Georgia O’Keeffe, Untitled (Abstraction/Portrait of Paul Strand), 1917
Watercolor on paper, 12 x 8 7/8 in. (30.5 x 22.5 cm)
Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe, New Mexico Gift, The Burnett Foundation
Copyright, Georgia O’Keeffe Museum/Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York
Georgia O’Keeffe: Abstractions
Whitney Museum of American Art
945 Madison Avenue
New York, NY 10021
17 September, 2009 through 10 January, 2010
I could count about seven people under the age of thirty at the Whitney’s press opening for their current Georgia O’Keeffe retrospective. She is appreciated but rarely adored in the wake of the hasty evolution of contemporary art. O’Keeffe, however, is no one-trick-pony; Abstractions presents her amid innovative contradictions that effect an almost apocalyptic decimation of bland and unimaginative interpretations of her work.
O’Keeffe graduated from the School of the Art Institute in Chicago in 1905 and moved to New York City two years later to teach art in a number of venues. She wasn’t summoned to artistic action until 1915, ten years after her graduation. Her early abstractions have a remarkable ability to dispel tension, despite their heaviness. In starting with charcoal and digressing to watercolor in her earlier work, she preserves an animated, playful aggression that moves towards each stormy amalgamation of color or inquisitive swirl. Intertwining reds, blues, and dark greens resist the muddy, introverted characteristics of a splotched color wheel with harmonic lucidity. They are completed thoughts, somehow simultaneously expansive and concise. Overpowering areas of mysterious dark hues combined with a central verticality in many of her early images explore visual dualities and extremes. Images like Black Lines (1916) are confrontational, presenting an understanding of impeding energy around her and an ability to acknowledge the impact of even something as seemingly slight as a line. The Big Apple tends to feel like an invisible feather security blanket, warm and concentrated enough to dispel physical loneliness despite its lack of interest and the subtle prick at the root of each appendage. Her qualms with city life are relatable. These abstractions may seem bizarrely intense - a Georgia O’Keeffe we all don’t know.
A desire to “be IN nature,” as the Whitney informs us, was a vital component of the artistic agenda revealed by her abstractions. Trapped in the city, the inkling to meld with and recognize, rather than mangle, nature must have conjured a cerebral rainstorm. She oftentimes focuses on layers and the way they congeal, or fail to do so, in these earlier works. The Evening Star series, for example, presents fragmented portions of a seemingly lush, vibrant landscape bubbling with emerald green and robin’s egg blue. Each area of color is separated by a gestural white mediator of vacant space, a result of the extremes of colored areas rather than a deliberate emptiness. It re-imagines the landscape as a subconsciously partitioned space outside of scale. Her abstractions yield to a grander scheme of liberating her energy rather than submitting to the taxing aggression of the city - grounds for falling prey to a self-loathing mentality.
Untitled (Abstraction/Portrait of Paul Strand) asserts the success of her watercolor experiments. The colors entangle while remaining definitively in place. Each plane of color grasps its tonal identity while serendipitously interlocking with the others, boasting O’Keeffe’s conscious control of color. Void of a decipherable background, she stations Mr. Strand in a dream-world that chatters with light and energy. He simultaneously implodes and explodes in space, avoiding the murkiness of a kindergarten finger painting, despite the emphasis on dark tones and pungent accents of sunshine and red. A dazed, deranged opulence emerges, as if to expose the inner trials, tribulations, and victories of her friend. She has a commitment and respect for each color; they are valued as extensions of spirit that contribute to the black hole of reality, a flawless intermingling of dynamic eminence. She revives the living, breathing man and proclaims his presence. He resides forefront and center, a bold compositional tactic O’Keeffe pursued regularly. Placing objects in the center of her canvas enables her to focus on one specific point and its relation to the rest of the image.
O’Keeffe’s career was launched in 1918 after being discovered by Alfred Steiglitz on account of these abstractions. She surrendered watercolor and charcoal in that same year in exchange for her characteristic oils. Abstraction remained an important component of her artistic goals, however, and never completely disappeared from her oeuvre. Although her flowers garnered most of her fame, their agenda coincided with her foundational aspirations, despite their mercilessly sexual interpretations. The pastel palate pulsates, prevailing amid facetious stems and petals as well as more geometric undertakings. Explicit titles literally place her images in the objective world but the interplay of energy between the artist and flower materializes as the direct concern. These images emerge as translations of the flower’s energy in reality, where O’Keeffe is yearning to portray the adoption and dispersal of it as such. They resist complete relation to the objective world in exchange for an Identity, a vigor gathered from the object in reality and reformulated into her own expenditure of it. The flowers are thus disabled, distanced from prim and proper beauty artificially adored.
Georgia O’Keeffe Flower Abstraction, 1924
Oil on canvas, 48 x 30 in. (121.9 x 76.2 cm) Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
50th Anniversary Gift of Sandra Payson 85.47
Copyright Georgia O’Keeffe Museum/Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York
O’Keeffe’s concentrated technical understanding of oil reaches outside of her thematic controversy to reveal another distinct component of her method. Flower Abstraction (1924), for example, taunts viewers with promises of refuge among sheets of gray, muted pink and black chiffon. Close inspection reveals tiers of color layered sporadically, similar to the flighty technique necessary for soft pastels. Harking back to her audacious layering in watercolor, later images utilize a similar technique to glorify light, serving to enhance rather than overburden each hue. It breathes, supplanting assertive vibration with a soft-spoken vibrancy. Grey Line with Lavender and Yellow (1923) results in similar retinal relaxation. A feeling of temporality sprouts, similar to Monet’s variations on the Rouen Cathedral. The flower abstractions donate a sense of expansiveness, a deliciousness that must be tasted with your eyes.
Her later work sustains a steady simmer. She was actively creating art almost up until her death in 1986, although that is not to say it was uninterrupted or easy. After the death of Steiglitz in 1949, she was mentally destabilized and took a ten-year hiatus. She took subsequent trips around the world, finding the clouds from her airplane seat to be the most inspiring component of these sabbaticals. Her imagery became more modernly abstracted with flat planes of color interspersed with whispers of her technical continuum. O’Keeffe’s doppelganger appeared as a result of her cynicism, fixated on an existential inquiry into distance versus immediate space. The canvases, curtly concise with obvious indication of dissipated optimism, feel overwhelmingly large in comparison to her earlier work. Her last two abstractions, however, provide one last rambunctious scrawl in the midst of the degenerative disease that plagued her toward the end of her life. Daring red strokes mirror the swirls of her earliest charcoals, baring a natural connection to the canvas and familiarity with the internalized residue of her quest to portray the effervescence of life.
In retrospect, a large majority of O’Keeffe’s work still does resemble the oh-so-familiar, mystifying female sexual organ. Playing the Vagina Card as the primary interpretation of her work, however, is wholly inadequate. How did O’Keeffe feel about such a deviation between her conceptual base and widespread interpretation? The artist herself notes: