The artist studied and taught at the Jefferson-designed University of Virginia in Charlottesville each summer from 1912 to 1914, a time that would prove pivotal in her pursuit of abstraction. A suite of nine watercolors discovered in a notebook from that period are on view for the first time at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe.
The paintings reveal her first investigation into the ideas of modernism and abstraction. The compositions are simple and refined, with flattened shapes, minus the frills and minute details of representationalism.
O’Keeffe’s artistic practice shifted dramatically when she took a UVA course taught by Alon Bement at age 25, museum curator Carolyn Kastner said. She could only study during the summer, because it was the only time the university accepted women.
“She kept these all her life,” Kastner said.”Some of them are framed with the pages of a notebook and we’ve got the notebook. It’s remarkable, because it’s also handmade pigments.”
Tiny holes in the corners show the artist pinned her paintings to her walls.
Bement introduced O’Keeffe to the revolutionary ideas of Arthur Wesley Dow, who encouraged an imaginative process of creating art grounded in personal expression and harmonious design. Dow championed interpretations of the natural world rather than photo-realistic depictions.
“He had one guiding principle, and that was to fill a space in a beautiful way,” Kastner said.
O’Keeffe worked as Bement’s UVA teaching assistant from 1913 to 1915. She later moved to Texas, where she taught at West Texas Normal State College in Canyon.
O’Keeffe’s artistic talent was first nurtured by the principal of the private girls’ school she attended as a teenager. That attention led her to study at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Art Students League in New York, where she was a prize pupil of the flamboyant painter William Merritt Chase.
In the fall of 1908, she moved to Chicago and worked as a freelance commercial artist. She returned to live with her family in Virginia in 1910 after contracting measles. Once she had recovered, she worked in Virginia as a teacher.
She often spoke later in life of finding her direction in art during that summer. Bement and Dow liberated her from the slavish pursuit of realism.
Dow preached the power of line, tone and color. In his 1899 teachers’ handbook “Composition,” he wrote that he disapproved of teaching methods that emphasized copying nature. He said even beginners could create pleasing landscape and still-life compositions based on the principle of “a few lines harmoniously grouped together.”
O’Keeffe’s first direct contact with Dow came when she needed an additional teaching credential. In 1914, she enrolled at Teachers College, Columbia University, where Dow directed the art department.
“It isn’t abstraction like we think of nonobjective,” Kastner said. “But it is the beginning of her simplification. She reduced the landscape to line, omitting the details. This series could be the first time she tries to work with Dow’s lesson plan.”
O’Keeffe is considered one of the first American abstractionists.