The art of Georgia O’Keeffe has been well known for eight decades in this country and for many years has been attaining similar prominence abroad. More than 500 examples of her works are in over 100 public collections in Asia, Europe, and North and Central America. In addition, since her work was first exhibited in New York in 1916, it has been included in hundreds of solo and group exhibitions organized around the world. Thus, it comes as something of a surprise to discover that at the time of her death in 1986, when she was ninety-eight, O’Keeffe owned more than one-half of the 2,029 known works of her total output.
O’Keeffe’s collection of her own work was wide ranging in medium, date, subject matter, and quality. She reserved examples of her work that document her career from start to finish and stand as a testament to the complexity of her achievement. She retained works that defined her as an artist who worked on canvas or board – for which she was best known during her lifetime – and also as an artist who worked on paper supports, for which has become increasingly well know since her death.
The Early Years (1915 – 1918)“I have but one desire as a painter – that is to paint what I see, as I see it, in my own way, without regard for the desires or taste of the professional dealer or the professional collector.”- Georgia O’Keeffe
Between 1915 and 1918, when O’Keeffe was either teaching or taking art classes, she explored abstraction as a means of self-expression. Her keen interest in abstraction as an expressive device distinguishes her work from the representational art of most of her American contemporaries, and establishes O’Keeffe as among the most innovative American artists of the period.
Her experiments began in the fall of 1915, when she held a private exhibition of her work in her room and realized that most of it had been made to please others. Inspired to chart a new direction that would be hers alone, she limited herself to charcoal on white paper and began a series of highly abstract drawings, examples of which she mailed to a friend in New York. The friend took them to photographer Alfred Stieglitz, who at this time was also American’s leading proponent of modern art. Shortly thereafter, in May 1916, Stieglitz included ten of O’Keeffe’s drawings in a group show at his famous gallery, 291.
O’Keeffe continued producing charcoal abstractions, but gradually extended her experiments to the medium of watercolor; by the fall of 1916, she had returned to a full complement of color. During this period she became increasingly sophisticated with watercolor, using it less to describe than to capture and convey her enthusiasm for the vast expanses of the sky and landscape that she experienced in Texas, where she lived and taught from the fall of 1916 to early 1918. Increasingly, however, recognizable forms also become part of her vocabulary, and although the most representational works of these years read equally well as abstractions, this period marks the beginning of a trend toward investigating certain aspects of both abstraction and representation – a trend that would characterize the remainder of her career.
New York (1918 – 1929)O’Keeffe moved to New York in June 1918 at the invitation of Alfred Stieglitz, and they were married in 1924. From mid-1918 until the summer of 1929, when O’Keeffe first traveled to New Mexico to paint, she and Stieglitz were nearly inseparable, living and working together either in the city (winter and spring) or at the Stieglitz family estate at Lake George (summer and fall).
Soon after her arrival in New York, O’Keeffe began working primarily in oil. Between 1918 and 1923, she produced in this medium some of the most remarkable abstractions of her entire career. But as early as 1919, a new degree of precision and specificity began to characterize her representational images, suggesting an active response to the concerns of Modernist photography.
And so it was in the 1920s that O’Keeffe established herself principally as a painter of recognizable forms, for which she remains best, known today. She developed approaches to representation during this decade that reveal her ongoing fascination with Modernist photography. Her large – scale painting of flowers, leaves, and trees frequently present close-up views of these natural forms, and many of her paints of New York buildings use optical distortions that are equally derivative of photographic manipulations.
New Mexico (1929 – 1984)In 1917, when O’Keeffe traveled from Texas to vacation in Colorado, she spent several days in New Mexico for which she felt an immediate affinity. She returned twelve years later, in 1929, to spend the first of many summers painting there. In 1949, three years after Stieglitz’s death, she made New Mexico her permanent home.
In 1929 O’Keeffe bought a car and learned to drive, but worked primarily in and around Taos, making painting of various architectural, tree, and landscape forms that interested her. By the early 1930s, she had begun to explore areas south of Taos, such as Alcalde, Espanola, and Santa Fe. In the mid-1930s, she discovered regions to the south and west of Taos that were clearly her favorites and served as inspiration for her work over the next forty years. She was particularly drawn to the stark, but brightly colored red and yellow hills and cliffs of the Ghost Ranch area and its flat-topped mountain, Cerro Pedernal; the white jagged cliff formations near the village of Abiquiu; the black hills of the Navajo country, some 150 miles west of Ghost Ranch; the cedar trees surrounding the Ghost Ranch house; and the bleached desert bones she collected as she roamed the desert. All became frequent subjects in her work through the 1940s.
O’Keeffe purchased a house at Ghost Ranch in 1940 and one in the village of Abiquiu in 1945. After 1949 she lived summer and fall at Ghost Ranch and winter and spring in Abiquiu. From the early 1940s through the early 1960s, she often chose as the subject of her work the simple architectural forms of these houses as well as their surrounding landscape configurations and the cottonwood trees of the Chama River valley.
O’Keeffe began the first of several trips around the world in 1959, and the experience of seeing the earth and sky from the window of an airplane inspired a new and last series of paintings in the 1950s and 1960s. The landscape configurations recorded in these works are highly simplified and easily read as pure abstractions, suggesting that her early interest in expression through essentially nonrepresentational means remained an important part of her thinking throughout her career.Sourced;- www.okeeffemuseum.org/her-art.html
This subsequently became her “emblem” in the eyes of the public, and one which the Mexican artist Miguel Covarrubias took up in his caricature of O’Keeffe as “Our Lady of the Lily”, which appeared in the New Yorker in 1929. Calla lilies had first caught the artist’s eye in a florist’s shop at Lake George: “I started thinking about them because people either liked them or disliked them intensely, while I had no feeling about them at all.”