The Undiscovered O’Keeffe

Georgia O'Keeffe had a history of keeping secrets--and one of them, scholars have discovered, was her extensive cache of works on paper. Why was she reluctant to show them? And what do they reveal about her working methods?.

When, in 1916, Alfred Stieglitz first saw the drawings of Georgia O’Keeffe, he reportedly exclaimed, “At last! A woman on paper. ” Yet O’Keeffe’s works on paper, although they are among her most adventurous and sensitive efforts, remain largely unknown. Giant poppies and bleached cow skulls come to mind when most people think of O’Keeffe, but it turns out that we don’t know her as well as we may have thought we did.

This unknown O’Keeffe has come to light as the result of two related events in the past six months: last November’s release of the O’Keeffe catalogue raisonné, by Barbara Buhler Lynes, and the traveling exhibition “O’Keeffe on Paper, ” comprising 55 pastels, watercolors, and charcoals, on view from the ninth of this month through July 9 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The show is co-curated by Lynes and Ruth E. Fine, the National Gallery’s curator of modern prints and drawings.

The show is a direct outgrowth of the surprising discovery by Lynes that O’Keeffe maintained a lifelong, if secret, passion for working on paper. In the early ’90s, Lynes began sorting through the portfolios of work left in the O’Keeffe estate and was stunned to find hundreds of carefully preserved sketchbooks, tiny line drawings, detailed renderings of landscapes, luminous floral pastels, and completely abstract late watercolors. The works on paper Lynes discovered in her seven years of research make up about half of the slightly more than 2,000 entries in the two-volume catalogue raisonné, published by Yale University Press in association with the National Gallery of Art and the Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation in Abiquiu, New Mexico.

The discovery was surprising because only a few dozen such works had been seen by scholars, let alone the public. The Santa Fe-based art historian and curator Sharyn Udall, who has written extensively on O’Keeffe, observes of the artist, “She shows more imagination in using paper than we have given her credit for, simply because we haven’t seen this work together. She was both precise and spontaneous. “

Lynes is Emily Fisher Landau Director of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum Research Center, as well as curator of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, where the exhibition will be on view from July 25 through November 9. She emphasizes that this O’Keeffe exhibition is unlike any previous one. “At least 80 percent of the show has never been seen before, and much of the other 20 percent comes from private or public collections where they have not been seen very much at all. ” Of a checklist of 55 works, she says, only 18 are familiar to most viewers.

How could this be? O’Keeffe has been the subject of five retrospectives, the last one organized by the National Gallery in 1987, the year after the artist’s death, at the age of 99. She had maintained a high profile in the art world from the outset of her career, thanks to Stieglitz, who first exhibited her charcoal drawings in 1916 at his 291 Gallery in New York. As O’Keeffe’s lover and, after 1924, her husband, he was determined to promote her as a woman artist who deserved the same recognition as his most acclaimed painters, all of whom were men: Arthur Dove, John Marin, and Marsden Hartley. (Visitors can compare their work at the National Gallery, which features “The Ebsworth Collection: Twentieth Century American Art” through June 11. Barney and Pamela Ebsworth’s important collection includes paintings by O’Keeffe, Dove, and Hartley, as well as by Charles Sheeler, Joseph Stella, Edward Hopper, and other American modernists.)

Initially, Stieglitz was attracted to the very drawings featured at the beginning of the current O’Keeffe exhibition. These abstract charcoals that impressed him so much were the culmination of years of trial and error on O’Keeffe’s part. Born in 1887 and raised in a Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, farming family, O’Keeffe had taken art lessons at home and at various schools, including Virginia’s Chatham Episcopal Institute, whose principal advised her parents to send their gifted daughter to the Art Institute of Chicago. In 1906, after one year there, O’Keeffe transferred to the more challenging Art Students League in New York.

The catalogue raisonné offers another revelation: O’Keeffe’s skills were earned, not effortless. Between the ages of 14 and 21, she toiled over academic exercises to perfect her ability to draw and paint. Her earliest extant rendering, from 1901, is a clumsy depiction of people hanging clothes on a line. Yet by 1908 she was accomplished in the traditional oil-painting techniques exalted by her teachers at the Art Students League, including William Merritt Chase, who awarded her a summer-school scholarship for her still life of a copper pot and a dead rabbit. Despite this early vote of confidence, poverty and poor health compelled O’Keeffe to give up painting for many years. By chance, in 1912, she took a summer class at the University of Virginia and was exposed to the design-based theories of Arthur Wesley Dow, who encouraged artists to “fill space in a beautiful way” by using the compositional devices he admired in Japanese and Chinese art.

Dow’s teaching proved to be O’Keeffe’s epiphany. Putting aside her oils, as well as her academic training, she boldly re-educated herself according to his principles, working in charcoal, pencil, and watercolor on paper. Using a limited palette and inexpensive materials, she grew freer in her gestures, at times covering an entire sheet of newsprint with bold, sweeping arabesques of charcoal. Uncertain of their meaning, she found encouragement when they were appreciated and exhibited by Stieglitz.

In 1916 and 1917, O’Keeffe taught Dow’s theories at West Texas State Normal College in Canyon. She discovered her extraordinary skill as a colorist using arcs of crimson and gold watercolor to emulate the Panhandle sunsets. Stieglitz closed her first sale, a spare sepia watercolor of a train puffing across the plains, for $200. But Stieglitz realized that O’Keeffe could never achieve parity with male artists if she did not work on a large scale in oil.

In 1918 O’Keeffe moved to New York City and began living with Stieglitz in a small Midtown apartment. The quantity of her watercolors and drawings fell off dramatically as she devoted herself to producing substantial oil paintings. Most biographers have assumed that she rarely returned to drawing, pastel, or watercolor. Because she never mentioned doing preparatory sketches, even in her 1978 autobiography, most scholars believed that O’Keeffe worked directly on canvas from some sort of mental image. Others were dubious about her skill as a draftsman, assuming that she could not render the human figure or face because there was so little evidence that she pursued these subjects. The catalogue raisonné, a trove of unknown treasures, subverts many of these long-held assumptions. Phillips Collection curator Elizabeth Hutton Turner, who organized “Georgia O’Keeffe: The Poetry of Things, ” on view at the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco through May 14, says that the catalogue raisonné and the show are “sure to provide a new way of understanding O’Keeffe’s process. “

It is clear now that O’Keeffe worked on paper off and on throughout her life, although her output before joining Stieglitz exceeds all of her work on paper done afterward. Except for her first significant solo show in New York in 1923, her works on paper were rarely exhibited until after Stieglitz died, in 1946; then Edith Halpert of the Downtown Gallery showed them in the 1950s and early ’60s. Relatively few wound up in private hands, however, so they rarely come on the market. Christie’s has recorded only one sale in the past two years. In 1998 an undated watercolor, Red and Blue #2, went for $266,000, more
than double its high estimate.

Most of the works on paper remained in O’Keeffe’s possession, so that in the late 1980s the executors of her estate found drawers overflowing with hundreds of sketches, which can be seen in the catalogue raisonné, and about 150 fully realized pastels and drawings, some of which are highlighted in the exhibition.

Lynes, author of O’Keeffe, Stieglitz and the Critics, 1916-1929, explains, “The key is that when she was making her way as an artist, she had to be identified as an oil painter, because watercolor was not thought of as being in as high a class as oil. Even though Stieglitz promoted Marin as a watercolorist, I don’t believe O’Keeffe could have stayed with watercolor and been recognized as a major, significant artist. I think she had to demonstrate her prowess in oil. She does more work on paper between 1916 and 1918 than she does during the rest of her life, yet there are over 800 works in oil after 1918. “

What does this cache of work on paper reveal? Among other things, the catalogue raisonné proves the extent to which O’Keeffe did preparatory drawings and maintained sketchbooks, often annotated with notes on color, for her oil paintings. The exhibition offers other insights. Co-curator Fine explains, “We wanted to show how highly refined she was on paper, while at the same time being more exploratory than she was on canvas. “

More than half of the works in the exhibition are from between 1915 and 1918, and many of those are abstract, such as the trio of portraits of photographer Paul Strand, depicted with loose plumes of black and yellow watercolor. The gatherings of Hispanic women standing in the streets of San Antonio will not be familiar to most viewers, nor will the spiky 1915 and 1919 charcoal abstractions that betray O’Keeffe’s early awareness of Wassily Kandinsky and Francis Picabia. Straight from her estate, and never reproduced, comes the 1918 pastel Over Blue, with arcs of tangerine containing sky blue, a fully realized dress rehearsal for O’Keeffe’s breakthrough oil painting, Music–Pink and Blue, No. 1, in the Ebsworth collection.

Predictably, the exhibition features O’Keeffe’s well-known seashells, flowers, avocados, and rivers, but even such familiar themes seem freshly conceived. One startling series in the catalogue raisonné did not make it into the exhibition: the Zen-like abstract watercolors that she completed in the 1970s after her eyesight had begun to fail. Although she needed help in their execution, they are poignant in their similarity to her early watercolor exercises of 1915, as if she were reaching back to that moment when her life and her art were transformed by the revelation of Dow’s theories.

O’Keeffe was an artist of complexity and sensitivity, but her reputation has suffered from the fact that her popular pneumatic flowers are so often seen in graphic reproduction. The works on paper offer such delicacy and thoughtfulness that one can only wonder why she balked at showing them. Was she afraid of revealing that there was a process behind her seamless creations?

O’Keeffe was a perfectionist and had a history of keeping secrets. She controlled her image very carefully, posing for countless photographers, unsmiling and always wearing long dark dresses. She may have been reluctant to show her works on paper because they were more spontaneous than her oils–more revealing, various, and unresolved. But that is the charm of works on paper: the viewer has the sense of watching the artist conceiving and revising ideas, seeing the gesture, the erasure, and the decision.

Ironically, her secrecy proved to be a boon for those who wanted to paint fake “O’Keeffes.” One notable omission from the catalogue raisonné is “The Canyon Suite, ” a group of 28 watercolors ostensibly painted by O’Keeffe during her years in Canyon, Texas, but neither shown nor sold until after her death in 1986. They were purchased in 1993 by the Kansas City, Missouri, art collector R. Crosby Kemper. Santa Fe art dealer Gerald Peters, who made the sale, agreed to return Kemper’s $5.5 million when doubts arose about their authenticity, because of a “moral obligation to take the client out of the problem. ” Peters said that his own investigation of the watercolors was under way.

Such issues of authenticity are so touchy that the catalogue raisonné includes an exhaustive study of the papers used by the artist. Judith Walsh, senior paper conservator at the National Gallery, used the most advanced paper-dating technologies as a way of authenticating many of O’Keeffe’s undated drawings, charcoals, and watercolors. Walsh also contributed an essay to the exhibition catalogue, along with Lynes, Fine, and Elizabeth Glassman, president emeritus of the Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation.

Before her 1970 Whitney retrospective, O’Keeffe was looking at her 1915 drawings, called “Specials,” from her debut at 291. She turned to Doris Bry, who was then her agent as well as co-curator of the exhibition, with Lloyd Goodrich, and said, ” We don’t really need to have the show. I never did any better. “

Artists are often plagued by such morbid self-reflection on the eve of a retrospective, but the works on paper that have come to light may lead us to understand O’Keeffe’s concern. Fine says, ” In a show like this, one can see what she is capable of doing with these materials. You have her at her loosest and you have her at her most highly refined. That’s what people can take away from it, really. The intimacy the material has for the artist is an intimacy the works also have for the viewer. “

Hunter Drohojowska-Philp is completing a biography of Georgia O’Keeffe for Alfred A. Knopf.

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