Home Magazine A primordial urge to explore: Georgia O’Keeffe

The first traveling retrospective on one of the key figures in modern American art, Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986), is now in Spain at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza (until 8th August), afterwards it will travel to the Centre Pompidou and the Fondation Beyeler - sealing a formidable collaboration between museums.

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Through a selection of approximately 90 works, the exhibition offers a complete survey of O’Keeffe’s career, ranging from the abstract works produced between 1910 and 1920 to her celebrated flower paintings and views of New York, and culminating with her paintings of New Mexico, O’Keeffe’s beloved place that fitted to her perfectly. Her deep connection with the places she visited - The Yosemite National Park, South Carolina and Texas, Lake George NY, New Mexico (Black Mesa Landscape, New Mexico / Out Back of Marie’s II, 1930) and other destinations around the globe - and her deep empathy with nature are the origin of O’Keeffe’s entire ouevre. 


Georgia O’Keeffe, Evening Star No. VI, 1917, Watercolor on paper, 22.9 x 30.5 cm, Georgia O'Keeffe Museum. Gift of The Burnett Foundation, 1997.18.3, © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, VEGAP, Madrid, 2021, Photo: Courtesy of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.


“The unexplainable thing in nature that makes me feel the world is big far beyond my understanding - to understand maybe by trying to put it into form. To find the feeling of infinity on the horizon line or just over the next hill” (1976). 


Georgia O’Keeffe, Series I—No. 3, 1918, Oil on board, 50.8 × 40.6 cm, Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee. Gift of Jane Bradley Pettit Foundation and the Georgia O'Keeffe Foundation, M1997.192 © Milwaukee Art MuseumPhotographer credit: Larry Sander.


During her walks, O’Keeffe collected small objects like flowers, shell, leaves, river rocks and bones of dead animals to study both the visible reality and the unknown.

“My mind creates shapes that I don’t know about”. Through shapes and spectacular colors, O’Keeffe’s artworks transcend the line between reality and abstraction. 

In 1915, she embarked on her own path in painting, drawings with charcoal or black paint but without colors, dazzling the New York’s Avant-garde elite. “I believe it was June before I needed blue”. The artist is, in fact, known for her mastery of color. But not exclusively. The wild American landscape of Texas, the countryside in the State of New York, a farm in Wisconsin, infinite horizons and afternoon sunsets, and yet the grey skyscrapers in the big apple, became a source for inspiration to her original, rhythmic and modern way of painting. Although Perspective, verticality, sun-drenched atmospheres or crepuscular sceneries (New York Street with Moon, 1925) appear in her paintings of the early years, nature seemed to be the true protagonist. Poppies, jonquils, irises, jimsyn weeds, enlarged flowers in series - resembling a blown-up photograph, a strategy to make us look closer - are one of O’Keeffe’s recurring theme. Their natural, bold shapes, meticulously executed, turn gradually into abstraction - like in Oriental Poppies, 1927. Jimson Weed. White Flower No. 1 (1932) looks very physical and intimate and it is the most expensive painting by a female artist ever sold at auction, smashing expectations with $44.4 million.  


Georgia O’Keeffe, New York Street with Moon, 1925, Oil on canvas. 122 x 77 cm, Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection on loan at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, VEGAP, Madrid, 2021.


Without imposing herself limits, O’Keeffe always wanted to feel more, above, beyond - even when she painted from the windows of the airplanes she took, - and to communicate with herself and the viewer. A palette of 320 color cards, materials with European commercial brands, say Winsor and Newton, from the 1930s and 1940s, sketchbooks, charcoal smudgers and brushes can be found In O’Keeffe’s studio in Santa Fe, which demonstrate the intense new way of making paintings of one of the most acclaimed painters of her time.  


Georgia O’Keeffe, Oriental Poppies, 1927, Oil on canvas, 76.7 × 102.1 cm, Collection of the Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. Museum Purchase, 1937.1, © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, VEGAP, Madrid, 2021.


Cover image: Georgia O’Keeffe, Black Door with Red, 1954, Oil on canvas, 121.9 × 213.4 cm, Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, VA. Bequest of Walter P. Chrysler, Jr., 89.63, © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, VEGAP, Madrid, 2021.

Written by Petra Chiodi