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O'Keeffe's O'Keeffes: The Artist's Collection

 

The Milwaukee Art Museum is presenting O'Keeffe's O'Keeffes: The Artist's Collection, the first exhibition to showcase the artist's works from her own collection and to explore how her management of this collection shaped her public image. An intimate portrait of Georgia O'Keeffe, the exhibition features many of the works she treasured for their beauty and significance, including works which she kept hidden from public view. O'Keeffe's O'Keeffes presents visitors with a groundbreaking voyage through Georgia O'Keeffe's life as an artist, collector and craftswoman of her own legacy. It reveals a woman who actively worked to control the public perceptions of herself and of her work, demonstrating that O'Keeffe was much more than the secluded painter of desert subjects that many believe her to be.

O'Keeffe's O'Keeffes: The Artist's Collection encompasses 73 works, spanning more than 50 years of art, from the 1910s through the 1960s. The exhibition draws from the Milwaukee Art Museum's significant collection of Georgia O'Keeffe's work, which is the fourth largest of its kind of any museum in the United States. O'Keeffe's O'Keeffes is the premiere exhibition in the Museum's new exhibition galleries, located in the new Santiago Calatrava-designed Quadracci Pavilion. The exhibition will remain on view through August 19, 2001 and then travel to the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, where it will be on view September 14, 2001 through January 13, 2002.

O'Keeffe's O'Keeffes is co-organized by the Milwaukee Art Museum and the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum and is curated by Barbara Buhler Lynes, Curator of the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum and Director of the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum Research Center, with Russell Bowman, Director of the Milwaukee Art Museum.

"We are delighted to have the opportunity to present the first exhibition exploring Georgia O'Keeffe's motivations as an artist, collector and patron of her own work," said Russell Bowman. "It is especially fitting that we focus on the work of this Wisconsin-born artist as we begin to open our new Quadracci Pavilion and celebrate the increased opportunities our newly expanded Museum will provide for visitors from the region and beyond."

This major exhibition explores a new perspective on the artist's life and celebrated career and demonstrates how O'Keeffe managed her collection and career in a way that countered stereotypes about her life and work. During the early years of her career, O'Keeffe's artistic output was managed by Alfred Stieglitz, the renowned photographer who became her husband in 1924.

Following Stieglitz's death, O'Keeffe assumed responsibility for the administration of her career and she created a lifestyle -- through the carefully phased sale of her work -- that allowed her freedom to paint. At the core of this was a fluid system for ranking her work that determined which works would be made available for sale or exhibition, which would be lent or given to private and public collections, which retained, and which reacquired. By presenting a broad selection of works that O'Keeffe held in her collection or placed with public institutions, O'Keeffe's O'Keeffes offers insight into the artist's personal and artistic assessments and what motivated her to lend, sell or keep certain works out of public view. (left: Two Calla Lillies on Pink, 1928, oil on canvas, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Bequest of Georgia O'Keeffe for the Alfred Stieglitz Collection)

A scholarly exhibition catalogue includes color reproductions of all the works showcased in O'Keeffe's O'Keeffes. The catalogue also includes a preface by Russell Bowman and George King, directors of the Milwaukee Art Museum and the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum respectively, an introduction by Bowman, and an extensive examination by Barbara Buhler Lynes of O'Keeffe's intentions as both collector and distributor.

O'Keeffe's O'Keeffes: The Artist's Collection is made possible through a generous grant from the Ameritech Foundation

 

Georgia O'Keeffe and her Collection

At the time of her death in 1986, O'Keeffe owned more than half of her body of work. Her personal collection, distinguished by its range and depth, included more than 700 sketches spanning from 1901 to 1984; originals and casts of the three sculptures; all of her works in clay; and approximately 350 works in oil and on paper created from 1915 to the mid 1970s. The collection also included approximately 250 works previously unknown to scholars and the public.

"Georgia O'Keeffe is one of America's best-known yet most enigmatic artists. The mythology that has grown up around her -- her relationship with Alfred Stieglitz and her persona of self-reliant individualist taking refuge in the desert -- has obscured her contributions as an artist of the very first rank," said Barbara Buhler Lynes. "We are very pleased to partner with the Milwaukee Art Museum on this important exhibition which will illuminate a dramatically new aspect of O'Keeffe's career."

Nearly one-third of the works O'Keeffe owned at her death were produced during the first seven of the more than 70 years of her mature career. More than half of these early works were abstractions, many of which had not been seen since they were first exhibited around 1920. Other early abstractions - some of which are among her most outstanding achievements - were never exhibited, including a number of early charcoal drawings, watercolors and most of the important Series paintings of 1918 - 20 which are featured in O'Keeffe's O'Keeffes. O'Keeffe's secreting of these early abstractions and her decision to make them unavailable for exhibition are part of several strategies that she adopted in an attempt to discourage Freudian interpretations of her art, which Stieglitz applied early in her career and which remained central to much of the critical appraisal of her work. She was also aware that the market for the abstractions was not particularly strong and she retained these works, a decision that was likely part of a conscious strategy to control the perception of her work, the market for her work, as well as to maintain control of works that she regarded as particularly important. While she choose to define herself as a painter of landscapes, flowers, and bones, she recognized the importance of her early abstractions to her own history and to American art. (left: Corn, No. 2, 1924, oil on canvas, Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe, New Mexico, Gift of the Burnett Foundation and the Georgia O'Keeffe Foundation)

O'Keeffe's O'Keeffes will present works in the context of the artist's somewhat flexible ranking system which will provide a broader understanding and appreciation of O'Keeffe's personal motivations and assessments. For example, substantial differences in prices provide insight into O'Keeffe's rationale for selling and her reticence to part with certain works because they were of particular importance to her personally. O'Keeffe also carefully controlled how works entered the public domain. In addition to sales of her work, she regulated gifts and bequests to institutions which further shaped public access to and perception of her work. (left: Grey, Blue and Black -- Pink Circle, 1929, oil on canvas, Dallas Museum of Art, Gift of the Georgia O'Keeffe Foundation)

 

The Milwaukee Art Museum's Georgia O'Keeffe Collection

The Milwaukee Art Museum is a leading repository for Georgia O'Keeffe's work. Most of the Museum's first 11 O'Keeffes were gifts of Mrs. Harry Lynde Bradley. In fact, the artist graciously attended the 1975 opening of the Museum's last major addition which houses the Bradley collection. During the late 1990's, the Museum received a gift of 10 additional O'Keeffe works, from the Georgia O'Keeffe Foundation and Jane Bradley Pettit, who continued and expanded her mother's legacy. With this acquisition and one additional work from the Georgia O'Keeffe Foundation, the number of O'Keeffe works in the Milwaukee Art Museum's permanent collection is now at 22, making the Milwaukee Art Museum an important center for the study and presentation of this celebrated artist's work. All the works will be permanently installed at the Milwaukee Art Museum when the exhibition concludes its travels.

 

Text Panels from the Exhibition

Looking at O'Keeffe

Georgia O'Keeffe was one of the first artists to be caught up in the role of the artist as celebrity. Her mythology began in the 1920s when Alfred Stieglitz exhibited his loving but highly sexualized photographic portraits of her. Though his later portraits reflected a broad range of her character, the impact of the early sensual photographs and his reading of her works as expressions of female emotion influenced the Freudian reading of her works of the 1920s - 30s by a number of critics. Reacting to this reading of her abstract or highly stylized imagery (such as the close-focused flowers), O'Keeffe increasingly sought isolation and time to work in New Mexico. Especially after Stieglitz's death in 1946, she actively participated in the creation of her image as the austere seer of the American Southwest: the monkishly dressed, heavily lined, but elegant figure portrayed in photographs by Ansel Adams, Yousef Karsh, and many others, and widely distributed in books and magazines such as Life.

The Early Years

Born in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, in 1887, O'Keeffe grew up with an appreciation for the open space of the American plains. Between 1915 and 1918, she completed her studies at Teachers College, Columbia University in New York, and taught in Virginia, South Carolina, and Texas. Following the teaching of Arthur Wesley Dow at Columbia, she began to explore abstraction as a means of self-expression, Her keen interest in abstraction as an expressive device distinguishes her work from most of her American contemporaries, and establishes O'Keeffe as among the most innovative American artists of the period. (left: Early Abstraction, 1915, charcoal on paper, MAM, Gift of Jane Bradley Pettit Foundation and the Georgia O'Keeffe Foundation)

Her experiments began in the fall of 1915. Inspired to chart a new direction that would be hers alone, she limited herself to charcoal on white paper and began a series of highly abstract drawings, examples of which she mailed to a friend in New York. The friend took them to photographer Alfred Stieglitz, who at this time was also America's leading proponent of modern art. Shortly thereafter, in May 1916, Stieglitz included ten of O'Keeffe's drawings in a group show at his famous gallery, 291.

O'Keeffe continued producing charcoal abstractions, but gradually extended her experiments to the medium of watercolor; by the fall of 1916, she had returned to a full complement of color. During this period she became increasingly sophisticated with watercolor, using it less to describe than to capture and convey her enthusiasm for the vast expanses of the sky and landscape that she experienced in Texas. Increasingly, however, recognizable forms also become part of her vocabulary, and this period marks the beginning of a trend toward investigating aspects of both abstraction and representation -- a trend that would characterize the remainder of her career.

From the Plains to New York

Working in Canyon, Texas in 1917-18, O'Keeffe began a number of studies at one of her favorite sites, Palo Duro Canyon. The drawings here represent the kind of notational sketches she made throughout her career. Although she claimed not to work from drawings, these sketches, among some 700 remaining in her estate at her death, reveal O'Keeffe defining and reworking her compositional ideas. The Pale Duro Canyon paintings, her first mature paintings in oil, are even more abstract - note the non-referential titles - but suffused with a color that reflected her response to the light of the plains.

O'Keeffe moved to New York in June 1918 at the invitation of Alfred Stieglitz. Soon after her arrival in New York, O'Keeffe began working primarily in oil. Between 1918 and 1923, she produced in this medium some of the most remarkable abstractions of her entire career. The Series paintings of 1918-20 show O'Keeffe experimenting with almost completely abstract, though organic, form. Interestingly, only a few of these works were shown in a large exhibition of her work at Stieglitz's gallery in 1923, and the series was never shown in its entirety. The Series paintings form one of the most provocative and least known aspects of the work she retained in her collection and they reveal her as one of America's earliest and most formidable abstractionists.

New York and Lake George

O'Keeffe and Stieglitz were married in 1924. From mid-1918 until the summer of 1929, when O'Keeffe first traveled to New Mexico to paint, she and Stieglitz were nearly inseparable, living and working together either in the city (winter and spring) or at the Stieglitz family estate at Lake George in upper New York State (summer and fall).

Between 1918 and 1923, O'Keeffe produced some of the most remarkable abstractions. But as early as 1919, a new degree of precision and specificity began to characterize her representational images, suggesting an active response to the concerns of Modernist photography. This does not mean that O'Keeffe gave up abstraction as a language of personal expression, but that she shifted its emphasis in her work. After 1923, abstraction was seldom allowed to function as an expressive means in itself; rather, it derived from and became subordinate to the recognizable forms O'Keeffe chose to paint.

And so it was in the 1920s that O'Keeffe established herself principally as a painter of recognizable forms, for which she remains best known today. She developed approaches to representation during this decade that reveal her ongoing fascination with Modernist photography. Her large-scale paintings of flowers, leaves, and trees frequently present close-up views of these natural forms, and many of her paintings of New York buildings use optical distortions that are equally derivative of photographic manipulations. (left: Grey and Brown Leaves, 1929, oil on canvas, MAM, Gift of the Georgia O'Keeffe Foundation)

New York and New Mexico

In the 1920s, as O'Keeffe became more and more aware of how her abstractions were being interpreted within the art community as manifestations of female sexuality she became increasingly committed to subject matter of recognizable forms, imagery that in her mind could hardly be understood as anything but what it was -- for example, depictions of fruit and flowers. And after 1923, when the critics overwhelmingly responded in Freudian terms to both the representational and abstract works that Stieglitz included in her first large solo exhibition, she decided to limit her experimentations with abstraction and determined to make clear that the abstractions she subsequently made had objective sources. As a result, beginning in the mid-1920s, all but a handful of O'Keeffe's abstractions suggest their sources in the visible world. Especially her series, such as the Jack-in-the-Pulpit group, demonstrates her movement between the intimately representational and the highly abstract. (left: Abstraction White Rose, 1927, oil on canvas, Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe, New Mexico, Gift of the Burnett Foundation and the Georgia O'Keeffe Foundation; right: Jack-in-the-Pulpit No. 3, 1930, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Alfred Stieglitz Collection, Bequest of Georgia O'Keeffe)

In 1917, when O'Keeffe traveled from Texas to vacation in Colorado, she spent several days in New Mexico, for which she felt an immediate affinity. She returned twelve years after, in 1929, to spend the first of many summers painting there. In that first year she worked primarily in and around Taos, making paintings of various architectural, tree, and landscape forms that interested her. By the early 1930s, she had begun to explore areas south of Taos, such as Alcalde, Española, and Santa Fe.

New Mexico and Beyond

In the mid-1930s, O'Keeffe discovered regions to the south and west of Taos that were clearly her favorites and served as inspiration for her work over the next forty years. She was particularly drawn to the stark, but richly colored red and yellow hills and cliffs of the Ghost Ranch area and its flat-topped mountain, Cerro Pedernal; the white jagged cliff formations near the village of Abiquiu; the black hills of the Navajo country, some 150 miles west of Ghost Ranch; the cedar trees surrounding the Ghost Ranch house; and the bleached desert-bones she collected as she roamed the desert. All became frequent subjects in her work through the 1940s. (left: Cow's Skull with Calico Roses, 1931, oil on canvas, The Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of Georgia O'Keeffe)

O'Keeffe purchased a house at Ghost Ranch in 1940, and one in the village of Abiquiu in 1945. In 1949, three years after Stieglitz's death, she moved to New Mexico permanently, living summer and fall at Ghost Ranch and winter and spring in Abiquiu. From the early 1940s through the early 1960s, she often chose as the subject of her work the simple architectural forms of these houses as well as their surrounding landscape. (left: The Cliff Chimneys, 1938, oil on canvas, MAM, Gift of Jane Bradley Pettit Foundation and the Georgia O'Keeffe Foundation)

O'Keeffe began the first of several trips around the world in 1959, and the experience of seeing the earth and sky from the window of an airplane inspired a new and last series of paintings in the 1950s and 1960s. The landscape configurations recorded in these works are highly simplified and easily read as pure abstractions, suggesting that her early interest in expression through essentially nonrepresentational means remained an important part of her thinking throughout her career. (right: Abstraction, 1946, (cast 1979/80), white lacquered bronze, The Georgia O'Keeffe Foundation, Abiquiu, New Mexco)

Milwaukee's O'Keeffes

The Milwaukee Art Museum is fortunate to have one of the country's most extensive collections of Georgia O'Keeffe's work. The basis of this collection was nine works, four early watercolors and five important later paintings, donated by Mrs. Harry Lynde Bradley. Additional works came from Mrs. Edward R. Wehr and, in 1994, from The Georgia O'Keeffe Foundation. In 1997-98 with the support of Mrs. Bradley's daughter, Jane Bradley Pettit, the museum was able to acquire ten additional works through a gift of The Georgia O'Keeffe Foundation and a purchase from the Jane Bradley Pettit Foundation. These works are featured in O'Keeffe's O'Keeffes: The Artist's Collection as they all came from the artist's estate. However, they were carefully chosen to fill gaps in the museum's collection, particularly in early works in the medium of charcoal on paper. (left: Horizontal Horse's or Mule's Skull with Feather, 1936, oil on canvas, MAM, Gift of Jane Bradley Pettit Foundation and the Georgia O'Keeffe Foundation)

While the estate works are in the exhibition, we have elected to show ten of the museum's eleven other O'Keeffes here. This panel reflects how the various works together provide a strong cross-section of O'Keeffe's career. The 22 works in the museum's collection (with rotation of works on paper) will be shown together in a new installation within the Bradley Collection when this exhibition completes its international tour in 2002-03. The photographic grouping here provides a taste of the future presentation of Milwaukee's O'Keeffes.

rev. 5/28/01

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For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.


This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 5/28/11

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