BY CODY HARTLEY
Color is one of the great things in the world that makes life worth living to me and as I have come to think of painting it is my effort to create an equivalent with paint color for the world—life as I see it.
– Georgia O’Keeffe, 1937
The meaning of a word to me is not as exact as the meaning of a color. Colors and shapes make a more definite statement than words.
– Georgia O’Keeffe, 1976
Objective painting is not good painting unless it is good in the abstract sense. A hill or a tree cannot make a good painting just because it is a hill or a tree. It is lines and colors put together so that they say something. For me that is the very basis of painting. The abstraction is the most definite form for the intangible thing in myself that I can only clarify in paint.
– Georgia O’Keeffe, 1977
For Georgia O’Keeffe, every summer was a summer of color. From verdant landscapes at Lake George, to luminescent flowers and the brilliant skies and glowing hills of New Mexico, the vibrancy and harmony of O’Keeffe’s colors is at the core of what makes her artwork powerful and alluring. But color alone cannot explain the richness, beauty, and variety of O’Keeffe’s art. Those strong colors are complemented by a disciplined drawing practice and careful preparatory drawings. The crisp definition of forms, often achieved through a single flawless brush stroke, typically follow equally confident charcoal under-drawings. All of this precision is united by some of the most original and modern compositions of the twentieth century.
How she used line, color, and composition—the essence of what makes an O’Keeffe an O’Keeffe—is the subject of our summer exhibition at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. Featuring works in a variety of media, including pastel, charcoal, watercolor, and oil, the exhibition explores how O’Keeffe utilized these essential elements of art-making in a career spanning more than six decades.
So many folks enjoy and respond to O’Keeffe’s art. One of our goals is to encourage viewers to think about and understand why they like the paintings so much, and in so doing, more fully appreciate O’Keeffe’s skill and ability. The widespread appeal of O’Keeffe’s art, as true for audiences today as it was in the 1920s, can in part be attributed to the elegant clarity of her vision. Refined and focused, minimal and exact, her paintings seem effortless. This apparent simplicity is deceptive. Such virtuosity requires absolute mastery of one’s craft and complete technical proficiency. To conceal the labor of creation is a labor indeed. Our intent with this exhibition is not to eliminate the mystery of her artwork; instead our goal is to deepen the appreciation of her skill and unique talents as one of the most technically proficient and artistically innovative artists of her generation.
The presentation offers fresh insight into the importance of line in her work—from preliminary sketches and drawings to the fluid, seemingly effortless outlines that define regions of her canvas and divide her compositions into dynamic zones of color, be it the curve of a flower petal, the horizon of a landscape, or the contour of an abstract form. O’Keeffe’s drawing practice was the lens for each new experience, and her sketches form a journal of her explorations. The artist was steadfast in her commitment to the discipline of drawing, which she adopted early in her career.
O’Keeffe developed a personal vocabulary of abstract forms and composition strategies as she acquired the principles taught by Arthur Wesley Dow. An artist and educator, Dow published in 1899 Composition, a book that influenced generations of artists. Dow encouraged an intellectual and imaginative process of making art grounded in personal expression and harmonious design. In 1962 O’Keeffe acknowledged his strong influence. “I had a technique for handling oil and watercolor easily; Dow gave me something to do with it.”
She recorded her keen visual perceptions in sketchbooks for sixty years. The drawings demonstrate her process of distilling the natural world into abstract compositions of lines that form shapes and contours while eliminating distracting details, a process of identifying the very essence of a given location or subject. In her work there is a constant filtering and active elimination of excess detail, a kind of refinement and visual purification. This begins in her sketches. “Nothing is less real than realism,” wrote O’Keeffe. “Details are confusing. It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis, that we get at the real meaning of things.” This practice allowed her to achieve a composition that can be simultaneously abstract and true to the natural world.
For example, included in the exhibition are two preparatory drawings and their related painting, Blue, Black and Grey, of 1960, which reveal her sensitivity to abstract forms in the natural world and her debt to Dow over five decades after first studying his methods. In the first drawing, firm clear lines trace the contour of abstract shapes she observed in the landscape. The second drawing shows variations of shade and massing, reflecting the Japanese design concept of notan (“dark, light”), which Dow taught as an essential element in producing harmonious pictures.
O’Keeffe’s drawings demonstrate how she transformed her observations into abstract forms and masses. Even when representing the surrounding environment, she was acutely aware of the abstract quality of the finished design. After making preparatory drawings, O’Keeffe outlined her compositions on canvas with charcoal before painting and applying color. Infrared photographs of her artwork show that her painted surfaces are quite faithful to the drawings underneath. She painted with conviction, and the finished work of art seldom varies from her initial concept.
A brilliant colorist, her strong, vibrant colors glow with energy and vitality. In some cases, the power is derived from restraint. The white skull against the white wall of Ram’s Head, Blue Morning Glory, 1938, seems muted in comparison with the intense blue of the morning glory petals and the sunlike yellow of the flower’s center. Look closely at the modulation and variation that exist across the surface of that white wall, and a greater complexity emerges. Subtle shadows cast from the horns provide a sense of volume and depth; shading gives the wall mass and texture. In other works, her use of color is nearly riotous. Black Hollyhock Blue Larkspur, 1930, features pinks and greens so bright they glow like neon when set against the lush, velvety blues of the larkspur and dark purple-black of the hollyhock.
Inspired by the flowers growing at Mabel Dodge Luhan’s home in Taos, this painting is also an outstanding example of O’Keeffe’s radical sense of composition. The diagonal division between the larkspur and the hollyhock splits the canvas. Forms are often magnified nearly beyond recognition so as to bring the viewer in close and create a sense of monumentality and visual excitement. These flowers fill the space entirely and seem to burst forth and continue beyond the frame. O’Keeffe defied artistic conventions of “good” composition, yet somehow she always managed to maintain a sense of stability and produce works that retain a harmonious balance. Time and time again in her work, we see an artist pushing the boundaries, in some cases quite literally, with lines and forms racing off the edge of the canvas.
The divided composition, typically splitting the canvas with a slashing diagonal or a horizontal gap or set of lines down the center, emerges in some of her earliest abstractions, such as Green Lines and Pink, 1919, and the related drawing, No. 17-Special, 1919. It can be seen in the stark New Mexico landscape of Black Place III, 1944, and in the abstraction, Blue Black and Grey, 1960, and countless other works produced throughout her career, right up to some of the last watercolors painted by O’Keeffe in the 1970s. (One of the special treats of this exhibition is the opportunity to share more than a dozen of these rarely seen, large, and yes, colorful watercolors). Be it a pure abstraction or a landscape, these compositional strategies became part of O’Keeffe’s toolkit for structuring her paintings and filling space in a beautiful way—another concept derived from Dow. These elements and techniques become something of a visual language for O’Keeffe, and we see such patterns repeated again and again in her work, across a range of subjects and many years.
In a life distinguished by innovation and creativity, across a remarkable spectrum of subjects, we also find extraordinary consistency and intentionality in O’Keeffe’s art. By looking at specific aspects of her art-making practice, we come to understand her visual vocabulary and language. The structure and sophistication of her accomplishments are revealed. Her work is forthcoming with a rare clarity. Such directness of vision is not accidental. It is achieved only through careful observation, disciplined study, and hard work. During this color-filled summer, the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum invites visitors to look closely at how O’Keeffe created her world in paint using three essential elements of art: line, color, and composition.
Cody Hartley is director of curatorial affairs at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.