The Georgia O’Keeffe: Abstraction exhibition opening this week at the Phillips Collection will radically redefine the way people view the iconic artist. O’Keeffe becomes youthful, revolutionary, and full of contradictions. Nowhere in the collection will you find cattle bones in the hot New Mexico sun, or coffee table book-reads calla lilies. The curators of the exhibit––from the Phillips, the Whitney Museum in New York and the Georgia O’Keeffe museum in Santa Fe––make a strong claim that O’Keeffe is the unrecognized pioneer of abstract art.
Abstraction seemed to be the truest way O’Keeffe could express herself, but early interpretations of her paintings as overly-sexualized images prodded her to steer towards more recognizable forms. O’Keeffe’s first publicly shown works, a series of abstract monotone watercolors circa 1915, are gathered together in the first gallery to give a sense of the play between curved figures and straight lines to which she would return for later paintings. Her first major retrospective in 1921, which showcased colorful evolutions of the early watercolors, revealed “the problem of a woman expressing herself abstractly in the early 1900s,” Barbara Lynes, curator of the Georgia O’Keeffe museum, said at a press screening of the exhibit last Tuesday.
Critics at the time called her sexually repressed, due to the vaginas and other female parts found in the creases and shadows of her work. Rarely-seen letters included in the exhibit reveal that O’Keeffe abhorred the interpretation of her work as fixated on sex, and so began to search for other realistic ways to express herself––hence the animal bones and petunias.
Ironically, O’Keeffe herself seemed remarkably in touch with her sexuality for a woman of the 1920s. She insisted that nude photographs taken by her husband, Alfred Stieglitz, be shown alongside her works. Included in Abstraction, these photographs reveal O’Keeffe’s playful, experimental side.
Breaking O’Keeffe free from the two prevailing interpretations of her work––fixated on female anatomy or romanticizing dusty skeletons––seems challenging, but Abstraction manages it well. The galleries filled with abstract paintings of jarring depth seem to be from a different artist altogether. “Music, Pink & Blue #2,” one of iconic paintings in the exhibit, loses its limited gynelogical interpretation in the company of so many other abstract forms.
Barbara Haskell, curator of the Whitney, said music was the perfect form of expression for O’Keeffe and her contemporaries because painters rely on abstract thoughts rather than concrete form. Throughout the works collected in the exhibition, it’s clear that O’Keeffe sought to express intangible feelings through her painting—restricting them to any one interpretation makes them one-dimensional.
“Jack-in-the-Pulpit,” a series of six large oil paintings, contains one of the only realist images in the series, a close-up of cabbage-like leaves surrounding a flower. In the subsequent paintings, O’Keeffe distills the subject into a unique abstraction. But seeing the same flower––an androgynous object––in alternatively phallic and feminine stylizations pokes fun at the critics who saw the sexual in everything she touched.
The “Jack-in-the-Pulpit” series, aside from revealing O’Keeffe’s sense of humor, also gives unmistakable insight into her process of creating artistic imagery. By bringing together major works like these, Abstraction begins to free O’Keeffe from the reductive criticisms of the past and solidify her place as a revolutionary American artist.