“I will make even busy New Yorkers take time to see what I see of flowers.”
In 1959, the artist Georgia O’Keeffe boarded an airplane in the United States and proceeded to travel for several months. Alongside visits to historical sites in Japan, India, and Iran, it was flight that captivated the 72-year-old O’Keeffe. “I’ve been flying a lot lately,” she said in an interview. “I went around the world—and I noticed a surprising number of deserts and wonderful rivers. The rivers actually seem to come up and hit you in the eye.” Peering through the plane’s windows, O’Keeffe sketched these rivers on small pieces of paper; after landing, she revisited them in charcoal, rendering their twists and turns with wide bands and narrow stripes of black pigment. Though works like Drawing X (1959) are so simplified as to appear distinct from the rivers that inspired them, O’Keeffe insisted otherwise. “There’s nothing abstract about those pictures,” she stressed. “They are what I saw—and very realistic to me.”
Over 40 years earlier, it was a different series of charcoal drawings that first garnered O’Keeffe the artistic recognition she sought. While working as an art teacher in South Carolina in fall 1915, she set aside the more conservative lessons of her previous academic training and began to experiment with sweeping lines and curving forms in compositions that she called Specials. “I am starting all over new,” she wrote in October to her friend, Anita Pollitzer. “Have put everything I have ever done away and don’t expect to get any of it out ever again—or for a long time anyway.” In No. 12 Special (1916), sweeping strokes of charcoal stretch up the page, their coils inviting—but also resisting—comparisons to spurts of water, wisps of smoke, tendrils of hair, and shoots of vegetation. O’Keeffe sent several of her Specials to Pollitzer, who in turn shared them with the photographer Alfred Stieglitz, proprietor of a celebrated contemporary art gallery at 291 Fifth Avenue, in New York. Declaring the drawings the “purest, finest, sincerest things that have entered 291 in a long while,” Stieglitz exhibited 10 of them in a group show in 1916 and held an exhibition of O’Keeffe’s work the following year.
After her debut at 291, O’Keeffe persisted in “starting all over new,” exploring what she termed “objectivity” and “abstraction” on paper and canvas. According to the artist, “objectivity” required close, careful observation of the external world, while “abstraction” involved the presentation of internal thoughts, experiences, and ideas. Yet in works like Abstraction Blue (1927), the two categories collide. Lush folds of blue, purple, and pink are bisected by a white shard that tapers to a point at the lower edge of the canvas, its straight edges contrasting with the layered undulations to either side. The composition resembles O’Keeffe’s zoomed-in close-up studies of bones, flowers, leaves, and shells, the magnification of which evokes a medium that interested the artist: photography. However, the colors and shapes of Abstraction Blue are unlike any single object found in the natural world. Indeed, O’Keeffe regarded “objectivity” and “abstraction” as intertwined. “It is surprising to me to see how many people separate the objective from the abstract,” she said. “Objective painting is not good painting unless it is good in the abstract sense,” with “lines or colors put together so that they say something.” She added, “abstraction is often the most definite form for the intangible thing in myself that I can only clarify in paint.”
By the 1930s, O’Keeffe had become renowned for her representations of flowers, whose stems, petals, leaves, and reproductive organs she pictured larger than life size. An Orchid, from 1941, embodies the strategies found across these works. An intricate bloom fills the frame, its petals—in subtle gradations of white, yellow, and green—extending beyond all four borders of the composition. Enlarging and cropping flowers, O’Keeffe can be seen to have channeled the techniques of photographers, such as Paul Strand, with whom she developed friendships. “In a way—nobody sees a flower,” O’Keeffe explained. “Really—it is so small—we haven’t time.” By magnifying these small organisms, she continued, “I will make even busy New Yorkers take time to see what I see of flowers.” Many critics, however, saw not flowers but O’Keeffe—specifically, her body. “O’Keeffe’s art has been relentlessly equated with the feminine,” the art historian Anne Wagner has written, “and with its inevitable synonyms, the bodily and the sexual.” For the artist, though, such “synonyms” were a distraction from the making and viewing of art. “I fancy this all hasn’t much to do with painting,” O’Keeffe concluded.
Annemarie Iker, independent scholar, 2022