Backstage Pass with Lia Chang

Lia Chang: Georgia O’Keeffe: Abstraction at the Whitney Museum of Art through January 17, 2010

Georgia O'Keeffe, Series I—No. I, 1918. Oil on composition board, 19 3/4 x 16 in. (50.2 x 40.6 cm). Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas. Purchase with assistance from the Anne Burnett Tandy Accessions Fund. 1995.8. © Georgia O'Keeffe Museum/ Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York

Georgia O'Keeffe, Series I—No. I, 1918. Oil on composition board, 19 3/4 x 16 in. (50.2 x 40.6 cm). Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas. Purchase with assistance from the Anne Burnett Tandy Accessions Fund. 1995.8. © Georgia O'Keeffe Museum/ Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York


Bookmark and Share

Georgia O’Keeffe: Abstraction , an exhibition featuring more than 125 paintings, drawings, watercolors, and sculptures by O’Keeffe as well as a number of Alfred Stieglitz’s famous photographic portrait series of O’Keeffe,
is currently on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art through January 17, 2010.

Long recognized as as one of the central figures in 20th-century art, O’Keeffe’s radical abstract work she created throughout her long career has remained less well-known than her representational art. Best known as a painter of sensual, feminine subjects, O’Keeffe is viewed first and foremost as a painter of places and things. 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 are what comes to mind when one thinks of an “O’Keeffe”. Even O’Keeffe’s canvasses of architecture, from the skyscrapers of Manhattan to the adobe structures of Abiquiu, come to mind more readily than the numerous works—made throughout her career—that she termed abstract.

Georgia O'Keeffe, Series I—No. 3, 1918. Oil on board, 20 x 16 in. (50.8 x 40.6 cm). Milwaukee Art Museum. Gift of Jane Bradley Pettit Foundation and The Georgia O'Keeffe Foundation. M1997.192. Photograph by Larry Sanders. © Milwaukee Art Museum

Georgia O'Keeffe, Series I—No. 3, 1918. Oil on board, 20 x 16 in. (50.8 x 40.6 cm). Milwaukee Art Museum. Gift of Jane Bradley Pettit Foundation and The Georgia O'Keeffe Foundation. M1997.192. Photograph by Larry Sanders. © Milwaukee Art Museum


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, O’Keeffe’s 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 O’Keeffe’s 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 O’Keeffe 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 O’Keeffe, 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 experience—be it a quality of light, color, sound, or response to a person or place. As O’Keeffe defined it in 1923, her goal as a painter was to “make the unknown—known. By unknown I mean the thing that means so much to the person that he wants to put it down—clarify something he feels but does not clearly understand.”

Georgia O'Keeffe, Series I—No. 4, 1918. Oil on canvas, 20 x 16 in. (50.8 x 40.6 cm). Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich. Gift of The Georgia O'Keeffe Foundation

Georgia O'Keeffe, Series I—No. 4, 1918. Oil on canvas, 20 x 16 in. (50.8 x 40.6 cm). Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich. Gift of The Georgia O'Keeffe Foundation


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 O’Keeffe’s 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. Stieglitz’s public and private statements about O’Keeffe’s early abstractions and the photographs he took of her, partially clothed or nude, led critics to interpret her work—to her great dismay—as Freudian-tinged, psychological expressions of her sexuality.

Cognizant of the public’s lack of sympathy for abstraction and seeking to direct the critics away from sexualized readings of her work, O’Keeffe 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 didn’t like the interpretations of my other things [abstractions].” O’Keeffe’s increasing shift to representational subjects, coupled with Stieglitz’s penchant for favoring the exhibition of new, previously unseen work, meant that O’Keeffe’s 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.

Catalogue
In addition to rethinking O’Keeffe’s place in American modernism, the exhibition catalogue reappraises the origin and singular character of her abstract vocabulary and the stylistic shifts which her art underwent over the span of her long career. It adds significant new insight into her art and life, publishing for the first time excerpts of recently unsealed letters written by O’Keeffe to photographer and gallerist Alfred Stieglitz, whom she married in 1924. These letters, along with a contextual chronology and other primary documents referenced by the authors, offer an intimate glimpse into her creative method and intentions as an artist.

Following its Whitney debut, the show travels to The Phillips Collection, Washington D.C., February 6– May 9, 2010, and to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe, May 28 – September 12, 2010.

The Whitney Museum
945 Madison Avenue at 75th St.
New York

Museum hours: Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Friday from 1 p.m. to
9 p.m., closed Monday and Tuesday. General admission: $18. Full-time students and visitors ages 19–25 and 62 & over: $12. Visitors 18 & under and Whitney members: FREE. Admission to the Kaufman Astoria Studios Film & Video Gallery only: $6. Admission is pay-what-you-wish on Fridays, 6–9 pm. For information, please call (212) 570-3600 or visit whitney.org

Bookmark and Share

Lia Chang  Photo by Brianne Michelle Photography

Lia Chang Photo by Brianne Michelle Photography

Lia Chang is an actor, performance and fine art botanical photographer, and a multimedia journalist. A former syndicated arts and entertainment columnist for KYODO News, Lia is the New York Bureau Chief for AsianConnections.com. She has been documenting her colleagues and contemporaries in the arts, fashion and journalism since making her stage debut as Liat in the National Tour of South Pacific, with Robert Goulet and Barbara Eden. She is currently working on several botanical portrait commissions for the New York City Health and Hospital Corporation Art Collection and on a book of portraits of her favorite Asian American men in the arts and space.

Related Articles:
Monet’s Water Lilies on view at MoMA through April 12, 2010
Nicholas Galanin is among nine Native Artists featured in “Dry Ice” Exhibit in Princeton
Botanical Beauties for the LIU/King’s County Hospital Center Nursing School
Alaskan and National Acts to Share Stage at Sitka’s Homeskillet Fest, July 15-18
RED Opening Reception at Gouverneur Healthcare Services
In Conversation with Nicholas Galanin
Nicholas Galanin is featured in Identity Exhibition at Alaska House in New York

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow Backstage Pass with Lia Chang on WordPress.com