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.
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.”
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.
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
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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