Georgia on my mind

By Ashley Kemper
ArtsPost staff writer

As one of the most famous American artists of her time, Georgia O’Keeffe enjoys nearly fail-proof name recognition. Few people, however, know much of the artist beyond her brightly hued floral works. In a departure from her stereotypical flowers, the latest exhibit at the Phillips Collection, “Georgia O’Keeffe: Abstraction” instead focuses on O’Keeffe’s lesser-known abstract works.

Despite popular assumptions, O’Keeffe actually spent her early years as an artist working primarily on her abstract creations, only later beginning to paint the flora that she felt would more easily translate to modern audiences.

While the forms dictated in these works may not be familiar to many O’Keeffe fans, the warm tones and fluid lines within each frame distinguish the paintings as clearly and uniquely O’Keeffe. Other contemporary artists of the early 20th century largely allowed themselves to be labeled either abstract or representational; O’Keeffe, on the other hand, insisted it was not only possible to be both, but completely necessary.

“[O’Keeffe] didn’t like to separate the abstract from the objective,” said Phillips curator Elsa Smithgall in her notes on the exhibit. “Both are present in her work, and are not mutually exclusive. It’s about time to see O’Keeffe had an important voice in the history of American abstraction.”

After being shown in the Whitney Museum in New York, the collection traveled south to D.C., albeit with slightly fewer works than the original showing. The more than 100 paintings and drawings more than do justice to O’Keeffe’s abstract endeavors, though, and span more than five decades of her career.

The Phillip’s appreciation for modernist art makes the venue a perfect fit for O’Keeffe’s collection. Situated just a few feet away from some of the world’s most famous Renior, Degas and van Gogh paintings, “Abstraction” gains a richness and composure when viewed after the permanent exhibits, showing by contrast just how classical O’Keeffe actually was.

Connoisseurs of the artist’s popular work will enjoy the opportunity to see her progression as a painter through the half-century she was active, noticing the growth that interweaves itself between both her abstract and representational paintings. Aiming to represent the breadth of her work, the collection still includes a handful of flower paintings that provide contrast to the abstractions while also introducing viewers to similarities between the two.

Beginning with a selection of charcoal drawings, the exhibit progresses to colorful explorations of space and form. The charcoal images spawned from O’Keeffe’s early years during her initial forays into the genre of modernist reduction. In an attempt to focus heavily on the emotion behind the composition, O’Keeffe employed tightly cropped images, allowing the viewer to feel a closer association with the work. While some creations tentatively introduce hints of subtle color, most explode with turbulent reiterations of intense hues. The oversized canvases enrapture viewers in their boldness and sensuality, allowing visitors to closely examine each flowing tide of color.

“Georgia O’Keeffe: Abstraction” is on display through May 9 at the Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NW.