The Phillips Collection

Washington D.C.

(202) 387-2151


Georgia O'Keeffe: The Poetry of Things

April 17 through July 18, 1999

Georgia O'Keeffe: The Poetry of Things is the first exhibition to focus in-depth on O'Keeffe's combined spirituality and aesthetics as portrayed in her paintings of objects. It examines her intimate relationship with the objects she chose, how she saw them, and the interpretation of the object on the canvas The exhibition's point of departure is the moment in 1915 when O'Keeffe first divided her early revolutionary charcoals into two categories, "landscapes" and "things". The works that she designated "things"-- often images that are more abstract than illusionistic--have a decidedly organic character. Indeed, patterns in these compositions correspond to those found in her later depictions of apples, trees, leaves, shells, and bones. O'Keeffe, by virtue of her language of color and form, transformed the ebbs and flows of nature's forms into objects for contemplation.

The legacy of Georgia O'Keeffe is connected in many ways to objects that she found, admired, collected and painted. They alone most clearly convey her chosen form of expression.

Today the public may know more about elements of O'Keeffe's personal biography and the triumphs and tragedies of her life with Alfred Stieglitz than they know of her deeply personal approach to art. Ironically, we still don't know enough about the philosophy and aesthetics underlying the choices she made in her own work. This exhibition of 68 works, dating from 1908 to 1963, brings a fruitful line of inquiry into the rich and complex personal iconology which O'Keeffe created over the course of her career.

For O'Keeffe, the object alone could never substitute for the work of art. Color was her formal language. When asked to choose whether the flower or the color was her focus, O'Keeffe refused to say. Instead she spoke of the primacy of aesthetics. "What is my experience of the flower if not color" she declared.

Though explaining little about her themes and sources, she credited her teacher Arthur Wesley Dow for giving her something to do with her finely honed skills in watercolor and oil. She also expressed an affinity for music and the economy of Chinese poetry. Toward the end of her life there is the poignancy of her repeated request to be read to from two books: Wassily Kandinsky's Concerning the Spiritual in Art and Okakura's The Book of Tea.

To see and appreciate O'Keeffe's method is to become deeply rooted in the American experience -- particularly America's close identification with nature. Understanding O'Keeffe's process can be as simple as taking a walk outdoors or as complex as transcending visible reality, capturing what she called "the unexplainable thing in nature." O'Keeffe's imaginative process was poetic and precise. The images she conveyed in her paintings can be said to mirror an active mind fetching something new and then registering it into the field of consciousness. Therein lies her artistic poetry of selection, elimination, and emphasis.

A comprehensive catalogue, the first to focus exclusively on O'Keeffe's extraordinary achievement in still life painting, will document the exhibition. It will include an essay by The Phillips Collection's Curator, Dr. Elizabeth Hutton Turner, who will investigate the unique melding of Eastern and Western thought in O'Keeffe's approach to objects. A second essay by independent scholar/art historian Dr. Marjorie Balge-Crozier will compare O'Keeffe's invention in still life to academic practices and traditional models in Western art. Each essay will contain comparative black and white illustrations, including contextual photographs of O'Keeffe's studios, collections, and exhibition installations as well as related historical and contemporary works. In addition, the catalogue will include a chronology and color plates of each work in the exhibition.

Special tickets are required for admission to Georgia O'Keeffe: The Poetry of Things.

From top to bottom: Laura Gilpin, Georgia O'Keeffe, 1953, Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, Bequest of Laura Gilpin; Myron Wood, Recuerdos (Memories), 1981, Courtesy of Pikes Peak Library District; Georgia O'Keeffe, Turkey Feathers in Indian Pot, 1935, oil on canvas, Private collection; Georgia O'Keeffe, Slightly Open Clam Shell, 1926, pastel on paperboard, Curtis Galleries, Minneapolis, Minnesota; Georgia O'Keeffe, Large Dark Red Leaves on White, 1925, oil on canvas, The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC; Georgia O'Keeffe, Pelvis with Pedernal, 1943, oil on canvas, Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute Museum of Art, Utica, NY: 50.19; Georgia O'Keeffe, Black and Purple Petunias, 1925, oil on canvas, Maryellie Johnson; Georgia O'Keeffe, Petunia II, 1924, oil on canvas, The Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, Gift of the Burnett Foundation and Gerald and Kathleen Peters; Georgia O'Keeffe, Ladder to the Moon, 1958, oil on canvas, Collection of Emily Fisher Landau, New York; Georgia O'Keeffe, Green Apple on Black Plate, 1922, oil on canvas, Lent by the Birmingham Museum of Art, Birmingham, Alabama, Museum purchase with funds provided by the 1981-82 Beaux - Arts Committee, Museum Store, Donors, and matching funds from Mr. and Mrs. Jack McSpadden.

Search for more articles and essays on American art in Resource Library. See America's Distinguished Artists for biographical information on historic artists.

This page was originally published in 1999 in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information.

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