“Georgia O’Keeffe: Abstraction” at the Whitney
Alright, I am making it my goal to describe the gist of this show so well that those of you who aren’t able to see it feel like you did. I have to be perfectly honest in saying that I was not terribly excited to see this exhibition. My parents live in Santa Fe and I have gone to the O’Keeffe Museum there on numerous occasions only to be underwhelmed. I do, however, enjoy her work and find her interesting as a person and an artist and have been to her home in Abiquiu and Ghost Ranch in New Mexico. So I headed reluctantly to the third floor. I am sure my experience was enhanced by the fact that the curator, Barbara Haskell, led my group around offering anecdotal information not on the wall text. The goal of this exhibit is to present a different side of O’Keeffe, one not linked to the sexual associations others attributed to her work. The focus here is on abstractions and radical work from her early career which became the basis for her representational work. Towards the end of her life she returned to these abstracted forms.
The show is one of the largest O’Keeffe exhibitions ever assembled and was begun four years ago with five curators working on it. Treasures came out of this show like the unsealing of letters between O’Keeffe and Steiglitz that had been sealed for 60 years. This correspondence gives us more insight into her life and her work.
O’Keeffe went briefly to art school in order to become an art teacher. She believed that art was not about representing something from the natural world but about the artist expressing her personality. This approach came from her teacher, Arthur Wesley Dow a pioneer in art education. She had a desire to “speak” through her work and the charcoal works on view in the first gallery are her pure feelings translated to paper. Art was a way for her to connect with the unknown through abstracted forms and later in her use of color. Steiglitz was impressed by her work and his positive feedback gave her the courage to continue. In 1916 her work was shown by Steiglitz for the first time at his gallery 291. It is interesting to note that the forms in these charcoal works come directly out of the arts and crafts movement at the turn of the century. The forms in her charcoals establish a vocabulary that she returns to again and again throughout her career.
In 1916 she introduced the color blue into her work and created a blue watercolor. This exploration of one color most likely came about after reading The New Science of Color by Beatrice Irwin which suggests mastering one color at a time. In 1917 O’Keeffe moved to Canyon, TX to teach and added representational color. O’Keeffe was not interested in subject matter in and of itself per se but as a springboard for something else. Steiglitz showed these works and on her visit to NY, O’Keeffe met other artists in his stable including Paul Strand. After this meeting, her work became much more abstract. Through her work she created a sensation of someone or something, not the thing itself. She worked serially throughout her career and color was her means of connecting with the unconscious. “The meaning of a word to me is not as exact as the meaning of a color. Color and shapes make a more definite statement than words.” 1916, Georgia O’Keeffe.
In 1918 she changed from watercolor to oil paint and she matures quickly as an artist. She uses space and color so magically the canvas seems to pulsate and undulate. She is able to create atmospheric space as well as crisp linear space all within the same work. O’Keeffe also uses musical references in her titles around this time because she feels that music, like her paintings, can convey powerful emotions. She moved to NY at this time and it was at this time that Steiglitz began to photograph O’Keeffe. And there are over 300 photos of her because Steiglitz believed you could not get a sense of someone unless they were photographed over a lifetime. These photos influenced O’Keeffe’s work in the way that Steiglitz cropped shots to make abstractions as well as the smooth velvety surface he created, she utilized these techniques in her paintings.
In 1921 a stir was created when Steiglitz had a show in which 45 of 125 works were of O’Keeffe in various stages of undress. She was 24 years his junior and he was still married at the time. It was at this time that the critics began to talk about her work as sexual and the photos only added fuel to the fire. O’Keeffe found this extremely insulting because the work was so much deeper and broad reaching than just being about sex. Perhaps people were confusing sexuality with sensuality. In 1923 she began to move towards representational imagery because her abstractions were narrowly received as about fertility, womanhood, the female orgasm, etc.
O’Keeffe’s handling of paint was remarkable. She layered and softly blended colors to avoid muddied colors. She wanted the surface of her paintings to be like a skin with a feathery quality and a constant tension between the out of focus atmosphere and the crisp sharp lines. She controlled subtle modulations of color in a brilliant way. She developed a way for geometry to represent the NY skyline. She never made preliminary studies for her works, she would just lay down the pencil and then didn’t stray from her original idea.
Steiglitz and O’Keeffe were married in 1924 and spent a great deal of time upstate near Lake George. Water imagery was something she created a great deal during this time. She took images, simplified them, simplified them again and again until they were unrecognizable. She was a phenomenal technician and her treatment of white is just like that of colors. One pastel work entitled, Pink and Green, from 1922 caught my eye. It is a smaller piece but the color and abstraction lead the viewer’s eye into the work and one gets lost. O’Keeffe was most attracted to things in nature that are boundless, timeless, and eternal. Perhaps it is this union with nature she conveys that makes O’Keeffe so beloved as people can relate to her work. They have experienced nature being so beautiful that words can’t describe it, only a representation of an experience can truly express it.
It was the works of O’Keeffe and John Marin that kept the gallery going with their sales. The idea of sexuality linked to her work plagued her but it also generated sales and got people talking about her. In 1926 Cheney Brothers Silk Company commissioned 5 oil paintings for their fall ad campaign, two of which are on view in the show.
In 1929 O’Keeffe took her first trip to New Mexico as she wanted to get away from Steiglitz who had entered into a new relationship with Dorothy Norman. After the 1923 show she wanted her work to be open to more broad interpretation and she did not pose nude for photos again; she wanted to reframe her public persona. There are two works that jumped out at me as I moved through the galleries.
The first is Black Abstraction from 1927 in which a black circle and an unidentified organic shape mingle with a small white dot at the center. This was created after her experience of undergoing anesthesia.
Abstraction Red and Black, Night from 1929 is a very small work with two vertical deep red rectangles with a black form on the left and a brown diagonal on the right. This image does not do the work justice at all.
In 1929, much to Steiglitz’s chagrin, O’Keeffe accepts a commission for Radio City Music Hall for the women’s bathroom. Unfortunately the plaster was wet and the paint doesn’t stick. this causes O’Keeffe to have a nervous breakdown and she does not paint for a year and a half. Her confidence is so shattered that she almost has to learn how to paint again, especially the abstractions.
This relearning results in a series of predominately black and gray works of “The Black Place” about 150 miles from her New Mexico home. She wrote to Steiglitz that she “sees him in this place.” His mustache as the swirling hills, etc. In this sense, they can be interpreted as portraits of him. Though she begged Steiglitz to come visit her in New Mexico, he never did as he was petrified of travel.
Steiglitz died in 1946 and in 1949 she moved to New Mexico permanently. It is in these later works that there is a coolness and serenity that permeates through. While in New Mexico she used bones as framing devices for her abstractions. She paints her door in Abiquiu as a black square surrounded by red and golden rectangular areas. She develops macular degeneration which causes her to lose all but her peripheral vision and her latest works are simplified, abstracted forms once again. She has come full circle.