The power of Georgia O’Keeffe’s artwork derives from her mastery of essential elements of art making: line, color, and composition. To understand the richness of Georgia O’Keeffe’s artistic practice, this exhibition reveals her disciplined drawing practice, dramatic color palette, and innovative sense for composition through paintings and drawings that span her career. 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. A brilliant colorist, O’Keeffe created strong, vibrant works with colors that glow with energy and vitality. Holding all of this together in harmonious balance is her sense for composition. 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, yet somehow she always manages to maintain a sense of stability and produce works that are visually engaging. O’Keeffe’s facility with a variety of media—pastel, charcoal, watercolor, and oil—combined with her sense for line, color, and composition to produce deceptively simple works. Her confidence in handling these elements makes her style of painting look effortless. Our intent with this exhibition is not to eliminate the mystery of her artwork, but rather to deepen the appreciation of her skill and unique talents as one of the most technically proficient and artistically innovative artists of the twentieth century.
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. Dow encouraged an intellectual and imaginative process of making art grounded in personal expression and harmonious design. In 1962, O’Keeffe remembered his 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. This practice allowed her to achieve a composition that can be simultaneously abstract and true to the natural world.
For example, included are 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, five decades after studying his methods. In the first drawing, firm clear lines trace the contour of the 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, along with line and color, in producing harmonious pictures. O’Keeffe’s drawings demonstrate how she transformed her observations into abstract forms and masses. 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. This constancy in her artistic practice is evident throughout her life and is the subject of this exhibition.