Arts and Entertainment

Mother of Modernism: Georgia O’Keeffe

A review of Georgia O’Keeffe: To See Takes Time, exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art.

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By Lily Serry

Georgia O’Keeffe’s exhibition, To See Takes Time, opened to the public at the Museum of Modern Art early this April. Thousands of visitors flocked to view her glorious works, including immersive paintings, magnificent flower depictions, and her less-publicized monochrome charcoal collection. A pioneer of American modern art, O’Keeffe infuses her works with a unique approach to color and subject matter.

American Modernism was a movement between the late 19th and early 20th centuries emphasizing color, abstraction, and aesthetic. O’Keeffe incorporates multiple characteristics of modernist art in her pieces, most notably in her paintings of nature, which are filled with vibrant colors, abstract subjects, and simple shapes. O’Keeffe broke into the art scene when her abstract New York City paintings were featured in an exhibit by renowned photographer Alfred Stieglitz—O’Keeffe’s future spouse. Her depictions of the city distinguished her through rich coloration that contrasted with the illuminated windows. This particular collection brought a sense of eccentricity to the familiar, especially for New York viewers. Her work continued to catch the attention of critics, securing her reputation as an artist unafraid of pushing boundaries. 

The O’Keeffe exhibition is separated into O’Keeffe’s stylistic eras, featuring different mediums and spanning time periods. The majority of the exhibition focuses on the earlier stages of her career, highlighting her charcoal, graphite, watercolor, and pastel drawings. The drawings employ dance-like strokes to portray physicality and vibration. While her early drawings do not have an objective subject matter or use of color, they are still able to convey emotion. One example of this is Special No. 9 (1915), a charcoal drawing composed of squiggly lines and diagonal rhythmic shading. The line composure and arbitrary weight are intended to convey the sensation of a headache, revealing her incorporation of physicality into her work. 

The next part of the exhibition introduces her integration of color. O’Keeffe is well known for her bold colors—rich, earthy tones of yellows, greens, blues, and reds. She uses color to tell stories, like in Evening Star (1917), a series of eight watercolor paintings depicting a Texas sunset. O’Keeffe portrays the stages of the sunset in different parts of each painting. The first painting is a traditional landscape portrayal, with simple brush strokes covering the paper. There is very little technique involved, only a sketch with five main colors from top to bottom: light Naples yellow followed by a darker shade, a sliver of coral, and two thin strips of midnight and Prussian blue. The second painting starts to gear toward abstraction; the bottom half has three tense strips of sapphire blue and viridian green, while the top half uses warm shades of red, orange, peach, and yellow circling around a small speck—the evening star. The second and third paintings use singular condensed colors in abstract concentric rings to indicate tension between each part of the landscape. Starting with the fifth painting, each piece is reduced to scarlet red, gold-orange, and royal blue. O’Keeffe tests the containment of each color, indicated by paint collisions resulting in black and gray shades that indicate the nearing end of the sunset. The last painting in the series uses absorbent Japanese paper, which allowed the paint to diffuse and create a soft, fuzzy effect. The series lined up looks like a spectrum, starting off with a serene landscape and transforming to geometric strokes and then weighty collisions of radical colors. 

Evidenced by Evening Star, O’Keeffe drew immense inspiration from the lifelong fascination with nature that first arose on her family’s farm. Her environment became a constant subject in her works, influencing paintings of botany, bones, and landscapes. Strikingly, the exhibit displays only a few of her famous flower paintings, such as Red Canna (1923)—a richly saturated painting depicting the intricate folds of petals—and Jimson Weed (1936)—a more moderate portrayal of a few milky white flowers and forest green leaves against a baby blue background. O’Keeffe’s repeated flower symbolism has been subjected to extensive interpretation. Some viewers consider her floral collections as references to fertility and sexuality, namely due to the detailed interiors (including the stamens and reproductive areas) of the plants. She also conveys themes of femininity through her use of river-like lines, mimicking the soft curvatures of the female silhouette. Her focus on the female form is also found in her landscapes, such as Lake George [formerly Reflection Seascape] (1922) and From the Lake (1924). The compositions allude to the female reproductive system in an aesthetic manner, drawing parallels between human anatomy and the natural world.

As a prominent figure of American Modernism, O’Keeffe was able to establish her impact as one of the first major female artists in a male-dominated art industry. Some found O’Keeffe’s paintings groundbreaking, but others condemned her, with one critic calling her art an “emotional expression of a sexually obsessed woman.” Nevertheless, O’Keeffe was able to successfully distinguish herself by challenging these beliefs and opening up the world of art to both female artists and the abstraction of feminine beauty.