Artist or Curator?

After a very busy week of full-throttle cataloging, this blog post must be concise.

“But how?” I ask, knowing there are too many fascinating details to include.

I’m frozen at the keyboard thinking,

“What Would O’Keeffe Do?”

Many of her paintings scroll through my mind as I search for an answer. I try to match each with the landscapes we pass on our weekly treks to Ghost Ranch.

I can place a Pedernal painting over the mountain and recognize its slopes and curves:

Georgia O’Keeffe | My Front Yard, Summer | 1941 | oil on canvas | 20 x 30 inches | Gift of the Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation | © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum

while her Red and Yellow Cliffs slide across the towering rocks above us where I see lines of color overlap:

Georgia O’Keeffe | Untitled (Red and Yellow Cliffs) | 1940 | oil on canvas | 24 x 36 inches | Gift of the Burnett Foundation | © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum

But what about that green bush there? And that small crack over there? And why didn’t that tree make it into the painting?

 Simple.

Miss O’Keeffe looked at these landscapes and made conscious choices about which portions to include. The artist did not render every detail, but instead only painted the parts she found important. Through this process, Georgia O’Keeffe captured the profound clarity we see in her artwork.

In a Newsweek article from the year of her death entitled, “The Gift of Spiritual Intensity,” Mark Stevens describes:

“Whether these pictures are called abstract or realistic is irrelevant. Her art displayed the pared-down purity of one strain of modernism. Using this compression, she could extract spiritual grandeur from form, color and space.”

(Stevens, 77)

This “spiritual grandeur” closely captures the grandeur of these vast, desert landscapes – not an easy feat. As many of us know, simplification, despite its name, is not simple. It is a continual conscious effort to truly decide what works and what does not.

Miss O’Keeffe used a multitude of colors with an exact, deliberate attention to contours to make magic of her work, leading viewers to believe the pieces are simple and straightforward. This process is a testament to the devoted attention Miss O’Keeffe paid to her art, seen in both recognizable forms and abstractions:

Georgia O’Keeffe | Black Lines | 1916 | watercolor on paper | 24 1/8 x 18 1/2 inches | Gift of the Burnett Foundation | ©Georgia O’Keeffe Museum

Georgia O’Keeffe | Patio Door with Green Leaf | 1956 | oil on canvas | 36 x 30 inches, | Gift of the Burnett Foundation and the Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation | ©Georgia O’Keeffe Museum

But these deliberate choices were not limited to her canvas:

“During her lifetime Georgia O’Keeffe created a body of work whose aesthetic is modern in its precision, clean lines and elegant simplicity. She applied this aesthetic to the display and reproduction of her work and for representing and promoting herself.”

(Georgia O’Keeffe Museum Website)

The choices extended to her construction of image in earlier photographs by Alfred Stieglitz and portraits from her later years:

Alfred Stieglitz | Georgia O’Keeffe | 1918 | platinum / palladium print | 9 1/4 x 7 1/4 inches | Georgia O’Keeffe Museum | Gift of The Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation

Yousuf Karsh | Georgia O’Keeffe | 1956 | gelatin silver print | 39 x 29 1/2 inches | Copyright The Estate of Yousuf Karsh

She also applied these decisions to the objects that entered her home and the dishes that lined her kitchen cabinets.

I’ve been hearing a lot about decisions lately from the museum curator in gallery tours and talks. As I learn about the intentional selection of an essential set of works to tell a story in an exhibition, coupled with a fluidity to alter these choices once the art speaks on the wall, my eyes are opened to the methodical attention curators pay to each choice.

Learning about these choices, and thinking about the choices Georgia O’Keeffe made both in her art and her lifestyle, makes me think that she was not only Georgia O’Keeffe, the artist, but also Georgia O’Keeffe, the curator.

This role is reflected in the seemingly effortless simplicity of her work, her homes, and her overall aesthetic. However, this aesthetic did not happen overnight, but was built over time through conscious selection, much like the selections that go into the preparations for a new exhibition. O’Keeffe said of exhibitions,

“. . . I probably do want to see my things hang on a wall as other things hang so as to be able to place them in my mind in relation to other things I have seen done . . .”

-Georgia O’Keeffe

(quoted in Moore, 34)

Relating one work to another, and to the works of other artists, creates a narrative of art that opens a dialogue about how ideas, visions, and visuals form throughout history. By seeing the whole picture, an artist can eliminate and pare-down to the true core of a subject.

Miss O’Keeffe’s crisp simplicity reflects her continual practice to get to this core. Each item she placed in a painting, and each painting that went on a wall, was a choice. Through these many choices, Georgia O’Keeffe curated her art and life.

But don’t we all? In a sense, we are all the artists and curators of our own lives. We make choices every day of what we take in and what we leave behind, realizing that what we choose to leave out is equally important as what we choose to leave in. After a while, these choices compile to create a person and a lifestyle. How do we find the essence Miss O’Keeffe so elegantly and effortlessly showed in her artwork?

Simple.

Choose the elements that illustrate our surroundings in a beautiful way.

Perhaps this post wasn’t as concise as I originally intended, but simplification is a continual practice – one I will keep working on. Maybe with an O’Keeffe painting by my side.

For a closer look at Georgia O’Keeffe’s artistic choices, attend this month’s “LOO’K Closer” talk!

This Wednesday, July 29 at 12:30 PM in the Main Gallery.

Free with museum admission. No reservation required.

Written by:

Liz Brindley, Curatorial Intern

Works Cited:

“Aesthetic.” Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, 2011. Web. 20 July 2015.

Moore, James. “So Clear Cut Where the Sun will Come . . . Georgia O’Keeffe’s ‘Gray Cross with Blue’.” Artspace. Summer 1986. Print.

Stevens, Mark. “The Gift of Spiritual Intensity.” Newsweek. March 17, 1986. Print.

Featured Image:

Alfred Stieglitz | Georgia O’Keeffe | 1918 | platinum / palladium print | 9 1/4 x 7 1/4 inches | Georgia O’Keeffe Museum | Gift of The Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation