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Georgia O'Keeffe

Abstraction

Whitney Museum of American Art

September 17, 2009–January 17, 2010

The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

February 6 - May 9, 2010

The Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe, New Mexico

May 28 to September 10, 2010

"Line and Curve" "New York - Night" "Abstraction White"

"Line and Curve," by O'Keeffe, oil on canvas, 31 15/16 by 16 1/4 inches, 1927, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Alfred Stieglitz Collection, Bequest of Georgia O'Keeffe, left; "New York - Night," by O'Keeffe, oil on canvas, 32 by 12 inches, 1926, Museum of Fine Arts, Saint Petersburg, Florida, Gift of Charles and Margaret Stevenson Henderson in memory of Hunt Henderson, 1971.31, center; "Abstraction White," by O'Keeffe, oil on canvas, 34 by 14 iuches, 1927, Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe, New Mexico, Gift, The Burnett Foundation, 2007.01.020, right

By Carter B. Horsley

Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986) is America's greatest female artist and a major pioneer of abstraction in the United States.

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 pure abstractions.

"Train at Night in the Desert"

"Train at Night in the Desert," by O'Keeffe, charcoal on paper, 24 1/4 by 18 1/2 inches, 1916, private collection

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.

"Black Lines"

"Black Lines," by O'Keeffe, watercolor on paper, 24 1/2 by 18 1/2 inches, 1916, Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe, New Mexico

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 compositions

"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 Dove.

Music - Pink and Blue No. 1" "Music - Pink and Blue No. 2"

"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"

"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.

"Abstraction" "59th Street Studio"

"Abstraction," by O'Keeffe, oil on canvas, 10 1/8 by 7 1/16 inches, 1919, The Newark Museum, Gift of Henry Ploch, 2000, 2000.19.2, left; "59th St. Studio," by O'Keeffe, oil on canvas, 35 by 29 inches, 1919, private collection, right

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.

"Red and Orange Streaik"

"Red & Orange Streak," by O'Keeffe, oil on canvas, 27 by 23 inches, 1919, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Bequest of Georgia O'Keeffe for the Alfred Steiglitz Collection, 1987

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"

"Black Spot, No. 2," by O'Keeffe, oil on canvas, 24 by 16 inches, 1919, collection of Robert and Soledad Hunt

"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.

"From the Lake"

"From The Lake," by O'Keeffe, oil on canvas, 36 by 30 inches, 1924, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Bequest of Georgia O'Keeffe for the Alfred Stieglitz Collection

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"{

"Yellow Sweet Peas," by O'Keeffe, pastel on paper, 26 1/2 by 19 1/4 inches, 1925, private collection

"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.

"Abstraction"

"Abstraction," by O'Keeffe, oil on canvas, 30 1/4 by 18 1/16 inches, 1926, Whitney Museum of American Art, Purchase 58.43

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.

"Ballet Skirt or Electric Light"

"Ballet Skirt or Electric Light," by O'Keeffe, oil on canvas, 36 by 30 inches, 1927, The Art Institute of Chicago, Alfred Stieglitz Collection, bequest of Georgia O'Keeffe

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"

"Black Lines," by O'Keeffe, charcoal on paper, 24 5/8 by 18 3/4 inches, 1929, Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts

"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.

"Pink Abstraction" "Abstraction Blue"

"Pink Abstraction," by O'Keeffe, oil on canvas, 36 by 30 inches, 1929, Phoenix Art Museum, Gift of Friends of Art, 67.81, left; "Abstraction Blue," by O'Keeffe, oil on canvas, 40 1/4 by 30 inches, 1927, The Museum of Modern Art, Acquired through the Helen Acheson Bequest, 71.1979, right

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 successful.

"Grey Blue & Black - Pink Circle"

"Grey Blue & Black - Pink Circle," by O'Keeffe, oil on canvas, 36 by 48 inches, 1929, Dallas Museum of Art, Gift of the Georgia O'Keeffe Foundation, 1994.54

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.

Abstraction"

"Abstraction," by O'Keeffe, oil on board, 31 by 15 inches, 1929, private collection

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!

"Black White and Blue"

"Black White and Blue," by O'Keeffe, oil on canvas, 48 by 30 inches, 1930, collection of Barney A. Ebsworth

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.

"Black and White" and "Jack in the Pulpit No. VI"

"Black and White," by O'Keeffe, oil on canvas, 36 by 24 inches, 1930, Whitney Museum of American Art, 50th Anniversary Gift of Mr. and Mrs. R. Crosby Kemper, 81.9, left; "Jack in the Pulpit No. VI," by O'Keeffe, oil on canvas, 36 by 18 inches, 1930, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Alfred Stieglitz Collection, Bequest of Georgia O'Keeffe, 1987.585

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.

"Black Door with Red" and "My Last Door"

"Black Door with Red," by O'Keeffe, oil on canvas, 48 by 84 inches, 1954, Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, Virigina, Bequest of Walter P. Chrysler Jr., 89.63, left; "My Last Door," by O'Keeffe, oil on canvas, 48 by 84 inches, 1952-1954, Georgia O'Keeffe Museum,Santa Fe, New Mexico, Gift, The Burnett Foundation, 1997.06.19

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 photographed by Stieglitz

Geoorgia O'Keeffe," by Alfred Stieglitz, gelatin silver print, 4 7/8 by 3 1/2 inches, 1918, The Art Institute of Chicago, Alfred Stieglitz Collection

O'Keeffe and her voluptuous body were photographed extensively and sensuously by Stieglitz, who became her husband in 1924.

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."


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