By Carter B. Horsley
Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986) is America's greatest
female artist and a major pioneer of abstraction in the United
She is perhaps best known for her close-up
paintings of flowers and her southwestern landscapes, but this
exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, which will travel
to the Phillips Collection in Washington D.C., and end at the
Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico, focuses on her
One of the earlier masterpieces
in the exhibition is "Trains at Night in the desert,"
a 1916 charcoal on paper that measures 24 1/4 by 18 1/2 inches
and is in a private collection. It has little that one normally
identifies with his oeuvre and yet it is a superb and fascinating
composition. The train is seen from the front and could be comfused
with that of a human figure except for the two uneven parallel
lines beneath it that are apparently meant to imply train tracks.
There is the merest heat of white steam emerging from the top
of the "engine" but the dominant parts of the composition
at the arcs of billowing steam and dark smoke. It is wonderfully
abstract but it is not a "macro" scene that she would
employ predominantly later in her very long career.
One of her most minimal and beautiful abstractions
is a 1916 watercolor entitled "Black Lines" in the collection
of the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It is
slightly smaller and "looser" than a very similar composition
entitled ""Blue Lines," also executed in 1916 and
in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art that is illustrated
in the catalogue. "Black Lines" is quite similar to
a pastel of the same size and year that is in the collection of
the National Gallery of Art in Washington and is entitled "First
Drawing of the Blue Lines."
"Series I - No.1,"
by O'Keeffe, oil on composition board, 19 3/4 by 16 inches, 1918,
Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Purchase with assistance from
the Anne Burnett Tandy Accessions Fund, 1995.8, left; "Series
I - No. 2," oil on board, 20 by 16 inches, 1918, Milwaukee
Art Museum, Gift of Jane Bradley Pettit Foundation and The Georgia
O'Keeffe Foundation, M1997.192, center; "Series I - No. 4,"
oil on canvas, 20 by 16 inches, 1918, Stadtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus,
Munich, Gift of the Georgia O'Keeffe Foundation, right
The cover illustrations of
the exhibition catalogue show three 1918 oils: "Series I
- No. 1" in the collection of the Amon Carter Museum in Fort
Worth, "Series I - No. 2" in the collection of the Milwaukee
Art Museum, and "Series I - No. 4" in the collection
of the Stadtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus in Munich. These works
are not highly finished. Indeed, close examination of many of
her paintings throughout her career show the same casual lack
of fine finish and draftsmanship. These three works are similar
in style to many watercolors that she had been executing in 1916
that are somewhat similar to the "organic" work of Arthur
"Music - Pink and
Blue No. 1," by O'Keeffe, oil on canvas, 35 by 29 inches,
1918, Collection of Barney A. Ebsworth, left; "Music, Pink
and Blue No. 2," by O'Keeffe, oil on canvas, 35 by 29 1/2
inches, 1918, Whitney Museum of American Art, Gift of Emily Fisher
Landau in honor of Tom Armstrong, 91.90, right
Two 1918 works, however, are
notable for the precision of their line and for their luscious
color: "Music - Pink and Blue No. 1" and "Music,
Pink and Blue No. 2." The former is in the collectio of Barney
A. Ebsworth and the later was given to the Whitney Museum of American
Art by Emily Fisher Landau in honor of Tom Armstrong, who was
the director of the museum.
"No. 17 - Special,"
by O'Keeffe, charcoal on paper, 19 3/4 by 12 3/4 inches, 1919,
Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe, New Mexico, Gift, The Burnett
Foundation and The Georgia O'Keeffe Foundation, 1997.05.015
O'Keeffe did not abandon her
interest in monochromatic works as evidenced by "No. 17 -
Special," a 1919 charcoal on paper in the Georgia O'Keeffe
Museum in Santa Fe, which happens to have a slightly smaller but
very similar composition in color that the artist did the same
year but which is starker and not as subtle or interesting.
Some of her strongest abstractions
in 1919 were mainly monochromatic. "Abstraction" in
the collection of the Newark Museum hasa very small fillip of
light blue at its bottom center while "59th Street Studio"
in a private collection, one of the most stunning works in the
exhibition, has a small dark red triangle at its lower left, tinges
of light blue in the center frame and a dark light blue rectangle
and a pale red window in the center. "59th Street Studio"
is a very, very strong composition that surprisingly did not,
apparently, inspire more such "interior" compositions.
It is very slightly reminiscent of some of Oscar Bluemner's oeuvre
and also hints a bit at some of Stuart Davis's oeuvre.
The 1919 oil on canvas entitled
"Red & Orange Streak" in the collection of the Philadelphia
Museum of Art is a very strong curvilinear composition with an
unusual and limited color palette.
"Black Spot, No. 2,"
a 1919 oil in the collection of Robert and Soledad Hunt, is unnsual
for its combination of a bold, black rectangle placed at an angle
near the center of an otherwise highly curvilinear composition,
several decades before Stanley Kubrick tantalized the world with
his dark monoliths in "2001" (see The City Review article). Clearly, 1919 was a year of fine experimentation
for O'Keeffe. The exhibition also includes "Black Spot, No.
1," which is in a private collection, and "Black Spot,
Nov. 3," which is in the collection of the Albright-Knox
Art Gallery in Buffalo. The former is "hotter" than
No. 2 while the latter is more modeled.
Probably the most startling
work in the exhibition is "From The Lake, a 1924 oil in the
collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Its palette and
squiggles suggest a mountainous terrain with clusters of small
boxes or houses along a meandering black ribbon or river. Its
topography, however, is almost contradictory in parts and the
sprinkle of boxes predates the exaggerated perspective and dramatic
renderings of architect Zaha Hadid (see The City Review article).
"Yellow Sweet Peas,"
a 1925 pastel on paper in a private collection, is a ravishing
example of O'Keeffe's magnificent "close-up" focus on
plants, and is a precursor of some of her most successful later
"tree" abstractions. This is the most beautiful work
in the exhibition.
Many of her finest abstractions
are not colorful but monochromatic studies of draped folds, especially
in works from 1926-7, such as the three illustrated at the top
of this article: "Line and Curve," a 1927 oil on canvas
that mesures 31 15/16 by 16 1/4 inches in the collection of the
National Gallery of Art in Washington, "New York - Night,"
a 1926 oil on canvas, 32 by 12 inches in the collection of the
Museum of Fine Arts in Saint Petersburg, Florida, and "Abstraction
White," a 1927 oil on canvas in the collection of the Georgia
O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Another good example of O'Keeffe's
"folds" is "Abstraction, a 1926 oil on canvas that
measures 30 1/4 by 18 1/16 inches in the collection of the Whitney
Museum of American Art.
Most of her works have straight-forward
simple titles. One exception is "Ballet Shirt or Electric
Light<' an interesting 1927 oil in the collection of the Art
Institute of Chicago.
"Black Lines," a
1929 charcoal on paper in the collection of the Addison Gallery
of American Art at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts,
is a very strong abstraction that conjures monochrome visions
of Malevich and the Russian Constructivists.
O'Keeffe apparently was somewhat fascinated
in vertically spearating some of her compositionsas in "Pink
Abstraction, a 1929 oil in the collection of the Phoenix Art Museum,
and "Abstraction Blue," a 1927 oil in the collection
of The Museum of Modern Art in New York. Both compositions play
with misalignment and "erosion" but both are not terribly
A slightly more successful composition is "Grey
Blue & Black," a 1929 oil in the collection of the Dallas
Museum of Art where swirling rings of pastel color encircle some
dark buds at the center of the horizontal composition. The "rings"
are nicely asymmetrical and could have led to a very good series
but the "buds" are unwelcome intruders.
One of the most stunning works
in the exhibition is "Abstraction," a 1929 oil on board
that is in a private collection. It is a simplified but no less
powerful Clyfford Still!
A return to a darker, more
limited palette in 1930 returns O'Keeffe to her sharper edges
and more interesting compositional dynamics as well illustrated
by her large oil entitled "Black White and Blue" in
the collection of Barney A. Ebsworth.
Two other good but not as successful
works in this vein from the same year are "Black and White"
in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art and "Jack
in the Pulpit No. VI" in the collection of the National Gallery
of Art in Washington.
In some of her later abstractions,
O'Keeffe could be a bit arbitrary as in her two large 1954 works,
"Black Door with Red" in the Chrsyler Museum of Art
in Norfolk, Virginia, and "My Last Door" at the Georgia
O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico. In both works the board
horizontal band at the bottom extends only about two-thirds of
the way across the canvas rather enigmatically.
O'Keeffe and her voluptuous body were photographed
extensively and sensuously by Stieglitz, who became her husband
In her introductory catalogue essay entitled
"Georgia O'Keeffe: Making the Unknown - Known," Barbara
Haskell provides the following commentary:
"In contrast to modernists whose fractured
forms and impasto brushstrokes recorded a restless, fragmented
world, O'Keeffe's smooth surfaces and gently pulsing organic forms
suggested the soothing movements of the natural world. Rather
than depicting the outward, tangible forms of nature, she depicted
the experience of being in nature, enveloped by an infinity, which
was beyond rational comprehension. The experience she recorded
was of the Sublime, a term the British philosopher Edmund Burke
had definted in 1757 as the feeling of being so overwhelmed by
an all-encompassing wonder and awe that awareness of everything
else is suspended. But whereas Burke had claimed terror as a prerequisite
for sublimiity, O'Keeffe's sprang from her raptuous experience
of nature's inexplicability and immensity. To communicate this
feeling, she closely cropped her motifs so that they seemed to
extend beyond their frames as if without measurable boundaries.
The resulting images were not symbols or metaphors, but records
of her empathy with nature's fluid rhythms."
The curatorial team, led by Whitney curator
Barbara Haskell, included Barbara Buhler Lynes, curator of the
Georgia O’Keeffe Museum and the Emily Fisher Landau Director
of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum Research Center; Bruce Robertson,
professor of the history of art and architecture at the University
of California, Santa Barbara; Elizabeth Hutton Turner, professor
and vice provost for the arts at the University of Virginia and
guest curator at the Phillips Collection; and Sasha Nicholas,
Whitney curatorial assistant.
In her catalogue essay "O'Keeffe as Abstraction,"
Elizabeth Hutton Turner provides the following quote from Arthur
Dove, "O'Keeffe's favorite compatriot":
"We have not yet made shoes that fit like
sand; Nor clothes that fit like water; Nor thoughts that fit like
air. There is much to be done - Works of nature are abstract."