Georgia O’Keeffe : exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris

Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe, 1918, New-York, The Metropolitan Museum

Georgia O’Keeffe was born in 1887 in Wisconsin. A student at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1905, she joined the Art Students League in New York two years later. It was at this time that she visited the avant-garde gallery « 291 », directed by the photographer Alfred Stieglitz. There she discovered the works of Rodin, Picasso and Cézanne and was confronted with modern art, far from the education she had received.

Auguste Rodin, Naked woman sitting frontally, hands behind her head, Pencil on paper, 31×19 cm, Paris, musée Rodin

The freedom of style of Rodin’s drawings and their erotic power made an impression on O’keeffe, who drew inspiration from them ten years later for a series of nudes in watercolour.

Nude, Serie IX, 1917, Watercolour on paper,, 30x22cm, Danta Fe, Georgia O’Keeffe Museum

This watercolour, part of a series, is one of the few works by the artist to depict the human figure.

While Alfred Stieglitz brought modern European art to America, he also organized exhibitions of modern American artists and regularly highlighted the work of photographers.

Charles Demuth, Red gladioli, 1928, Watercolour on paper, 50×35 cm, New-York, Whitney museum of American Art

Arthur Dove, Orange grove in California by Irving Berlin, 1927, Oil on cardboard, 51×38 cm, Madrid, musée Thyssen-Bornemisza

Arthur Dove was the first American artist to experiment with abstraction. This painting is a tribute to the jazz musician Irving Berlin and his song « Orange grove in California ». Dove tries to transcribe the rhythm of jazz music into paint.

Alfred Stieglitz, Old and New York,1913,33×25 cm, New-York, The Metropolitan Museum

Georgia stopped painting for a while and then taught at a university in Texas. In 1916, she sent a series of charcoal drawings and watercolours to her friend, Anita Politzer, who had stayed in New York. She chose to show them to Stieglitz, who immediately decided to exhibit them at Gallery 291. Fascinated, he exhibited Georgia’s work every year until his death in 1941.

Black Lines, 1916, Watercolour on paper, 62×47 cm, Santa Fe, Georgia O’Keeffe Museum

The teaching she received from the painter Arthur Wesley Dow was based in particular on the study of oriental drawing. This influence can be seen here in the lines that evoke calligraphy.

Special n°9, 1915, Charcoal on paper, 62×48 cm, Houston, The Menil Collection

She evokes the movements of nature and the idea of germination through abstract forms.

From 1918 onwards, Georgia left Texas to settle in New York. She produced works marked by a taste for botany and flowers. She met with the wrath of the critics who saw in her paintings an explicit image of female sensuality. Paradoxically, it was this scandal that launched her career and fame.

Series I White and blue flower shapes, 1919, Oil on cardboard, 50×40 cm, Santa Fe, Georgia O’Keeffe Museum

Inside red canna, 1919, Oil on canvas, 55×43 cm, Private collection

Abstraction white, 1927, Oil on canvas, 86×35 cm, Santa Fe, Georgia O’Keeffe Museum

The vertical lines, the black hollow, the marbling of the white colour evoke the folds and creases of a fabric.

Georgia soon fell in love with Alfred Stieglitz, whom she married in 1924. They settled down together and divided their time between New York and Lake George, where the photographer’s family had a second home. This rural landscape reminded the artist of his childhood in the country.

Alfred Stiglitz and Georgia O’Keeffe at Lake George, 1932

My shanty, Lake George, 1922, Oil on canvas, 50×68 cm, Washington, The Philips Collection

The simple and austere architecture of the barns refers to the geometric forms of Cubism.

In 1925, Georgia and Alfred moved into a flat in one of Manhattan’s newly constructed buildings. This was an opportunity for her to take an interest in the urban landscape she observed from her windows.

The Shelton with sunspots, New-York, 1926, OIl on canvas, 123×76 cm, Chicago, The Art Institute

To the horizontality of the farms of Lake George, the artist opposes the verticality of the skyscrapers. She studies the effects of natural and artificial light, which soften the image of the buildings, reduced to simple stacks of geometric shapes.

New-York street with moon, 1925, Oil on canvas, 122×77 cm, Madrid, musée Thyssen-Bornemisza

East river from the Shelton, 1927-28, Oil on canvas, 84×76 cm, New Jersey State Museum

Georgia had been painting flowers for a long time, but in the early 1920s she tried to render them in a more original way. She decided to depict them in very close-up, so that they took up the whole canvas. This close-up view shows the influence of her photographer friends, especially Paul Strand. Critics continued to see erotic allusions in these close-up petals and pistils, an interpretation that the artist always rejected.

Corn.Dark N°1, 1924, Oil on canvas, 80×30 cm, New-York, The Metropolitan Museum

These corn leaves, seen in very close-up, are typical of this period. The way in which the subject is cut off at the edges is also a practice derived from photographic framing. O’Keeffe was influenced in particular by her friend Paul Strand, who photographed plants or everyday objects in close-up.

Oriental poppies, 1927, OIl on canvas, 76×102 cm, Minneapolis Museum

Jimson weed/White flower n°1, 1932, Oil on canvas, 121×101 cm, Bentonville, Museum of American Art

Autumn leaves-Lake George,1924, Oil on canvas, 51×41 cm, Colombus, Museum of Art

1929 was an important date in Georgia’s career. She was invited to stay in New Mexico. She discovered a landscape and light that fascinated her and prompted her to settle there for six months of the year. She walks alone in the desert and, unable to find flowers, collects bones which she then brings back to the studio to paint. For her, her bones, like the dead trees, are not morbid and continue to express the cycle of life.

Pelvis with a distance, 1943, Oil on canvas, 60×75 cm, Indianapolis, Museum of Art

Ram’s head white Hollyhock-Hills, 1935, Oil on canvas, 76×91 cm, Brooklyn Museum

Dead cottonwood tree, 1943, OIl on canvas, 91×76 cm, Santa Barbara, Museum of Art

In the mid-1950s, Georgia bought a house in New Mexico, Ghost Ranch, which was totally isolated and surrounded by desert. She painted many times the mountain visible from the house, which became her « own Sainte-Victoire », in reference to Cézanne. She also painted the surrounding landscapes, humanising their forms, giving them a sensual aspect, as she did with flowers.

My front yard,Summer, 1941, Oil on canvas, 50×76 cm, Santa Fe, Georgia O’Keeffe Museum

Taos Pueblo, 1929/34, Oil on canvas, 61×101 cm, Indianapolis, The Eiteljorg Museum

Grey hills, 1941, Oil on canvas, 50×76 cm, Indianapolis, Museum of Art

Black hills with cedar, 1941-42, Oil on canvas, 40×76 cm, Washington, Smithsonian Institution

She is also interested in the culture of the Pueblo Indians, in particular the Kachina dolls which materialise the forces of nature. She attends secret ceremonies and then retransmits the sensations she has perceived in paint.

Grey,blue and black. Pink circle, 1929, Oil on canvas, Dallas, Museum of Art

She transcribes the gyratory dances of the Indians, the sounds of the songs and the beating of the drums.

From 1950, the artist began to travel the world. Some of her paintings were inspired by the views she saw from the windows of planes (rivers seen from above, sky above the clouds…)

Green, yellow and orange, 1960, Oil on canvas, 101×76 cm, Brooklyn Museum

This view of a river, seen from a plane, becomes a pure abstraction.

Sky above clouds/Yellow horizon and clouds, 1976-77, Oil on canvas, 121×213 cm, Santa Fe, Georgia O’Keeffe Museum

With this vision of the immensity of the sky, Georgia joins the taste for the Sublime dear to the Romantic painters. The painting evokes C.D. Friedrich, with the same sense of a nature greater than man.

Caspar David Friedrich, Monk by the sea, 1808-1810, Oil on canvas, 110×171 cm , Berlin, Alte Nationalgalerie

In general, from the 1950s onwards, O’Keeffe’s work tended towards simplification and synthesis of form. She subjected her motifs to ever greater abstraction, as can be seen in the various canvases depicting the door to the patio of her house.

Patio with clouds, 1956, OIl on canvas, 91×76 cm, Milwaukee Art Museum

Black door with red, 1954, Oil on canvas, 121×213 cm, Norfolk, Chrysler Museum of Art

Georgia O’Keeffe died in 1986 at the age of 98, having become an icon of modern American art, as famous in America as Picasso or Matisse in Europe. All her life, she had sought to paint the cosmic forces of nature. Her art is the fusion of the subject she represents with her own emotions.

Georgia O’Keeffe by John Loengard

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