The O’Keeffe show at the Whitney is the first to study, and celebrate, her abstract works
The abstraction is often the
most definite form for the
intangible thing in myself that
I can only clarify in paint.
— Georgia O’Keeffe, 1976
Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) may be best known for her sumptuous floral compositions and stark depictions of animal bones and the raw beauty of New Mexico, but she began her career as an abstract artist—she was one of the first American abstract artists—and ended it that way.
Georgia O’Keeffe: Abstraction, now on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art in Manhattan until January 17, 2010, is an illuminating exhibit that makes O’Keeffe’s use of abstraction, and emphasis on color and form to convey thoughts and feelings, its sole focus. Inspired by the radical teachings of art educator Arthur Wesley Dow at Columbia University’s Teachers College, she adopted his view that art need not imitate life, but rather reflect the personality of the artist. Self-expression trumps representation.
As she said in her first published interview in 1922: “I made up my mind to forget all that I had been taught, and to paint exactly as I felt.” Much later, in 1976, O’Keeffe told an interviewer, “The meaning of a word — to me — is not as exact as the meaning of color. Color and shapes make a more definite statement than words.” But she rejected the fractured and flat forms of the European Cubists in favor of soft, undulating, organic forms, closely cropped and spilling out of the canvas, to record experiences she felt were ineffable. In her view, they could not be expressed any other way.
O’Keeffe’s early forays into abstraction began in 1915 with charcoal drawings and black watercolors and evolved to include color (blue first) and oil paint, the latter at the suggestion of Alfred Stieglitz, the famed photographer, gallery owner, O’Keeffe promoter and paramour. And while she largely abandoned abstraction in 1934 and turned to representational art after critics insisted on erotic interpretations of her abstractions, abstraction remained an abiding principle throughout her career. Her later, mid-century canvases, in fact, with their vast expanses of color and rigid geometry and schematic forms, paved the way for American Abstract Expressionists such as Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, and Ellsworth Kelly.
O’Keeffe aficionados are mostly familiar with her storied and stormy relationship with the much-older Stieglitz, whom she married in 1924 after he introduced her work to the public in a series of shows at his New York galleries, notably her first solo show at “291” in the spring of 1917. In June of that year he began to photograph her, ultimately producing some 300 prints that comprise a “portrait diary.” He photographed her clothed, partially clothed, and nude, and 45 of the photos were included in a retrospective of his work at the Anderson Galleries in New York in 1921, transforming O’Keeffe in a flash into a “newspaper personality,” as one critic put it, or put another way, fodder for the tabloids.
Nearly a dozen of these sexually charged photo-portraits are on display in a separate room at the Whitney. The walls are brown and echo the sepia tones of the prints, which are soft, and in the case of the nudes, hazy. Much to O’Keeffe’s chagrin, the nudes confirmed the nature of her relationship with Stieglitz (she was 34-years-old, and he was, shockingly, married and 57-years-old) and prompted the critics to respond to her paintings as “emblems of female sexuality,” the catalogue states. She rebelled at the “narrow reading of her art” and rejected non-representational painting for at least a decade until she resumed it with such works as the Black Place series (1944 - 1945), depictions of her favorite camping grounds in the hills of New Mexico, some 150 miles west of her summer home in Ghost Ranch. The series of four canvases takes an aerial view of the landscape, a technique she began using in her later abstract period. The forms, hills divided by a crack, become increasingly abstract until “we are free to see them in other ways,” the curators narrate in this exhibit’s excellent audio guide. After a camping trip to the Black Place in 1943, O’Keeffe confided to Stieglitz that the landscape reminded her of him, with his silvery hair, gray clothes, majestic black cape and white handkerchief.
Stieglitz, of course, introduced O’Keeffe to Manhattan’s artistic vanguard and especially to photography, a new medium whose techniques — such as close-cropping of images and magnification — she adopted and used to help shape her radical, modern style. Viewing images at close range enhances abstraction, and it also, for her, was used to suggest the sheer enormity of nature. It is this sheer enormity that led O’Keeffe into, and back to, abstraction. Where words would not suffice, color, line and shapes — abstraction — would.
©2009 Val Castronovo for SeniorWomen.com