SANTA FE – Georgia O’Keeffe zoomed in on her classic flowers, painted rivers from the air and grounded her subjects in ovals.
The New Mexico Museum of Art is presenting, “O’Keeffe in Process,” which brings a rare opportunity to see related works from both the state depository and the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.
The exhibition features 36 oil paintings and 15 works on paper moving from Lake George in upstate New York to New Mexico bones, flowers and landscapes, ending with sweeping views as O’Keeffe gazed at the world from an airplane window.
The timeline spans her early student family portraits in 1905, her Lake George paintings from the late teens and early ’20s to her discovery of cloud-strewn vistas from the sky in the 1960s.
O’Keeffe developed her unique style and technique early in her career.
She mapped out her compositions using a handful of lines for placement.
The artist began enlarging and cropping her famous flower series in 1919.
The decision to sweep in, inflate and cut her imagery became a hallmark of a lifetime body of work.
Her predilection for the oval emerged early, surfacing in her flowers, in her still lifes of alligator pears and in her classic depictions of New Mexico landscapes and bones.
The shape repeats in 1961’s “Mountains and Lake” as well as in 1943’s “Untitled (Abstraction).”
In “Pelvis IV” (1944), she used a hip bone to frame a cold moon. Negative spaces become holes, then frames.
A famous 1960 photograph by Tony Vaccaro shows the artist sitting in the back of a car holding a slice of Swiss cheese to her eye like a viewfinder.
The oval became a shape to gaze through and divide space.
The artist used cottonwoods to illustrate the changing seasons.
Their shimmery green leaves transformed into gold by the fall in “Cottonwood and Pedernal” (1948).
O’Keeffe took the narrow mesa known as Pedernal through the seasons showing the changing color, light and foliage.
In painting a single subject in the shifting sun, she reflected the precedent of the impressionist Claude Monet and the post-impressionist Paul Cézanne, museum curator Carmen Vendelin said.
Monet painted the shifting light of haystacks and the Rouen Cathedral, while Cézanne painted his Mont Sainte-Victoire over and over again like a personal talisman.
As the artist flew around the globe in the 1960s, she whiplashed her perspective from the nearly microscopic to extended, nearly abstracted views of rivers from the sky.
“One of the paintings – people keep saying it looks like a waterfall,” Vendelin said, referring to “On the River,” 1964.
In a complete reversal of her famous flowers, the view is expansive and emphasizes distance. The compositions take on an aerial, map-like view.
Todd Webb’s 1964 photograph of O’Keeffe’s Ghost Ranch studio shows O’Keeffe used a tree branch as the model for the aerial river in “From the River – Pale.”
In 1962/63’s “Above the Clouds I” she pares the clouds to a series of puffy ovals.
As a modernist, the artist grounded her images in realism before her paintbrush edged them into abstraction.
“She has to see it,” Vendelin said. “It has to be grounded in observation. She’s thinking about similar ideas, using flatness and abstraction. Modernists are thinking about these essentials – shape, line and color.”
O’Keeffe said, “It is surprising to me to see how many people separate the objective from the abstract. Objective painting is not good painting unless it is good in the abstract sense. A hill or tree cannot make a good painting just because it is a hill or a tree. It is lines and colors put together so that they say something. For me that is the very basis of painting. The abstraction is often the most definite form for the intangible thing in myself that I can only clarify in paint.” (Viking Press, New York, 1976).