The artistic achievement of Georgia OKeeffe is examined from a fresh perspective in Georgia OKeeffe: Abstraction, a landmark exhibition debuting this winter at The Phillips Collection
. While OKeeffe (18871986) has long been recognized as one of the central figures 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 OKeeffe: Abstraction repositions OKeeffe as one of America's first and most daring abstract artists. The exhibition, one of the largest of O'Keeffe's work ever assembled, goes on view February 6 May 9, 2010.
Including more than 125 paintings, drawings, watercolors, and sculptures by O'Keeffe as well as selected examples of Alfred Stieglitzs famous photographic portrait series of OKeeffe, the exhibition has been many years in the making.
While it is true that OKeeffe 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. When one thinks of her work it is usually of her magnified images of open flowers and her iconic depictions of animal bones, her Lake George landscapes, her images of stark New Mexican cliffs, and her still lifes of fruit, leaves, shells, rocks, and bones. Even OKeeffes canvasses of architecture, from the skyscrapers of Manhattan to the adobe structures of Abiquiu, come to mind more readily than the numerous worksmade throughout her careerthat she termed abstract.
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, OKeeffes 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 OKeeffes 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 OKeeffe 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 OKeeffe, 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 her 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 experiencebe it a quality of light, color, sound, or response to a person or place. As OKeeffe defined it in 1923, her goal as a painter was to make the unknownknown. By unknown I mean the thing that means so much to the person that he wants to put it downclarify something he feels but does not clearly understand.
This exhibition and catalogue chronicle the trajectory of O'Keeffe's career as an abstract artist and examine the forces impacting the changes in her subject matter and style. From the beginning of her career, she was, as critic Henry McBride remarked, a newspaper personality. Interpretations of her art were shaped almost exclusively by Alfred Stieglitz, artist, charismatic impresario, dealer, editor, and OKeeffes eventual husband, who presented her work from 1916 to 1946 at the groundbreaking galleries 291, the Anderson Galleries, the Intimate Gallery, and An American Place. Stieglitzs public and private statements about OKeeffes early abstractions and the photographs he took of her, partially clothed or nude, led critics to interpret her workto her great dismayas Freudian-tinged, psychological expressions of her sexuality.
Cognizant of the publics lack of sympathy for abstraction and seeking to direct the critics away from sexualized readings of her work, OKeeffe self-consciously began to introduce more recognizable images into her repertoire in the mid-1920s. As she wrote to the writer Sherwood Anderson in 1924, I suppose the reason I got down to an effort to be objective is that I didnt like the interpretations of my other things [abstractions]. OKeeffes increasing shift to representational subjects, coupled with Stieglitzs penchant for favoring the exhibition of new, previously unseen work, meant that OKeeffes 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.