O'Keeffe's O'Keeffes: The Artist's Collectionby Barbara Buhler Lynes, Russell Bowman, Milwaukee Art Museum
The first exploration of the art that Georgia O'Keeffe retained for her personal collection, including works that have never been publicly exhibited.
Georgia O'Keeffe was one of America's preeminent artists and one of the first to experiment with abstract form, though she never abandoned her deep response to and observation of nature. An enormously popular
The first exploration of the art that Georgia O'Keeffe retained for her personal collection, including works that have never been publicly exhibited.
Georgia O'Keeffe was one of America's preeminent artists and one of the first to experiment with abstract form, though she never abandoned her deep response to and observation of nature. An enormously popular artist, she became identified and respected as an independent American spirit through both her art and her life. At the time of her death in 1986, Georgia O'Keeffe owned more than half of the approximately 2,000 works she had produced during the eighty years she was active as an artist: some 400 works in oil, charcoal, pastel, pencil, and watercolor, as well as more than 700 sketches. For various reasons, she had always kept a portion of her art out of the public eye and these works were not published, exhibited, or available for purchase during her lifetime. Among the works that had been exhibited and sold over the years, some were repurchased by O'Keeffe as they became available. This book explores for the first time the significance of O'Keeffe's collection of her own work. Approximately 75 seminal works, dating from about 1910 through the 1960s and reproduced in full color, document the range and quality of the art that O'Keeffe either chose to retain in her estate or consciously distributed to institutions in her lifetime and as bequests. It reveals her thinking in relation to her oeuvre, providing a unique perspective from which to understand O'Keeffe as artist and collector. The book accompanies an exhibition organized by the Milwaukee Art Museum and the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, the principal recipients to date of art from the O'Keeffe estate. The exhibition coincides with the opening of the Milwaukee Art Museum's major addition designed by noted Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava.
- Thames & Hudson
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Since her death in 1986, three biographies, a number of exhibitions, a catalogue raisonné documenting her life's work, a museum of her work founded in 1997, and many other efforts have attempted to come to terms with both the life and achievement of Georgia O'Keeffe. This outpouring of critical and scholarly attention, as well as the photography books, calendars, and posters of her and her works (especially flowers) that now seem almost ubiquitous, attest to the extraordinary hold O'Keeffe has on the American imagination. Her image was built first by her husband, Alfred Stieglitz, the photographer and dealer primarily responsible for introducing modern art to American audiences, and then by O'Keeffe herself as she occasionally wrote about her work and allowed herself to be photographed at her homes in New Mexico. The image that Stieglitz built from 1916 into the 1930s of O'Keeffe as a sensual purveyor of female emotion was gradually replaced, with her increasing presence in New Mexico after 1929 and her move there in 1949, by O'Keeffe's own version of the self-reliant, austere American seer. Both images have influenced but also confused her true achievement as an artist.
Only now, with the publication of the catalogue raisonné and studies of her early work and works on paper, can we begin to see the unique vision and early innovation that place O'Keeffe's art among the most important by any American artist. This exhibition, which surveys the large body of work she retained (sometimes by repurchasing) inher estate at the time of her death, as well as the pictures she placed in institutions during her lifetime, seeks to illuminate the types of work she made available to the public through exhibitions, publications, and donations to institutions and that which she held in reserve, for personal reasons or perhaps because she was wary of their reception. Her collection, in any case, documents her self-awareness of her art. Surveying the sampling of pieces from her collection that comprises this exhibition, which interestingly includes most of the periods and types of work in her long career, one can begin to assess the range and power of O'Keeffe's work and her distinctive contribution to American art.
Born in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, in 1887, O'Keeffe grew up with an appreciation for the open space of the American plains and in a family that encouraged an interest in art. But strikingly she recorded in her 1976 book of personal statements and illustrations of her work, frequently from her own collection: "My first memory is of the brightness of light light all around." Works in this exhibition chosen from her collection support the idea that light in both its formal and metaphoric aspects forms a consistent thread and one that helps to define her achievement as an artist.
O'Keeffe left the Wisconsin prairie early on at fifteen and pursued her study of art variously at The Art Institute of Chicago, the Art Students League in New York, and as both a student and teaching assistant to Alon Bement at the University of Virginia. Bement was a colleague of Arthur Wesley Dow at Teachers College, Columbia University, and in perhaps the most formative phase of her student years, O'Keeffe studied there with Dow in 1914-15. Dow proposed an aesthetic based on principles of Chinese and Japanese art (and the emerging style of Art Nouveau), which emphasized the arrangement of simplified, sometimes organic shapes, rather than perspectival depth. He also conveyed some ideas of his mentor, Ernest Fenollosa, whose studies of Chinese and Japanese art proclaimed a kind of Zen self-discovery. Influenced by these ideas as well as by seeing works by Rodin, Picasso, Braque, and others at Stieglitz's gallery 291, subscriptions to his publications 291 and Camera Work, and Wassily Kandinsky's Concerning the Spiritual in Art, O'Keeffe was ready in 1915 to seek her own way as an artist. She wrote: "It was in the fall of 1915 that I first had the idea that what I had been taught was of little value to me except for the use of materials as a language.... I decided I wasn't going to spend my life doing what had already been done."
In looking at her work from the formative and completely realized period of 1915-18, the period before her moving to New York at Stieglitz's invitation, it becomes clear that whatever influence Stieglitz had, O'Keeffe's vision was her own. The early charcoal drawings of 1915-16 (cat. nos. 2-4), with the occasional pastel and watercolor, and even some of the works extending into 1919 reflect her wish to start at the most basic point just black and white and create abstract evocations of music and emotional states as advocated by Fenollosa and Kandinsky. These works represent some of the most advanced abstraction of the time, through their relative simplicity and their suggestions of a type of organic vitalism. It was drawings such as these that Stieglitz so much admired and included in a group show at his gallery in 1916.
In the fall of 1916, following her first meeting with Stieglitz, O'Keeffe took a teaching position at West Texas Normal School in Canyon, Texas. Always drawn to the West, she particularly responded to its vast distances and the sense of light in a location where the sky so clearly dominates the level topography. Works such as Sunrise and Little Clouds' No. II (1916, cat. no. 6) and Evening Star No. VI (1917, cat. no. 9) show her fascination not only with the spaces of the West, but with its atmospheric phenomena and light. She remarked of the Evening Star series: "We often walked away from town in the late afternoon sunset.... [I]t was like the ocean but it was wide, wide land. The evening star would be high in the sunset sky when it was still broad daylight.... I had nothing but to walk into nowhere with the wide sunset space with the star." The Palo Duro Canyon series of 1916-17, done of a favorite Texas location and also evoking the time of sunset, shows O'Keeffe continuing to abstract from nature and attempting to convey her deeply felt emotional response to the scene before her. Perhaps one of her most powerful evocations of light and its meaning for her came in the 1917 series of three watercolors Light Coming on the Plains, which O'Keeffe retained in her collection until they were sold to the Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, at the time of her retrospective there in 1966. No. II Light Coming on the Plains (1917, fig. 1) includes a touch of the broad plain, an arching infinitude of sky, and a tremulous glow of dawn that seem to suggest light as an almost generative force of nature. It is interesting to note, too, O'Keeffe's propensity, even in these early years, to work in series, gradually distilling both her formal means and her emotive content.
O'Keeffe's life took a radical change in 1918 with her move to New York. Not only did she begin the most pervasive personal and professional relationship of her life (Stieglitz left his wife of many years and moved in with O'Keeffe; they were married in 1924), but she also became immersed in Stieglitz's promotion of European Modernists and, more importantly, Americans who embraced the Modernist aesthetic, such as John Marin, Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove, Charles Demuth, and the photographer Paul Strand. As their life together went on, O'Keeffe took responsibility for many of their social contacts as well as hanging many of the exhibitions in Stieglitz's successive spaces at the Anderson Galleries, the Intimate Gallery and An American Place. Immediately placed at the center of avant-garde artistic life in New York, O'Keeffe was initially stimulated and later increasingly suffocated by the aesthetic positioning and disputation of "the men." Stieglitz, for his part, influenced by the Freudian theories of the time, presented her work in her first one-person show of 1917 and in succeeding years as the sensual, if not erotic, expression of the female consciousness. This sensualist reading was taken up by other critics and given a rather sensationalist reinforcement in the 1921 exhibition of Stieglitz's photographic portraits of O'Keeffe, many with a strong sensual presence, and several nude, sometimes posed suggestively against her own organically formed work. At her major exhibition of some 100 works at The Anderson Galleries in 1923 and, again with her first showing of the enlarged flowers in 1926, the sensualist, "female" reading of the works' content pervaded the critical response a reading O'Keeffe increasingly denied. However, the notoriety the artist gained through Stieglitz's photographs of her, his powerful promotion of her work, and the generally broad and positive (if, to her mind, wrong-headed) criticism of her work placed her by 1929 at the forefront of American art. She was the only woman included in the new Museum of Modern Art's "Paintings by 19 Living Americans" exhibition in 1929.
In considering the work done in New York City and during frequent visits to the Stieglitz family compound at Lake George in upstate New York, from 1918 to 1929, a dichotomy seems to emerge. The extraordinary group of oils done in 1918-20, the Series paintings (cat. nos. 17-22), and continuing into the powerful abstractions of the 1920s, are some of her most innovative works. Among those that remained in her collection were From the Lake, No. 3 (1924, cat. no. 23), Red, Yellow and Black Streak of the same year (cat. no. 24), and Grey, Blue & Black Pink Circle (1929, cat. no. 25). These and other works of the period continue her interest in distilling the formal and emotional essence of natural phenomena and inventing equivalents of emotional states or the power of music. They are some of the most extreme abstractions of their time in America less dependent on natural correlatives than those by Arthur Dove, more independently invented than Stanton MacDonald-Wright's variations on Orphism or Patrick Henry Bruce's versions of Cubism and more emotionally charged.
What is also evident, however, is that as early as 1919-20, O'Keeffe had begun to explore all alternative to these prodigious abstractions. The rather traditional still lifes of apples and shells (although Clam Shell [1930, cat. no. 29] is almost abstract in its focus on the interior lobes of the shell), the close-focused leaves and flowers the latter perhaps influenced by the cropped photographs of Edward Steichen, Paul Strand, or Imogen Cunningham of the same period, the trees and landscapes of Lake George, and the cityscapes of New York show O'Keeffe employing a more precise depiction of the motif before her. While the degree of realist detail certainly varies from highly specific in the apples and leaves to diffuse in the trees, Lake George landscapes, and the almost atmospheric River, New York (1928, cat. no. 41), a sense of observation of the world is palpably present. Again, it is the series works of the period that overwhelm in their development of a motif from focused realism to near complete abstraction. The Jack-in-the-Pulpit series (cat. nos. 43-45 from the series of six) demonstrates O'Keeffe moving literally into the heart of the flower, one she remembered from her early Wisconsin drawing classes. And Abstraction White Rose (1927, cat. no. 42), certainly one of her greatest paintings, shows O'Keeffe delving into the flower's center to achieve a sense of an almost universal rhythm of growth. O'Keeffe moved between these poles of reality and abstraction, perhaps because she was wary of the early readings of her abstract imagery, but more likely because she found both to be real and necessary parts of her response to the world.
As to her treatment of light, the 1918-20 abstractions seem irradiated by a soft inner glow, a quality that continues in the subtle hues and values of works such as Abstraction White Rose. However, the Jack-in-the-Pulpit series shows her turning light into specific symbolic form. Jack-in-the-Pulpit No. IV (1930, fig. 2) shows the pistil of the flower outlined in a pure curve of light a light form that becomes almost the entire subject of the highly abstract Jack-in-the-Pulpit No. VI (1930, cat. no. 45). Seldom did O'Keeffe make more clear her belief in the inner vitalism of nature and her association of this force with light. The more objective works, whether still life or landscape, are bathed in an even brightness that emphasizes their outline and shape, but provides no true indication of light source or atmosphere. This relative, even light seems the correlative of the inner light of her abstractions, a kind of reflection of the indwelling spirit of objective reality. Interestingly, O'Keeffe commented about one of her Lake George paintings, My Shanty, the first work she sold to a public institution (1922, The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, CR 367): "[O]ne day as I looked at the brown burned wood of the Shanty, I thought `I can paint one of those dismal-colored paintings like the men.' I think just for fun I will try all low-toned and dreary with the tree beside the door. In my next show, `The Shanty' went up. The men seemed to approve of it. They seemed to think that maybe I was beginning to paint.... That was my only low-toned dismal-colored painting." Beyond her obviously ironic tone about "the men," O'Keeffe's commentary points up her association of light with color and her intention to keep her paintings in a brighter-toned, more light-filled realm.
In 1929 O'Keeffe famously spent her first summer in New Mexico, which increasingly became her home. The 1930s and early 1940s were a period of increasing independence from Stieglitz, a period of growing ill health for her husband, and in 1933 an instance of physical and emotional breakdown for her, perhaps because of pressures of her planned mural for Rockefeller Center and a domestic crisis with Stieglitz. In any case, she went to the Southwest desert to think, paint, and restore herself. She wrote for her exhibition catalogue at An American Place in 1939: "A red hill doesn't touch everyone's heart as it touches mine, and I suppose there is no reason it should.... All the earth colors of the painter's palette are out there in the many miles of badlands. The light naples yellow through the ochres orange and red and purple earth even the soft earth greens. You have no associations with those hills our waste land I think our most beautiful country." Following Stieglitz's death in 1946 and the settlement of his estate, in 1949 O'Keeffe moved permanently to New Mexico to spend the remainder of her life there. By the 1950s and 1960s, she increasingly allowed herself to be photographed at her homes, quite consciously creating an image for herself that opposed Stieglitz's early womanly and sensualist one. The image of O'Keeffe that emerged from the photographs of Ansel Adams, Yoursef Karsh, and especially later, Balthazar Korab and Todd Webb reinforced by her own paintings and writings about them was of the independent and visionary spirit of the Southwest.
It is difficult to penetrate the mythology that O'Keeffe built around herself, but the cross section of her work from 1929 until the mid-1960s retained in her collection suggests that while the predominant Southwestern themes of architecture, still life, and landscape are continuous, their treatment underwent a basic change in the early 1940s. The works of the 1930s, both of the bones she carried back with her to New York and the New Mexico landscapes, continue the relative objectivity and the even light of the more realistic 1920s paintings. Among her masterpieces from this period are Ranchos Church (1929, cat. no. 49), one of a group of her earliest and most potent Southwestern subjects, and Cow's Skull with Calico Roses (1981, cat. no. 56), a subtle play of tones and themes of life and death. The still lifes and landscapes of the later 1930s, following her illness of 1933 and her hiatus from painting, manifest a sharp and incisive focus on the world. The landscapes particularly move from penetrating views of a single land form against a strong horizon to the slightly later, more planar, and close-focused works such as Untitled (Red and Yellow Cliffs) (1940, cat. no. 64) and Cliffs Beyond Abiquiu Dry Waterfall (1943, cat. no. 66). It is important to note, however, that her aim was still to capture an emotive equivalent of the experience of reality. Of the 1929 Ranchos Church, she stated: "I long ago came to the conclusion that even if I could put down accurately the thing that I saw and enjoyed, it would not give the observer the kind of feeling it gave me. I had to create an equivalent for what I felt about what I was looking at not copy it."
In all of her subjects beginning around 1943, a transformation toward greater abstraction seems to occur. The increasingly focused view of land forms results in the Black Place series of 1943-44 in which the view of one cleft in the hills becomes almost abstract, as in Black Place III (1944, cat. no. 67). In still life, too, she began the Pelvis series, which reduces the view of bones to an interior one, through which one can glimpse an oval against the sky against the light. And in the pastel Pedernal (1945, cat. no. 68), she reversed the equation to relate the sky seen through the pelvis with the infinite sky and light on the horizon. A principal subject of the 1950s, the patio of her Abiquiu house, underwent a similar transformation. A view already simplified to the point of abstraction a well, a door, and a bit of ground or sky the patios first deal with patterns of light and shadow and weather (cat. nos. 51-53), but in later works such as White Patio with Red Door (1960, fig. 3), evolve into light-filled, dazzling, near complete abstraction. Light becomes the subject.
This direction becomes increasingly evident in the so-called "seen from an airplane" landscapes of the late 1950s and early 1960s, done following O'Keeffe's around-the-world trip and a number of other international travels. While the drawings and paintings of river beds seem to link compositionally to some of her early charcoals and watercolors of the 1915-16 period, the late paintings retained in her collection such as Sky with Flat White Cloud (1962, cat. no. 72) and Winter Road I (1963, cat. no. 73) suggest her continued absorption in issues of light. Sky with Flat White Cloud and the several other paintings of the subject with patterns of small clouds, culminating in her mural-scale Sky Above Clouds IV (1965, The Art Institute of Chicago, CR 1498), painted when she was eighty, reveal an inversion of her iconic, early Light Coming on the Plains watercolors. In Sky with Flat White Cloud, light irradiates the area below the horizon, suggesting an infinite, light-filled universe. In Winter Road I, which she based on a view from her Abiquiu bedroom window, white light obliterates all but the elegant swing of the road into the distance. O'Keeffe remarked about the two versions of this subject: "Two walls of my room in the Abiquiu house are glass and from one window I see the road toward Espanola, Santa Fe, and the world. The road fascinates me with its ups and downs and finally its wide sweep as it speeds toward the wall of my hilltop to go past me. I had made two or three snaps of it with a camera. For one of them I turned the camera at a sharp angle to get all the road. It was accidental that I made the road seem to stand up in the air, but it amused me, and I began drawing and painting it as a new shape. The trees and mesa beside it were unimportant for that paintingit was just the road." Though this statement reveals her continuing commitment to conveying her emotional response to nature, the compositional principles that began with the influence of Dow, and the presence of the camera, what she does not say is that the "unimportant" parts of the landscape are subsumed by the same whiteness of light that is in some of the patio and cloud pictures of the period. These light-filled works are her last before macular degeneration of her sight caused her to turn to assistants and to works in clay.
In surveying the works O'Keeffe retained in her collection, one sees that they touch on almost all aspects of her production and provide insight into the broad directions of her career. First, her constant attempt to capture her emotional response to nature is clear. Second, her work from its beginning in pure abstraction oscillated between poles of abstraction and representation, even elements of realism. She wrote, "It is surprising to me to see how many people separate the objective from the abstract. Objective painting is not good painting unless it is good in the abstract sense. A hill or a tree cannot make a good painting just because it is a hill or a tree. It is lines and colors put together so that they say something. For me that is the very basis of painting. The abstracted is often the most definite form for the intangible thing in myself that I can only clarify in paint." In that freedom to move between aspects of reality and abstraction, between modes of representation or style, she seems like a precursor of what is now called Postmodern. Finally, it seems that there is a continuity in her pursuit of effects of light that amounts to the use of light as an informing substance, particularly in her last pictures. Light, and its correlative for her in space or distance, suggests a long tradition in American art of seeking to represent the universal or the spiritual in vast, light-filled views of nature. O'Keeffe took this tradition, beginning in the Transcendentalists and continued by the Hudson River School and a number of her Stieglitz circle colleagues such as Dove and Marin, and made it entirely personal. Of an experience that seems related to Sky with Flat White Cloud, she wrote: "One day when I was flying back to New Mexico, the sky below was a most beautiful solid white. It looked so secure that I thought I could walk right out on it to the horizon...." Whether gained from a specific reading of Transcendentalist principles, her absorption of Eastern concepts, or her own deeply felt response to the world, O'Keeffe seems to have sought a oneness with nature that she symbolized by light. From the Light Coming on the Plains watercolors to Sky with Flat White Cloud, her journey was consistent and complete. Both her formal innovation and her universalist content place her at the very vanguard of American art, a position her image sometimes obscures but her collection allows us to see in full.
Twilight in Texas
By Jodi Thomas
Copyright © 2001 Jodi Koumalats. All rights reserved.
Meet the Author
Barbara Buhler Lynes is an independent scholar and O'Keeffe expert.
Russell Bowman, Director, Milwaukee Art Museum, has organized exhibitions and written about the work of Pearlstein, Warhol, Polke,
Schnabel, Nutt, O'Keeffe, and many other contemporary artists.
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