WE KNOW THE SOUTHWEST’S MOST FAMOUS PAINTER for the objects she made more beautiful on canvas: flowers and bones, mesas and adobe. But the early years of New Mexico–based painter Georgia O’Keeffe were integral to her developing sense of abstraction, which she embraced over a career that spanned more than 60 years. Known for her iconic paintings of desert primroses, orchids, and other flowers, as well as for her color-saturated landscapes of northern New Mexico, O’Keeffe also maintained a lifelong interest in abstraction that was fundamental to the mostly representational vision she expressed.
A strong sense of place always filtered into O’Keeffe’s subject matter, including the years she spent in New York with her photographer husband, Alfred Stieglitz, in Manhattan and Lake George. While no place rose to the level of New Mexico as a source of artistic inspiration, O’Keeffe traveled far and wide, and the spirit of each place found dynamic expression in her work.
In 1914, O’Keeffe studied under Arthur Wesley Dow at Teachers College of Columbia University in New York City. Dow’s principles were influenced by Japanese art forms, particularly the ukiyo-e (floating world) woodblock print tradition. Under Dow, O’Keeffe shifted to a more abstract style of painting, though she never abandoned place as a subject. Two years later, when O’Keeffe was chair of the art department at West Texas State Normal College, her views of the region’s Palo Duro Canyon became the subject of a series of abstract watercolors. Her work always contained an interplay between the representational and the abstract, reflecting the way she experienced the natural world.
In Santa Fe, the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum’s current exhibition Radical Abstraction (through October 30) underscores the significance of the style to her career. In the show, 13 works from the museum’s collection display unusual takes on sky, land, and water. “There are all of these varying degrees of abstraction that she plays with and returns to throughout her career,” says Bess Murphy, the museum’s curator of art and social practice. After any amount of time spent viewing her work, it’s clear that the painter looked at the world as a series of interrelationships in which color and form were paramount. Although she veered more toward representational imagery as time went on, the exhibition makes it evident that both the real and the abstract are in constant dialogue in her works.
Even her most nonobjective painted works—say, Series I – From the Plains (1919), with its earthbound title and its compositional elements of a world below and sky above—suggest place. An amorphous shape in the painting’s lower half captures a sense of the fluidity of a swirling sea in shades of blue, green, and ivory. The black zigzag shapes that cut through a dusky background convey the dynamic motion and tumultuous activity of a raging storm. A viewer of the painting might think of how a tempest, viewed from the vantage point of a vast plain, could inspire the sense of awe that O’Keeffe’s painting reveals.
“Series I – From the Plains feels closest to that idea of pure abstraction,” Murphy says. “Is this landscape, or something more akin to Mark Rothko?”
O’Keeffe often revisited the same subject matter, rendering each version differently. Radical Abstraction shows her 1960 composition Blue Black and Grey, which can be interpreted as nonobjective. A later version—From the River Light Blue (1964), which is in the collection of the New Mexico Museum of Art—depicts the same sweeping band of blue. It slopes like a human shoulder, a thin, branchlike arm extending, like a tributary, from its right side. The painting presents views of the Río Chama, itself a tributary of the Río Grande. An earlier rendition—Chama River, Ghost Ranch, New Mexico (1937)—which is also in the New Mexico Museum of Art collection, is a more representational view of the river as it cuts through a sagebrush-studded landscape.
O’Keeffe used abstraction in a roundabout way. Where one artist might conflate a series of abstract forms to create something representational, she often did the opposite. She captured a representational view and framed it the way a photographer might to capture a preexisting abstraction. In this manner, abstraction becomes a matter of perspective.
“I see some images and think, Oh, she’s just zooming in more and more,” Murphy says. “But that changes it, so it’s not always recognizable as a landscape.”
On the River I, from 1965, for instance, eschews the blue skies for a delve into a narrow gap between canyon walls. But the central form, an opening to the sky, reads as a shape of its own, rendered in an atypical salmon-pink hue.
The painting came after a camping trip that O’Keeffe took in her seventies, while accompanied by photographer Todd Webb. “There’s this whole world of pink that I’ve been discovering in her work that’s not what you’d necessarily expect,” Murphy says of the piece.
But there’s also the suggestion of something serpentine and alive in the striated bands of rust along the wind-smoothed surface of rock at the painting’s right side.
“What I love so much about her landscapes is that you can see them and think, She made this up. Like, this is purely her fantasy of shape, form, and color,” Murphy says. “Then you look at images of that place and you see that she perfectly captured it. It’s just that the way that she framed it makes you think of the geology of that place in a radically different way.”
Radical Abstraction is intended to offer viewers a look into a creative aspect of O’Keeffe’s career that’s often neglected, precisely because she’s regarded as a representational artist. But she didn’t merely experiment with abstraction. She fully embraced it to the extent that her vision would allow. It was always there, in conversation with the rivers and rocks, the sloping canyon walls and mesas, the primroses, and the bones of a high-desert menagerie. She didn’t abstract these objects. She culled abstraction from them.
Two of the most nonobjective works in the exhibit—Series I – From the Plains and The Beyond (1972), which is one of her most iconic works—are also the oldest and most recent works in the exhibition, respectively.
The Beyond, painted when O’Keeffe was 85, takes the viewer full circle, reinforcing the idea that abstraction remained a lifelong artistic concern. The lower portion is a swath of black, while the upper area is filled by striated bands of blue, separated from the black by a thin white stripe, like a horizon line. Painted near the end of her life, it’s been posited that O’Keeffe was thinking of what comes after death.
“Visually it’s very striking,” says Jennifer Foley, the museum’s deputy director for collections and interpretation. “It’s also her last unassisted painting, because she had macular degeneration and was at a point where she was losing all her peripheral vision. I think there’s a lot built into that. It does loop you back to thoughts about mortality, what the end-of-life process looks like. It automatically brings up these questions.”
The Beyond is intended as a featured work in the museum’s upcoming expansion, set to begin construction next year and open in 2026. Museum director Cody Hartley and staff originally planned to name a section of the expansion after the painting because of the ways in which it captures artistic exploration.
“The thing that strikes me is how much of a testament it is to her drive to create,” Foley says. “She is somebody who, for her entire life from childhood all the way through the end, was driven to make things.” After painting The Beyond, O’Keeffe continued to push herself. She moved to working with clay at the end of her life, for instance, because it was something she could focus on without peripheral vision, Foley says.
The painting’s title is positive. O’Keeffe may have been looking to the afterlife, or to what comes after she can no longer paint, or merely what follows this specific composition. She made little mention of the work in her writings, leaving much of her intention for curators to speculate about. But in Perry Miller Adato’s 1977 documentary, Georgia O’Keeffe, the artist says, “Making your unknown known is the important thing—and keeping the unknown always beyond you.”
A cryptic and seemingly contradictory statement, it perfectly sums up an artist’s vision. A walk toward the horizon always reveals more, but the horizon itself remains out of reach. O’Keeffe’s work was never fully abstract, but rarely was it purely representational. There’s always something—another way of looking and thinking, another perspective, nothing definitive.
Freelance arts journalist Michael Abatemarco has also covered the conservation of significant works by Georgia O’Keeffe, as well as her importance to American modernism.
ALL THINGS O’KEEFFE
Dedicated to the work, life, and legacy of a single American artist, the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum presents its exhibits with narratives that lead from one to the next. After touring Radical Abstraction, an understanding of how O’Keeffe used abstraction carries over into Georgia O’Keeffe: Making a Life (through March 27, 2024). This exhibit explores the concept of the artist herself as subject, with her life as carefully curated as her art. Making a Life is enlivened by ephemera, including O’Keeffe’s books, tools from her studio, items from her various collections of natural objects, and a selection of her clothing. Taken together, the exhibit forms a glimpse into the atypical items in the museum’s growing collection. The show also includes rare examples of O’Keeffe’s abstract sculpture and associated maquettes.
The O’Keeffe Museum further enriches the view of the artist’s personal life in Around the World with O’Keeffe, on view at the O’Keeffe Welcome Center, in Abiquiú (21120 US 84). The free exhibition explores how O’Keeffe’s travels around the world—which included trips to Hawaii and Japan—influenced her art and her life. Like Making a Life, it reveals an aspect of her life story through personal items including souvenirs, clothing, and postcards.
Visitors interested in exploring O’Keeffe’s Abiquiú home and studio begin their 75- minute tour at the Welcome Center. An expert guide leads visitors through O’Keeffe’s historic estate, including her patio, kitchen, pantry, garden, and more. Book tickets in advance ($60) on the museum’s website. 217 Johnson St., Santa Fe; 505-946-1000, okeeffemuseum.org