most definite form for the intangible thing in myself that I can only clarify in paint.” Through a personal language of abstraction, she sought to give visual form (as she confided in a 1916 letter to Alfred Stieglitz) to “things I feel and want to say — [but] havent [sic] words for.” Abstraction allowed her to express intangible experience — be it a quality of light, color, sound, or response to a person or place. As O’Keeffe defined it in 1923, her goal as a painter was to “make the unknown — known. By unknown I mean the thing that means so much to the person that he wants to put it down — clarify something he feels but does not clearly understand.”
This exhibition and catalogue chronicle the trajectory of O'Keeffe's career as an abstract artist, examining forces impacting changes in subject matter and style. From her career's start, she was, as critic Henry McBride remarked, “a newspaper personality.” Interpretations of her art were shaped almost exclusively by Alfred Stieglitz, artist, impresario, dealer, editor, and O’Keeffe’s eventual husband, who presented her work from 1916 to 1946 in the groundbreaking galleries “291”, Anderson Galleries, Intimate Gallery, and An American Place. Stieglitz’s public and private statements about O’Keeffe’s early abstractions and photographs he took of her, partially clothed or nude, led critics to interpret her work — to her dismay — as Freudian-tinged, psychological expressions of her sexuality.
Cognizant of the lack of public sympathy for abstraction and seeking to direct critics away from sexualized readings of her work, O’Keeffe self-consciously began to introduce more recognizable images into her repertoire in the mid-1920s. As she wrote to writer Sherwood Anderson in 1924, “I suppose the reason I got down to an effort to be objective is that I didn’t like the interpretations of my other things [abstractions].” O’Keeffe’s shift to representational subjects, coupled with Stieglitz’s penchant for favoring exhibition of new, unseen work, meant that O’Keeffe’s abstractions rarely figured in the exhibitions Stieglitz mounted of her work after 1930, with the result that her first forays into abstraction virtually disappeared from public view.
In addition to rethinking O'Keeffe's place in American modernism, the book that accompanies this exhibition reappraises the origin and singular character of her abstract vocabulary and the stylistic shifts her art underwent over her long career. It adds new insight into her art and life, publishing for the excerpts of recently unsealed letters written by O’Keeffe to photographer and gallerist Alfred Stieglitz, whom she married in 1924. These letters, with a contextual chronology and other documents referenced by the authors, offer a glimpse into her creative method and intentions as an artist.
Georgia O'Keeffe, Early Abstraction, 1915, Charcoal on paper , 24 x 18-5/8", Milwaukee Art Museum, Gift of Jane Bradley Pettit Foundation and The Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation , M1997.189, © Milwaukee Art Museum, Photography by Malcolm Varon.
Georgia O'Keeffe, Jack-in-Pulpit Abstraction – No. 5, 1930, Oil on canvas , 48 x 30", National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Alfred Stieglitz Collection, Bequest of Georgia O’Keeffe, 1987.58.4, Image courtesy of the Board of Trustees.
Georgia O'Keeffe, Black White and Blue, 1930, Oil on canvas , 48 x 30", Collection of Barney A. Ebsworth, © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum/Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Georgia O'Keeffe, Abstraction, 1926, Oil on canvas , 30-1/4 x 18-1/16", Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 58.43, © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum/Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Georgia O'Keeffe, Jack-in-the-Pulpit No. VI, 1930, Oil on canvas , 36 x 18", National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Alfred Stieglitz Collection, Bequest of Georgia O’Keeffe, 1987.58.5, Image courtesy of the Board of Trustees.
Georgia O'Keeffe, Pink Tulip, 1925, Oil on canvas , 31-3/4 x 12", Collection of Emily Fisher Landau, © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum/Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York.