Georgia O’Keeffe in Texas

Evening Star V [1917], watercolor, 85⁄8 x 115⁄8,painting, Southwest Art
Evening Star V [1917], watercolor, 85⁄8 x 115⁄8

By Kristin Bucher

Georgia O’Keeffe, arguably the Southwest’s most famous modern artist, is so closely identified with New Mexico that the state comes immediately to mind when her name is mentioned. O’Keeffe’s home in Abiquiu and the new Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe are strong reminders that the New Mexico landscape was her home and her primary inspiration for more than 35 years.

Yet O’Keeffe first experienced the great spaces of the Southwest in the Texas Panhandle. Though her time there was limited to four years, she became fiercely attached to this distinctive part of the country, and many of the fundamental themes that developed in her paintings were first established during her Texas years. Georgia O’Keeffe and Texas, an exhibit at the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio, TX, traces these themes throughout her career and considers the impact of the Texas landscape on the entirety of her work. The show includes 50 paintings, watercolors, and drawings and is on view January 27-April 5.

From the Plains I [1953], oil, 4711⁄16 x 835⁄8,painting, Southwest Art
From the Plains I [1953], oil, 4711⁄16 x 835⁄8

O’Keeffe [1887-1986] arrived in Amarillo, TX, from Virginia in 1912 and spent two years teaching art classes in public schools. In 1914 she moved to New York to study with Arthur Wesley Dow. She returned to Texas in 1916 to become head of the art department at West Texas State Normal College in Canyon, TX, and stayed for two years, during which time she painted her first southwestern landscapes. O’Keeffe was so enamored of the Panhandle that she wrote to Alfred Stieglitz about this “wonderful place—I wonder why everyone doesn’t live here.”

What was it about Texas that inspired such sentiment? The vastness of the open plains and the drama of the canyons absorbed O’Keeffe. “There is something wonderful about the bigness and the lonelyness and the windyness [sic] of it all,” she once wrote about Amarillo. According to exhibit curator Sharyn Udall, the artist was already aware of the intimate relationship that can develop between people and the environment they inhabit: “Where I come from,” O’Keeffe said, “the earth means everything. Life depends on it.” It was in Texas that she first realized she could express this intimacy with the land in her artwork. Working amid the barren plains, without visual limits and traditional points of reference, O’Keeffe broke new ground with her abstracted paintings.

Georgia O’Keeffe and Texas is structured around five themes that appear throughout her work: landforms, light, geometric patterns, solids and voids, and line as a formal element. O’Keeffe was astounded by the light in the Panhandle, for example, where the dry air produced extraordinary sunrises and sunsets. Her monumental Evening Star series celebrates the radiant power of light in the evening sky. In later years O’Keeffe addressed the interplay of light in many subsequent works, including landscapes of other places and her many series of flower paintings.

O’Keeffe’s years in Texas were a time of “profound artistic discovery in a kind of self-imposed creative exile,” writes Udall in her catalog essay. “She encountered new forms, fresh sensations, and the freedom to pursue them.” Though she never returned to Texas after 1918, the expansiveness and vastness she encountered in the West Texas landscape remained with her throughout her career.

Featured in “In the Museums” February 1998