Georgia O’Keeffe: the landscape and nature painter of the 20th century

The Fondation Beyeler, the museum for art in Riehen near Basel, Switzerland, until 22 May 2022, will devote the first exhibition of its 25th anniversary year to Georgia O’Keeffe (1887– 1986), one of the most significant painters and an icon of modern American art. With 85 works from mainly American public and private collections, “Georgia O’Keeffe” offers a representative overview of this exceptional artist’s many-faceted and endlessly surprising work. The retrospective provides European viewers with a rare opportunity for such in-depth exploration of Georgia O’Keeffe’s work, which is hardly represented in collections outside the United States.

Curated by Theodora Vischer, Chief Curator, the exhibition has been organized by the Fondation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel, the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, and the Centre Pompidou, Paris, in partnership with the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe and highlights O’Keeffe’s distinctive way of contemplating her environment and translating her perceptions into wholly unprecedented images of reality – at times almost abstract, at times close to their model in nature.

“One rarely takes the time to really see a flower. I have painted it big enough so that others would see what I see.” This quote from 1926 can be viewed as a guiding thread when considering O’Keeffe’s art and life. O’Keeffe developed a highly distinctive visual language, shifting between abstraction and figuration, which to this day has lost none of its topicality. Her singular gaze, combined with her delicate and respectful approach to nature, makes Georgia O’Keeffe the most significant and interesting landscape and nature painter of the 20th century.

From 1918, Georgia O’Keeffe spent decisive years of her artistic development in New York City, at the heart of the then fashionable and highly influential small circle around Alfred Stieglitz, photographer, gallery owner and advocate of modern art. Next to providing an early venue for the display and discussion of the European avant-garde, his gallery also fostered new American art and photography. O’Keeffe owed her early recognition and subsequent career to the support provided by Stieglitz, who later became her husband, and to her connection over many decades to the New York art scene. Yet in terms of her artistic output, urban life left only very few discernible traces.

O’Keeffe grew up on her parent’s dairy farm in Wisconsin, in the American Midwest. The decisive steps in her artistic development took place in Charlottesville, Virginia, and later in Canyon, Texas, where she taught art from 1916 to 1918. Even after moving to New York, her life as an artist remained punctuated by regular stays in different places. During many years, she thus spent summers at the Stieglitz family’s holiday home on Lake George in the State of New York, which provided the inspiration for much of the work she produced during this time. In 1929, O’Keeffe for the first time spent several weeks in New Mexico in the American Southwest, where she would henceforth return every year, always alone, and where she would settle for good following Stieglitz’ death.

The exhibition starts with a look at O’Keeffe’s early works, produced during her time as an art teacher in Virginia and in Texas. Charcoal drawings such as Early Abstraction, 1915, and No. 14 Special, 1916, are shown alongside a selection of small-format, saturated and vibrant watercolors. Red Landscape, 1916/17, with its night sky lit up by a spectacular explosion that turns the barren hellscape crimson red, is one of the rare oil paintings produced during these years.
Subsequent works such as Blue and Green Music, 1919/1921, and Series I – From the Plains, 1919, manifest the artist’s path toward abstraction. Fundamentally, however, O’Keeffe’s work is defined by the coexistence of figurative and abstract painting. Plants, especially flowers, provided key motifs in O’Keeffe’s work. In her large-scale flower paintings, such as Jimson Weed / White Flower No. 1, 1932, one of the most famous in this group, or Oriental Poppies, 1927, O’Keeffe’s interest in the movement of “straight photography” becomes apparent.
O’Keeffe found her most important sources of inspiration in landscapes and in the natural world; she painted both figurative and abstract works based on landscape motifs, first on Lake George and later in New Mexico. The works from her first stay in New Mexico, among them Ranchos Church No. 1, 1929, and Gray Cross with Blue, 1929, were inspired by typical elements of the region such as its adobe architecture or the penitents’ crosses erected by a religious lay brotherhood. This is also the period in which she painted Mule’s Skull with Pink Poinsettias, 1936, one of her famous paintings featuring the animal skulls she found in the desert.

During the years of the war, in which O’Keeffe lived permanently in New Mexico, her view of the landscape shifted. In her two series Black Place I–IV, 1944, and Black Place I–III, 1945, she represented the greyish black landscape in an unusually dark palette, from a bird’s-eye view and in ever more abstracted form. The still life It Was a Man and a Pot, 1942, featuring a human skull, suggests that O’Keeffe’s perception of her surroundings changed in the 1940s as the war raged on.
In the last room of the exhibition, O’Keeffe’s late work comes face to face with Black Mobile with Hole, 1954, by Alexander Calder (1898–1976), whose work has long been closely associated with the Fondation Beyeler – by way of both the museum’s collection and several exhibitions. While Calder, unlike O’Keeffe, maintained an ongoing relationship with Europe, both artists shared a deep attachment to the wide expanses and endless horizons of rural America, which permeate their work.
During her own lifetime, Georgia O’Keeffe was considered a major exponent and co-initiator of new American art as propagated since the late 1910s next to and distinct from the European avant-garde. In 1943, her first museum retrospective took place at the Art Institute of Chicago and in 1946, the Museum of Modern Art in New York organized a large exhibition of her work, the first such display the institution had ever devoted to a female artist.

Most of O’Keeffe’s works are to be found in the United States, both in more than 100 public collections and in private hands. In Europe, to which O’Keeffe herself traveled for the first time in 1953 aged 65, only around a dozen works are held in private and public collections. Her first major exhibition on the Old Continent took place in 1993 at the Hayward Gallery in London. One of the rare exhibitions in the years that followed, and the very first to be held in Switzerland, was the retrospective curated by Bice Curiger at the Kunsthaus Zürich in 2003. Today, Georgia O’Keeffe is also among the highly recognized artists in Europe, even though the originals of her works are rarely to be seen here.


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