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Georgia O'Keeffe

 To See Takes Time, Museum of Modern Art, New York

by Jonathan Goodman, August 2nd, 2023

Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986) is an American icon. Born in Wisconsin, she died in New Mexico, where she lived for decades, painting the imagery that she became famous for, bony white skeletal heads of cattle, often embellished with flowers that lend color to the whiteness of the animal's skull. The current show up at the Museum of Modern Art, "To See Takes Time," directs its attention to the works on paper, primarily oriented toward abstraction based on natural forms. O'Keeffe was always someone deeply taken with nature, and much of the art in her exhibition offers a resolute modernist vision in which the natural forms are simplified–in a manner that heightens both the lyric simplicity of organic abstraction and the equally poetic existence of the shapes found in nature. Her friend, the early abstractionist Arthur Dove, painted a not-too-different combination of modernism's cultural simplicities and simple but telling forms from the exterior world. Maybe both artists' achievements had something to do with their presence early on as abstract artists.


However, something else is happening, too, in O'Keeffe's art. The works on paper bring about a conduit that joins a way of working to a way of seeing. The forms we encounter in this extensive show of mainly small to medium-sized works seem more effective than those described later, which tend toward a more rigid pictorialism. 


There is a marvelous drawing called "Blue Lines X" (1916), which might serve as a figurative work or an abstract one. Two thin lines rise from a dark, narrow pool at the bottom of the paper. The right line rises straight up toward the upper reaches of the composition without complications. The left line rises lower before dropping downward at a sharp angle and then climbing again, on the further left but in a thicker width. While simple, it is an outstanding work of art, asserting an elegant gestalt, in which hints of figuration turn the abstraction sharper and more unusual.


"To See Takes Time" comprises 120 drawings spanning forty years. So it is not necessarily devoted to early work alone, although it does not openly display the later art the artist became famous for. The inventiveness of the drawings, always different from one work to the next, leaves O'Keeffe's audience highly taken with the artist's prodigal imagination. O'Keeffe had the good luck to have come into adulthood just when the development of a close-to-total abstraction, the ingenious consequence of cubism, was opening up. As an artist, O'Keeffe rejected straight-edge abstraction for a softer note, an esthetic in which the rounded outlines often found in natural forms were preferred. Indeed, many works show an exterior world we know from experience, a connection with the natural world in a way that abstraction might simplify and poetically promote–through a language made telling by its sophisticated novelty.


In O'Keeffe's marvelous work, titled "Evening Star No. III "(1917), a rough rectangle with rounded edges, on the lower right especially, contains in the upper center a yellow sphere of light (the star itself). Around it is a penumbra of light orange, and around it is a thin red stripe encircling the orange. Three thick horizontal stripes are beneath this colorful mass: red, blue, and green. The work would easily pass for an abstraction alone if it were not for its title, which moves us in the direction of figuration. Still, there is a balance, or a tension, in which the relations between two different kinds of seeing are brilliantly joined and used. The early abstractionists may have understood this as well as they did since their work played with the relations between the two working methods. If one focuses sharply even on highly realistic work done centuries earlier, it is possible to see abstract elements by studying the details closely. Abstraction comes close to figurative form sometimes, but not always.


We are best off when we discuss the range of figuration moving into abstraction as a spectrum. If we shade the travel from one kind of art to the next, a sharp distinction between the two genres is an imposition, more accurate as a suggestion than an assertion of the actual. True enough, if we put a drawing by Poussin side by side with the paintings of Kandinsky, the idea of a permanent divide between the two kinds of art makes sense. Nevertheless, these two artists are at extreme ends of art's expression. The general idea of a shared language between what we usually understand as a highly separate outlook can be argued against as an exaggeration, but there is some truth to the notion of a small amount of common ground.


A 1916 charcoal drawing called "No. 12 Special" consists of three circular forms, one on top of the other, with long, leaf-like extensions moving downward from the spirals they issue from. The tonal shades in the work range from near transparency to quite dark, and this range enlivens and intensifies the shapes. O'Keeffe's language here is not supported by the vague title. Yet, the drawing itself is both a beautiful, unidentifiable abstraction and a form that is likely linked to a bone structure or, perhaps, a fiddlehead fern. Again and again, the works of art operate in ways indicative of their own designs–a signature feature of abstraction–and as suggestions of actual things, usually taken from nature.


"No. 12 Special" was created over a century ago, yet it retains the vibrancy and allusiveness of something made recently. In very recent times, the last five years or so, politics and social mores have played a significant role in how we make and see art. Formally speaking, as time continues, modernism also continues. Its hold on our creativity is large; look at how we continue to show and support abstract expressionism, whose highest moment existed in the middle of the last century. Surely we can do better than that!


Abstract expressionism began the trend of expansive egotism we often see today in art, mainly in America. But significant art can be made via the erasure of self. There is nothing in this show that communicates egotism. Instead, the artist delights in forms she needs to take visible ownership of. So the work becomes a description of objects not closely related to the artist herself but as descriptions of the world beyond her. This is a healthy contrast to less-than-achieved artists' fervid declarations of achievement. Not all imagery is related to its maker alone!


A much later work, "The Orchid" (1941), is a highly realistic, detailed study of an intricate flower. The colors are yellow, gray, mauve, and some green. The interior of the flower consists of bright yellow and light green colors. Its unusual form, not so far from the butterfly's wings, gives way to flares of gray color, with light streaks of blue, that end in jagged edges. Beyond the distance, a very light blue acts as the sky. The flower's cross folds and undulating shapes give it a marvelous organic complexity that borders on the non-objective. But, of course, the drawing is recognizable at once as an orchid. When something so beautiful is faithfully recorded, the shapes and colors become indications of a hand that comes from O'Keeffe and nature's complex, enigmatic processes. As a result, mystery enters the picture–even though it is a conundrum stemming from closely watched particulars. When MoMA's audience sees a drawing like this, the artist's technical skill becomes clear in ways that most abstract works are not, the consequence or relatively loose handling. "The Orchid" stays with us not because it is exquisitely realistic but because the terms of realism are so delicately given. A work such as this reminds us that even though it was done during the zenith of abstract expressionism, the possibility of great art at variance with the aesthetic dominating the current moment is genuine. "The Orchid" proves that outstanding figurative art can be made even during a time taken over by abstraction. The work proves O'Keeffe's great skill, but it also does something else–it shows how the lyricism that regularly takes over the abstraction we see also exists in her figurative work. Perhaps the artist was never fully committed to one way of working or another, primarily interested in the poetics of art in conjunction with natural forms, which describes most good lyric abstraction.


In the 1934 drawing titled "Eagle Claw and Bean Necklace," black forms, dense with a darkness that comes close to overwhelming their shapes, mix the aggression of an eagle claw with the gentler forms of a circle or mass of beads. The bird's claws exist on the right of the drawing–the sharp, curved talons manifest aggression only partially checked by the rounded forms of the beads, drawn so that they appear en masse rather than as a decorative single string. O'Keeffe here mixes a cultural artifact with a near talisman suggestive of the force of the hunt. Not least of these striking images is the contrast between the very dark color of the beads and claws and the light color of the paper that serves as a background.


One of the strengths of this show is the variety of subjects O'Keeffe takes on. Ranging from pure abstraction to an equally virtuosic treatment of actual things, the exhibition presents a significant artist on the cusp of profound visual change. Because she lived when she did, O'Keeffe enjoyed stylistic freedom not available earlier when a strict realist regime held sway. But neither was she so distant from 19th-century realism that her heart was forced to reject figuration as a means of working. On the side of the present and future, the abstract languages available allowed O'Keeffe to explore forms free of reference in ways that were so radically new that they still seem innovative today. By being among the first artists to take on the immense, new insight of abstraction, she could invest her drawings with a vision and energy not seen until she was newly adult–around the time of the mid-teens in the early 1900s.


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Installation view, "Georgia O'Keeffe: To See Takes Time", Museum of Modern Art, New York

In a fine watercolor in 1917, O'Keeffe painted a beautiful image of a nude called "Seated Nude XI." The image consists of a naked woman facing us directly, her body tinted a light pink, and the undercurves of her breasts highlighted by a deep red. The coloring of her face consists of such a dark red that it is hard to make out her features. Behind her are areas of slate blue that set up like a panel in the back of her and a more complicated shape rendered behind her legs. She extends her right arm away from her body so that her hand rests on a white surface. The figuration of the female image is explicit, but we cannot see it as a nude alone, propped up as the woman is by abstract swathes of blue that do not reflect anything we might recognize. O'Keeffe, who was not afraid of invoking eroticism, does not precisely produce an enticement here, but the directness of the body image stands forthrightly as a statement of sensuous suggestion.


Indeed, we remember the suite of nude photographs of O'Keeffe, taken by her husband, the American photographer Alfred Stieglitz. He began taking pictures of her early on in the relationship, in 1917, and went on to do so for another twenty years–most of these pictures were nudes. These images do not play a part in the show, but they do indicate that a practical way to discuss both O'Keeffe and her work would be by recording her desire. An open eroticism is primarily absent from "To See Takes a Long Time," but sensuality is often hinted at–even if only through the pleasurable brushwork alone. Waves of desire quietly underpin forms effective primarily for their erotic flair, but such imagery does not necessarily make it evident that O'Keeffe was an artist of forthright sexuality. Even so, the implications of her work suggest that physical beauty, so central to her output, played a larger role than we might think.


O'Keeffe made the beautiful pastel "Over Blue" (1918) more or less a complete abstraction, although the blue hollow space at the center of thin, overarching curved forms might suggest the interior of a cave. It makes more sense to regard this work as a study in color, with its outer edge first formed by a pink arch, then by a darker pink arch that moves into an orange and gold curve, tall in nature, on the right. It is followed by a more diffuse, pale off-white that turns green in the upper-right corner.


The architecture of the image is achieved through color alone. The composition looks like a cavernous blue interior receding away from the viewer. Such a reading likely emphasizes O'Keeffe's remarkable sense of structure and hue too much, which was not meant to make sense rationally. Instead, like most abstract work, the structure is arbitrary and impersonal, while the color, at least in this particular work, offsets how the image is built just as much as it decorates the forms.


It is a mistake, in the overview of O’Keeffe’s career, to see her body of work as only abstract. The artist painted many works, of flowers especially, that stun her audience with their vivid and exact forms, dominated by a sense of color that is both deep and luminous. It isn’t that O’Keeffe bridged the gap between figurative and non- representational art, even though her life accorded with the cusp leading to an increasingly abstract style. Instead, and from the start of her career, O’Keeffe was as
interested in both ways of working–and was highly proficient in both. It looks like the show at the Museum of Modern Art tended to emphasize abstraction, but that is not
O’Keeffe’s only forte. Her abilities were such that she embraced a broad spectrum of expression, both historical and innovative, and made them wonderfully new.


Georgia O'Keeffe. Evening Star, No. III. 1917

Watercolor on paper mounted on board,
8 7/8 x 11 7/8" (22.7 x 30.4 cm).

© 2018 The Georgia O'Keeffe Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

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