Tuesday 15 November 2016

Georgia O'Keefe

'It is quite easy to show that abstract art like every other cultural phenomenon reflects the social and other circumstances of the age in which its creators live and that there is nothing inside art itself disconnected from history, which compels it to go in one direction or another'.
Clement Greenberg.

Georgia O'Keefe

at Tate Modern.

With a career that spanned more than seven decades, O'Keefe is a  foundational figure within the history of modernism whose work can be presented as an antecedent to later manifestations of American abstraction. Her abstract compositions are rooted in the landscape but she also found sources of inspiration in music and flowers.

I was determined to see this exhibition and we finally managed to go and see it just before it was due to close.

The early years:

Early Abstraction 1915, (charcoal on paper)

O'Keefe's earliest nature works were abstractions in charcoal. 'I have things in my head that are not like what anyone has taught me... I decided to start anew - to strip away what I had been taught... I began with charcoal and paper and decided not to use any other colour until it was impossible to do what I wanted to do in black and white'.

Pink and Blue Mountain, 1916, (watercolour on paper)

This early period also shows an interest in synaesthesia, the stimulation of one sense by another, for example translating sounds such as cattle lowing into abstract forms. She took her inspiration from the landscape - strikingly vivid paintings of the mountain landscapes of Virginia and the plains of Texas.

Abstraction and the senses:

'I paint because colour is a significant language to me'.

After moving from Texas to New York in 1918, O'Keefe turned to abstraction and to oil paint as a medium. She took inspiration from sensory stimulation, investigating the relationship of form to music, colour and composition, showing her understanding of synaesthesia and chromothesia, or as she said, 'the idea that music could be translated into something for the eye'.

Music - Pink and Blue No. 1, 1918 (oil on canvas)

Flower Abstraction, 1924, (oil on canvas)

Abstraction Blue, 1927, (oil on canvas)

Abstraction White Rose, 1927, (oil on canvas)

Grey Lines with Black, Blue and Yellow, 1923

Line and Curve, 1927, (oil on canvas)

Frustrated with the critics' response to her work which emphasised O'Keefe's identity as a woman artist and attributed essential feminine qualities to her work, often hinting heavily at erotic content, she began to transform her style incorporating hard-edged or cubist-inspired abstractions. 'When people read erotic symbols into my paintings, they're really talking about their own affairs', she asserted.

Black, White and Blue, 1930, (oil on canvas)

New York cityscapes:

New York Street with Moon, 1925, (oil on canvas)

O'Keefe made her first painting of the city in 1925. Her paintings show views of the city from street level, the tall buildings providing an urban parallel to her early depictions of canyons in Texas and later in New Mexico.

She stopped painting New York after the Wall Street Crash of 1929. With the onset of the Great Depression the city's utopian spirit vanished and it no longer held her attention. She rejected the urban as the focus of modernism and responded instead to a broader contemporary need to root identity in landscape and place. 'In taking herself and her art to New Mexico O'Keefe shared the regionalists' revolt against Manhattan .. she responded most decisively to the depression era's intensified rhetoric of 'place' and 'America'. She took modernism further from Manhattan and artistically engaged a region where the past was stronger than the present'. (Wanda Corn).

Lake George:

For three decades O'Keefe spent summer and autumn  in Lake George. Her works made there range from soft blue and green to the red and purple of maple trees and the warm red of apples and autumn leaves.

Lake George, 1922, (oil on canvas)

Nature Forms - Gaspe, 1932, (oil on canvas)

In the Patio No. IV, 1948, (oil on canvas)

Nude, Series VII, 1917, (watercolour on paper)

Flowers and Still Lifes:

O'Keefe is renowned for her flower paintings which she made from the 1920s until the 1950s. At fist her work tended towards imaginative, semi-abstract compositions inspired by flowers, or showing the entire form of the flower. They progressed to works with greater photographic realism, focusing in close-up on the blooms themselves. This move to realism was partly motivated by her aim to dispel the sexual or bodily interpretations of her work made by critics and O'Keefe lamented that this view continued.

Calla Lily in Tall Glass - No. 2, 1923 (oil on board)

The Eggplant, 1924, (oil on canvas)

Alligator Pear, 1923, (pastel on paper)

Dark Iris, No. 1, 1927, (oil on canvas)

Petunia and Glass Bottle, 1924, (oil on canvas)

Black Iris, 1926, (oil on canvas)

White Iris, 1930, (oil on canvas)

Two Calla Lilies on Pink, 1928, (oil on canvas)

From the Faraway, Nearby: the skull paintings:

'When I found the beautiful white bones on the desert I picked them up and took them home... I have used these things to say what is to me, the wideness and wonder of the world as I live in it'. O'Keefe's paintings of the bones, particularly when juxtaposed with the desert landscape of the Southwest summarise the essence of America which she felt was not in New York but was the country west of the Hudson river, which symbolised what she called 'the Faraway'. Bones summarise succinctly the resilience and individualism of the pioneer, and simultaneously signal the presence (and disappearance) of native inhabitants.

Horse's Skull on Blue, 1931, (oil on canvas)

Cow's Skull with Calico Roses, 1931, (oil on canvas)

Mule's Skull with Pink Poinsettia, 1936

Deer's Skull with Pedernal, 1936

Ghost Ranch:

O'Keefe first discovered Ghost Ranch, a ranch for wealthy tourists, in 1934. Though she wanted nothing to do with the ranch's patrons she stayed in an abode house on the property from 1937, purchasing the house in 1940, her first home in New Mexico.

Ranchos Church, New Mexico, 1930/31

Another Church, Hernandez, New Mexico, 1931 (oil on canvas)

Chama River, Ghost Ranch, New Mexico, 1937, (oil on canvas)

Red and Yellow Cliffs, 1940, (oil on canvas)

My Front Yard, Summer 1941, (oil on canvas)

Red Hills and Bones, 1941, (oil on canvas)

Blue Sky, 1941, (oil on canvas)

The Black Place and the White Place:

'I must have seen the Black Place first driving past on a trip into the Navajo country, and having seen it, I had to go back to paint - even in the hear of mid-summer. It became one of my favourite places to work ... as you come over a hill, it looks like a mile of elephants - grey hills all about the same size'.
There, she progressively abstracted from observed, perceptual reality towards more intensely-coloured, non-naturalistic compositions, painted from memory.

Black Place I, 1941, (oil on canvas)

Black Place II, 1941, (oil on canvas)

Black Place II, 1945, (oil on canvas)

Abiquiu patios, pelvis bones:

'When I started painting the pelvis bones I was most interested in the holes in the bones - what I saw through them - particularly the blue from holding them up in the sun against the sky... They were most beautiful against the blue - the blue that will always be there as it is now after all man's destruction is finished'.

Another motif during that period was the patio of O'Keefe's house at Abiquiu, her second New Mexico home, with its distinctive door presented in varying degrees of naturalism and abstraction.

Pelvis, 1944, (oil on canvas)

Pelvis Series, Red and Yellow, 1945, (oil on canvas)

Black Patio Door, 1955, (oil on canvas)

Black Door with Red, 1954 (oil on canvas)

My Last Door, 1953-54, (oil on canvas)

Late abstractions and skyscapes:

The paintings in this series are inspired by aeroplane journeys O'Keefe took in her later years: 'It is breathtaking as one rises up over the world one has been living in... It is very handsome way off into the level distance... like some marvellous rug patterns of maybe 'Abstract Paintings'.'

Blue, 1958, (oil on canvas)

Blue II, 1958, (oil on canvas)

Blue B, 1958, (oil on canvas)

Sky Above the Clouds III, 1963, (oil on canvas)


  1. I'm delighted that you managed to get to see the exhibition.

  2. Me too, Olga. It wasn't certain we would make it, but we did!