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April 29, 2010

Rare Art by Renowned American Artist Goes on Display

Show highlights rarely seen abstractions by Georgia O'Keeffe

Georgia O'Keeffe is one of the most distinguished American artists of the 20th century. She is best known for her vibrant paintings of flowers, leaves, landscapes and other images in nature.

Now, a new exhibit at The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., features more than 100 paintings, drawings and watercolors by O'Keeffe and 12 photographic portraits of her taken by her late husband, famed photographer Alfred Stieglitz.

But the highlight of the collection - which includes items dating from 1915 to the late 1970s - includes a rare selection of O'Keeffe's less familiar abstract art.

Georgia O'Keeffe as abstract artist

Georgia O'Keeffe is best known for her sensuous paintings of flowers and desert landscapes of the American southwest. But many people may not know that she was also a gifted abstract artist.

The new exhibit features abstractions that O'Keeffe herself didn't exhibit in her own lifetime, says Elsa Smithgall, associate curator at The Phillips Collection.

According to Smithgall, O'Keeffe broke into abstraction with a set of charcoal drawings that she created in 1915.

"They are exquisite gestural drawings, very organic in form, and no recognizable reference to a known subject," she says.

Water colors and oils

By the 1920s, O'Keeffe had moved on from pure abstract drawings to water colors and oil paintings of subjects that seem more familiar.

But according to Smithgall, O'Keeffe continued to use abstraction as the foundation in all her artwork.

"You're going to find in her work this constant back and forth between very purely abstract form and perhaps a flower or a leaf or a landscape," she says.

Sexual overtones

It was also during this period when critics described O'Keeffe's oil paintings as being sexually suggestive.

While Smithgall acknowledges that some of O'Keeffe's forms do evoke sexual connotations, she emphasizes that the exhibition "is not about that."

She adds that O'Keeffe herself passionately resisted the notion that her art was sexually suggestive and, in fact, made a concerted effort "to shift her focus in her work towards more recognizable subject matter as a way to try to steer the critics towards another kind of reading of her work."

New Mexico - a new chapter

Beginning in 1929, O'Keeffe started spending time in New Mexico where she felt more at home than she had in New York where her career had taken root. Her experiences in the vast open spaces of the New Mexico desert inspired her to move there permanently in 1949.

According to Smithgall, it was a new chapter in her career:

"She's very much responding to that ocean of space in New Mexico where they have this amazing clarity of light and very wonderful, breathtaking kind of exhilarating sensation that she feels there that is extremely inspiring to her, and it brings up a whole new body of subject matter," she says.

It was during these transformative years when her paintings took on a different feel as well, says Smithgall.

O'Keeffe started depicting flowers "increasingly large in format and increasingly greater in magnification and so you start to see a major change in her scale, in her viewpoint taking these unusual birds and bees-eye perspectives," she says.

According to Smithgall, O'Keeffe created magnified images of her subject matter as a way of "inviting the viewer in." She wasn't copying an object so much as expressing how she felt about painting it, she says.

Coming full circle

By the late '50s and '60s, O'Keeffe's art turned once again to the pure abstractions of her earlier years.

"This is not a work that you probably would see on the wall and say, 'Oh, yes, an O'Keeffe,'" says Smithgall, "so there's that surprising aspect to them."

"What's so exquisite about them is that she has - with very spare compositions - created these exquisite forms that are extremely expressive and that do recall those earliest charcoal drawings in that respect," she says.

From those early charcoal drawings to the huge, bold canvases of her later years, few would argue that the work of Georgia O'Keeffe has had a far-reaching influence on American art and culture, and continues to impress and inspire art lovers throughout the world.