ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — It’s easy to dive into Georgia O’Keeffe’s rhapsody of color and form and marvel at the surface.
But an iron discipline of drawing and composition underscores that artistic alchemy.
The exhibition “Line, Color, Composition” at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe pairs the artist’s drawings with their subsequent paintings.
“It’s about making the surface completely interesting regardless of what the subject is,” curator Carolyn Kastner said. “The composition seems effortless, but it’s not.”
O’Keeffe continued that practice as she reached her 70s, even as her eyesight failed.
The discipline can be traced back to her 1914 training with artist/teacher Arthur Wesley Dow in New York, Kastner said.
Dow preached the power of line, tone, color and what he called “filling space in a beautiful way.” His teachings liberated O’Keeffe from the slavish pursuit of realism.
“It’s using the minimum amount of lines to activate a white page,” Kastner said.
Toward the end of her career in the mid-1960s, O’Keeffe traveled regularly by air. She began a series of river and cloud paintings inspired by her window seat views.
The painting “Clouds V, yellow horizon” began with a sketch of six lines carefully placing the sunstreaks, a flat plane of clouds and the horizon line on the page.
From the beginning, these fluid and seemingly effortless outlines led her directly to abstraction.
“From the River Pale” (1959) could be a river; it could be a twisted stick; it could be a valley. Or it could simply be a design.
“In her studio at Ghost Ranch is a branch that looks just like it,” Kastner said. “She returns to her first love, which is abstraction. This is the great creative outburst in her life.”
This distilled drawing technique became O’Keeffe’s lens for every painting. She then outlined her compositions in charcoal on canvas before dipping her brush into color.
The painting “Blue, Black & Grey” (1960) began with four lines sketched in the air to create the bones of the composition.
The artist grabbed whatever was nearby – even a ballpoint pen – to capture her visual ideas. Later drawings featured carefully smudged shadows and light as she mapped out her placement.
The post-impressionists Georges Seurat and Vincent Van Gogh began their work using similar techniques, Kastner said.
With “Pelvis IV,” a daylight moon framed by a circle of bone, O’Keeffe used her composition skills to magnify the viewer’s perception. The artist enlarged the image onto a 30-by-40 inch canvas. What resembles an ox or an elephant’s hip socket actually came from a tiny rodent’s skeleton. The opening acts as a magnet to the eye.
“It’s by cropping it on three sides that she gets flatness,” Kastner said. “That’s what creates the oscillation. The color covers it, but underneath that are these other great skills. It’s very majestic and indeterminate at the same time.
“Everybody appreciates what a great colorist O’Keeffe is,” Kastner continued. “It’s electrifying. But underneath that is what a conceptual artist she was.”