"Georgia O’Keeffe: Watercolors 1916-1918" Book review
Georgia O’Keeffe: Watercolors 1916-1918
Hardcover / 25.5 x 33 centimeters
82 images / 188 pages
Radius Books, Co-published with: Georgia O'Keeffe Museum
Text by Amy Von Lintel Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Art History Doris Alexander Endowed Distinguished Professor of Fine Arts Director of the Gender Studies Program.
"Georgia O’Keeffe: Watercolors 1916-1918" catalogues the first extensive exhibition (04/29/2016 – 10/30-2016, Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe, NM) of almost 50 watercolors created by O’Keeffe between 1916 and 1918, while she lived in Canyon, Texas.
It is reasonable to wonder why these works surfaced only now, twenty years after the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum was established and one hundred years after being made. There is always a need to question the status of works that are “discovered” and featured after the creator is gone.
Could these personal, experimental and marginal drawings be considered with such importance? Perhaps they only receive such attention and interest because they belong to an icon like O'Keeffe? Another unanswered question is if O'Keeffe herself would have considered them as important and as finished works?
This exhibition which took place in 2016 began with a gift given in 1997 from the Georgia O'Keeffe Foundation. The gift was selected watercolors from the artist’s estate to the O’Keeffe’s museum's collection for the event of the opening. These watercolors were kept in a vault for seventy years and were in perfect condition despite their age. In the years since, the museum (supported by the donation of private collectors), began to collect more and more watercolors from the time O'Keeffe spent in Texas, including the ones exhibited by Alfred Stieglitz at his New York gallery “291”.
These watercolours, together with over a hundred letters of correspondence with Stieglitz and others, were donated by O'Keeffe to a library in Yale University under the condition that they will be open twenty years after her death. O'Keeffe was very calculated regarding the discovery and interpretation of her work in this time in her life. By doing so, she continued her legacy and provided a refreshing point of view of herself before she became an icon.
I first encountered this book online by chance. The book cover image of a near-abstract pink watercolor combined with O’Keeffe’s name intrigued me. I was most familiar with the large-scale oil paintings of the close-up of flowers she is most associated with. Something about O’Keeffe’s success made her overrated for me, I bought into the interpretation that the flowers are erotica and something about this painting style wasn't to my liking (I mean this Dali-like smooth hard yet soft edges.) The fact that her work is so popular and associated with “women art” made me think it's not good or interesting. I remember when I was studying fine art in high-school, a student in the year above me exclusively made giant paintings in the style of O'Keeffe’s flowers. Having received a Eurocentric art education, I had little knowledge of American art history. Even Though I never been to the US, and actually never seen any original paintings by her, I have wrongly misconstrued her work.
I am now obsessed with O’Keeffe through Von Lintel.
There are a lot of myths that exist about O'Keeffe that I realized are not true.
She didn’t agree to be included in any movement yet she was considered to represent American Modernism and some of her works had been fairly connected to Precisionism and Feminism.
She didn’t agree to be exhibited by Stieglitz and didn’t know that he was exhibiting nude photos of her along with her painting (today it is actually considered a form of sexual assault). This is what probably made the critiques read her work as erotic and helped sustain stereotypes about art made by female artists. According to her, the enlarged flowers series was never done in reference to the human body. What is known to be true is that O'Keeffe had a fascination with form and had a dominant style of painting. She was also known for having a recurring exit/entry space element in her paintings. With all these to consider and with looking at the whole - it is time to recognize the option that O'Keeffe's paintings are not abstractions of genitalia. The actual flowers are-that’s because they are the plant's reproductive organs and whichever similarities exist, they are random. The “Oriental poppies” from this series don't really support those old theories of busting womanhood. It's time to dispute this reductive and repressive idea as truth.
The artist Judy Chicago, contributed to creating the myth by using Georgia O'Keeffe imagery, incorporates the flower imagery she used in her paintings with her own butterfly-vaginas. Chicago pays tribute to both O'Keeffe originality and imagery in her epic yet controversial feminist artwork “The Dinner Party”. Chicago claims it doesn't matter whether O'Keeffe agrees with it or not- because it’s there. I think she is right. Even Though Chicago’s view on Feminism is narrow and problematic what she claims is something I believe in too. The artist’s work doesn’t belong only to the artist- it belongs to everyone.
Getting a copy of the book wasn’t easy. Around April I went to Konst-ig, (The) Art Bookstore in Stockholm. When I went to find out about “this new big book about Georgia O’Keeffe’s watercolors” the owner corrected me that it’s not that big and it isn't new but from 2016. It was also out of print and out of stock but there was a twenty people waiting list I can register (:/).
Waiting in line is a Swedish tradition, so I went along with it without really thinking I can get it.
The shop owner is the coolest and (I’m sure she knows she is but in the way that just makes her cooler for owning that).
My girlfriend ordered it for me online as a gift only to discover there are no copies left.
Around the end of June I got a phone call that the book has a second edition and new copies arrived at the store- available for purchase - yet midsummer weekend the store will be closed.
I was glad and although actually didn’t have the money, I said I’ll come by tomorrow.
On that day as I am halfway to Södermalm, the most pouring rain started out of nowhere.
Not the best weather for cycling and paper product shopping.
So I called back to say I can’t make it and thanked the shop owner for the call but said that she shouldn't save it for me. She sounded a little pissed maybe because I should have had a car.
It’s for the best, I thought, as I couldn’t afford it anyway.
It was August. My friend from Art school Dania Wiener visited Sweden with her partner Igal and their six month old baby boy, Dori. As part of the must-see city tour, we went by Konst-ig on the way to have coffee. We are about to leave the store when my girlfriend hands me a copy of "Georgia O’Keeffe: Watercolors 1916-1918"- fresh from the discount section.
I wasn’t even thinking to look there, but because of a small dent in the edge of the cover, the price is labeled less than half of the original price. Inbar decides to get it for me.
So you see, it is fate that led me to this book.
Dania is one of the first friends I made in Art school. We were in the same class and lived close to each other in Jerusalem during the first year of College. We are the same age and she's an amazing artist and also a self-proclaimed painting snob. So she was really surprised I went and got myself a book by O'Keeffe as she was just as surprised to see the paintings inside.
So Why Is This So Great?
Maybe because I’m a sucker for watercolors. Or maybe this embodies everything I love about art. Watercolors have played a role in the development of many artists, who have used the medium as a method of discovery in the artistic process. It is clearly influenced by Auguste Rodin's watercolors, which O'Keeffe mentioned that she saw in an art gallery as a student.
The works are so playful and experimental and exemplify brilliant use of pure pigments-vibrant, saturated raw colors. The subjects and designs are simple yet different and very sensual, surprising for the time as it feels a bit expressive, quirky and intense - somehow hippie (before hippies).
The most familiar hard soften edge O'Keeffe is known for becomes no edge despite the spotting and bleeding through the series. O'Keeffe shows tremendous control of the color, producing a line of naked paper that replaces the edge. In an exciting, unorthodox approach she creates an original new language that is both personal and unique. Simple yet genius, young and light. It is the opposite of impressive but still very strong.
I am not an art historian so reading the words of one is always quite strange.
Art historians are the bookish version of curators. It seems to me like a ton of gossip and some super dry descriptions of the paintings here and there.
The nude studies/nude self-portraits are different from those made by men, they are young woman’s drawings of her body. Exploding with vibrant saturated hue, bright and bold color mixed with water is bleeding, gushing. The technique itself is simplifying the shadows with a few shades of color, two or three simple brush strokes sum up the body to skin, flesh, and heart. This muddy, sensual and wonderful series is not a part of a long tradition of nudes in Art history. It’s something else.
Intimate and personal, clean from details but full of specificity and character, it is obvious O'Keeffe is not only using her own body as a model for a nude but also because it is what’s immediate to her.
A fast and sexy drawing which contradicts the rules of the academic approach of watercolor painting that O'Keeffe greatly disliked and found boring.
What she found as interesting was to start developing her own language.
She was doing just that in Canyon, Texas. Teaching and painting herself and the view. In her letters to Stiglitz, she kept writing about the nothingness and expressed a will to stay there forever.
O'Keeffe was 28-30 years old at the time, getting out of the academic style of painting, after exploring monochrome abstracts she was rediscovering color, and the unusual landscape.
Von Lintel most recent research on O'Keeffe is fascinating. According to her, she viewed Texas as a faraway dream before moving there to teach not knowing much about teaching. O'Keeffe believed she was discovering the "true America", painting a very complex picture of American Identity, patriotism, and criticism in times of war. O'Keeffe deals with representations of a secular interpretation of hell, cowboys and soldiers, trains, war machines, and ranching as an escape from militery service. She is analyzing the influence of Texas on her work in much later periods- through the use of an exaggerated electrifying red color. The red in the sceneries and nudes as a multi-layered meaning element of temperature, burned skin color of the locals, trauma, the duality of feelings, warm and inviting bursting light and explosions. All of this subjectivity without canceling the fact it is also cutting-edge abstractions for that time.
O'Keeffe compared the desert plains without trees to the ocean. She found beauty in the way the “ugly” (her words) houses look against the sky. She adored the golden Texas light, the sunsets, the peace and serenity. Loved her independence to walk alone, hand in her pockets. She had her own style, she wore her hair long and straight, she was dressed in black and white. Her students loved her and she loved teaching. She was social but also liked her alone time and space. Well-liked, strong in character, a hopeless romantic with a great desire for life and creation, a devoted artist and educator, close to her family, had a strong sense of self yet fragile.
This feeling of “discovering” an upcoming artist in the late, great Georgia O’Keeffe is strange but wonderful. And much to the fact this publication functions as a catalog of this rare and special body of work - and also as a book of a new research about O'Keeffe by Von Lintel that is featured in the last pages of the book. The publisher, Radius Books focuses on artist books of contemporary artists and is independent and nonprofit. So they pitched it as an artist book for O'Keeffe before her success. It works- it seems-fresh and cool. The book is designed to create a more direct contact with these beautiful works. Due to the limitation in the exposure of paper works sensitivity to light and the elements they can only be shown on occasion. The watercolors feature full-scale color reproductions of the paintings, most of which are approximately 20×30 centimeters in scale. The scans and prints not only fill the pages uninterrupted by text, but also exceeds the page side and continue as centerfolds- for O’keeffes nudes it is a sweet and slightly funny gesture. The only works where she governed her nudity and sexuality in her own terms- It is an opportunity to revisit the works that made O'Keeffe famous.
This finding of a small yet meaningful body of work really hits close to home for me as a painter, who is no longer pursuing a career as an artist but still paints.
The only gear I took with me to Stockholm is my watercolor pan paint box set and brushes. Watercolors for O'Keeffe came in a stage when she almost quit painting altogether. The turpentine which is used for oil painting made her sick. I can relate to how O'Keeffe preferred the no texture 150-250g cartridge paper to the thicker cotton cold-pressed one. How liberating it is to paint on cheap paper. I always felt the same way about the watercolor paper, however, no teacher ever supported that. The use of this paper also helps to create these specific aesthetics- especially because the paper barely soaks the liquids. This gives the watercolor a physical presence -as if O'Keeffe overflow of thoughts and emotion imprinted on the page.
I’m happy someone along the way dropped a copy of the book and created this hardly noticeable dent on the hardcover, and for the chain of events that led me to write this post...