O Keeffe Still Lifes


Black and Purple Petunias [1925], oil, 20 x 25, private collection. ,painting, southwest art.
Black and Purple Petunias [1925], oil, 20 x 25, private collection.

By Stephen May

The exhibition Georgia O’Keeffe: The Poetry of Things investigates the thinking underlying the choices the artist made in her work and explores O’Keeffe’s relationship to objects she collected, admired, and painted. Organized by the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, and the Dallas Museum of Art and curated by Elizabeth Hutton Turner, curator of the Phillips Collection, the exhibit comprises some 70 works including paintings and works on paper from 1908-1963. Drawn from O’Keeffe’s series of depictions of leaves, fruit, flowers, shells, bones, crosses, and doors, it surveys the range of her artistic invention. The exhibit is on view at the O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe from August 7 to October 17 and then travels to the Dallas Museum of Art (November 7-January 30, 2000) and the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco (February 19-May 14).

This thoughtful exhibition, the first to examine O’Keeffe’s aesthetics by focusing on her paintings of objects, starts from the premise that not enough is known about the sources of her imagery and visual vocabulary. It invites a closer look at her philosophy of art and her idiosyncratic way of looking at things by placing her paintings in proximity to real objects of the kind she collected, along with photomurals of her classroom, studio and domestic settings, and a selection of influ-ential books from her library.

O’Keeffe [1887-1986] was convinced from her early childhood in Wisconsin that she would be an artist. She studied art in Chicago and in New York under the esteemed painter William Merrit Chase. Much of this training consisted of painting objects selected by instructors as exercises in depicting shapes, colors, light, textures, space, and relationships. In 1908, when she was 21, O’Keeffe painted a dark, traditional still life of a dead rabbit lying beside a copper pot. The work won her a prize from Chase but hardly sugg-ested exciting prospects for her future in art.

Unexcited by con-ventional approaches, O’Keeffe became in-terested in the Asian-inspired ideas of an-other teacher, art re-former Arthur Wesley Dow. He advised artists “to fill space in a beautiful way.” Dow’s approach dismissing imitation in favor of a highly expressive aesthetic based on creating structural har-mony in works of art appealed to O’Keeffe’s rebel spirit. Her work began to express her personal feelings through arrangements of lines, shapes, and colors.

In the early 1920s O’Keeffe’s relationship with New York art dealer Alfred Stieglitz intensified. He exposed her to a wide range of modernist artists and writers, and she began having one-person shows at his gallery.

Determined to carve out her own niche in the art world, O’Keeffe created a series of still lifes based on objects she chose, which enabled her to personalize images and make them abstract or mysterious, as the spirit moved her. “Disciplined and independent, she could control this genre to a much greater degree than she could with the figure or landscape,” says Marjorie Balge-Crozier in her catalog essay. O’Keeffe’s starkly simplified Green Apple on Black Plate symbolized her view that “It is only by selection, by elimination, and by emphasis that we can get at the real meaning of things.”

O’Keeffe was exposed to nature at the Stieglitz retreat in Lake George, NY, where she painted leaves, fruit, and flowers in large formats and magnified scale, with vibrant colors designed to attract attention, as in Black and Purple Petunias. “I realized that were I to paint flowers small,” O’Keeffe recalled later, “no one would look at them because I was unknown. So I thought ‘I’ll make them big … People will be startled; they’ll have to look at them’ and they did.”

O’Keeffe was unmoved by the attention and record prices her exhibitions attracted and felt confined by the concrete canyons of New York, so in the summer of 1929 she returned to the Southwest for the first of many annual visits. She felt challenged to capture the feeling of infinite space and its related qualities of clarity, transparency, and time. She collected bleached animal bones and proceeded to exploit their pictorial possibilities. Although dry and dead like the desert, O’Keeffe found them compellingly beautiful and symbolic and in her studio used them to divide space in her compositions. After moving permanently to New Mexico in 1949, O’Keeffe arranged her bone collection along the walls of her homes, where they served as constant reminders of her feelings about the mystery and beauty of the desert around her.

Overall, the exhibition demon-strates that the artist’s imaginative process was at once precise and poetic. The images in her paintings mirrored an active mind that was constantly collecting new ideas and objects, registering them into her field of consciousness, and rendering them in highly personalized pictures. As Turner puts it, “There is nothing no color, no emotion, no idea that the true artist cannot find a form to express.”

Featured in September 1999