Not just a flower painter: O’Keeffe’s Abstraction opens at the Phillips

by Elizabeth Ward

ArtsPost staff writer

"Poppy" by Georgia O'Keeffe. Fair Use image from Google Images.

Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) is one of the most over-commodified yet most misunderstood artists of the modern era. Known as the painter of flowers and New Mexico landscapes, O’Keeffe was rarely allowed out of her feminine, representational, artistic box.

The Phillips Collection’s Abstraction frees O’Keeffe from this confinement and reintroduces O’Keeffe as one of the pioneers of abstractionism in the early 20th century – a title for which she is rarely acknowledged or showcased.

A curatorial conglomeration of muscle, Georgia O’Keeffe: Abstraction is a three-way alliance between D.C.’s own Phillips Collection, The Whitney in New York City and The Georgia O’Keefe Museum in Santa Fe. The traveling show will only showcase in these three venues throughout the 2009-2010 season.

It is fitting that the Phillips is one of the three presenting museum spaces, since Duncan Phillips was the first museum director to purchase works by O’Keeffe back in 1926. The breathtaking exhibit showcases more than 100 paintings, drawings, watercolors, and sculpture dating from 1915 to the late 1970s. It also includes 14 photographic portraits of O’Keeffe by Alfred Stieglitz (photographer, gallery owner, and O’Keeffe’s husband beginning in 1924), which are incredible reflections upon her methods of gestural painting and cropping.

O’Keeffe was born in Sun Prairie, Wis., in 1887 and longed to be an artist from an early age. In 1916, after finishing her studies at the Art Institute of Chicago and Columbia University, Alfred Stieglitz featured her early charcoal work at his 291-gallery in New York. Within two years, Stieglitz convinced O’Keeffe to move to New York to pursue painting full time. Six years later, they were married and began one of the most fruitful and well-known collaborations of the modernist era.

The exhibit unfolds roughly chronologically, opening with a round of O’Keeffe’s revealing visceral charcoal abstractions from around 1915. These charcoals serve as motifs for the entire show – always returning to the expression of the intangible.

The exhibit then progresses into her watercolors, which marks her as a graphic imager willing to portray the rhythms of experience. One truly gets the feeling of “infinity” and “boundlessness” in the midst of her colorful abstractions. Favorites include Tent Door at Night (1916), Pink and Green Mountains (1917) and Music, Pink and Blue (1918).

The exhibit subsequently moves into O’Keeffe’s more well-known “erotic, symbolic, color work” and finally comes full circle with her late abstractions of flat, geometric, expansive planes of color. These mural-sized constructions of space reinvigorated her art in the mid-1940s and provided a precedent for a younger generation of abstract painters.

Yet even within a majority of her displayed abstractions, one can see how O’Keeffe was a misrepresented artist. For most of her career, she struggled with how others perceived her work, being a woman who insisted on expressing herself abstractly. Many have always interpreted her work as Freudian, psychological expressions of her sexuality. In reality, however, O’Keeffe was an expresser of intangible feelings, inspired not by objects but by the dynamic quality of the natural world. She never considered herself a feminist painter.

Aware of the public’s lack of sympathy and support for her abstraction and hoping to direct the critics away from sexualized readings of her work, O’Keeffe began to pull away from abstraction into the more representational, recognizable images she is so known for. Nevertheless, abstraction remained the guiding principle of her art, even at the most representational.

The abstraction is often the most definite form for the intangible thing in myself that I can only clarify in paint. –Georgia O’Keeffe, 1976

One of the most enlightening examples of O’Keeffe’s brilliant artistic response to the public eye is captured in her Jack-in-Pulpit (1930) series. Five of the six pieces display repeated bulbous forms, taking a single flower and honing in on its many characters. Here, she plays a joke on the critics: She makes them question whether she really is just a “painter of flowers,” while also reminding them of the androgynous nature of flowers. The phallic and the feminine appear together as a tongue-and-cheek retort to the standards placed upon her as an artist and a woman.

At the very least, this once-in-a-lifetime exhibit is a refreshing reconnection with an artist that we, after all this time, never knew at all. The Phillips Collection is the perfect venue for this beneath-the-surface experience of O’Keeffe abstraction.

Georgia O’Keeffe: Abstraction is on view at the Phillips from Feb. 6 to May 9, 2010. From here, it will by on view at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe from May 28 to Sept. 12, 2010.

About Elizabeth Ward

I am a candidate for a Master of Arts in Arts Management at American University. Originally from Kansas, via Texas, I have a background in the performing arts. I grew up with theatre, dance and music as my soul-enriching extra-curriculars, only to follow them more intently in college. I received my B.A. in Music and Communication from Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas with an emphasis on arts journalism and arts marketing. While relatively new to the D.C. area, I have been pursuing the arts scene passionately. Working under Philippa Hughes for The Pink Line Project has allowed me access into the multi-faceted world of the arts and D.C. culture. I currently do event planning, graphic design, and arts writing for Pink Line's many arty happenings around town. I am currently working on my M.A. thesis, which centers around naturally- and corporately-created artistic communities and those residing in them. I would love your input on this exciting project!