Watercolors: A Beginning and an End

How quickly time passes! Is it true that the older you get, the faster time goes? I feel this summer in Santa Fe has been some sort of vacuum where time never actually existed, but was instead a collection of unforgettable, life-changing moments strung together. It is amazing to think that just two and a half months ago I was on the road toward New Mexico with a lot of unknowns, a lot of excitement, and a completely new experience ahead of me. Now, a blink of an eye later, it is hard to think of leaving.

Life goes so fast that we use a variety of techniques to catch the moments, much like fireflies in a jar on a summer’s night. We capture this glow when we take photographs, write things down, make music, or art. All of these document a life to provide powerful interpretations and recollections of time that can later be read as the books, or Catalogue Raisonnés, of each of our experiences on this earth.

I think about this collection of time as I go through the current exhibition, Line, Color, Composition at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. As I make my way through the galleries, I try to savor each work and understand how Miss O’Keeffe’s volume of art shows her growth and progression as an artist over time. The exhibit guides viewers through this progression by starting with the early stages of her process which consisted of traditional training, watercolors, and pastels:

Georgia O’Keeffe | Untitled (Vase of Flowers) | 1903/1905 | watercolor on paper | 17 3/4 x 11 1/2 inches | Gift of the Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation | copyright Georgia O’Keeffe Museum

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Georgia O’Keeffe | Light Coming on the Plains No. II | 1917 | watercolor on newsprint paper | 30 x 22.5 cm | copyright Amon Carter Museum of American Art

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Georgia O’Keeffe | Pond in the Woods | 1922 | pastel on paper | 24 x 18 inches | Gift of The Burnett Foundation | copyright Georgia O’Keeffe Museum

These works show O’Keeffe’s early experiments with color and shape. There is a prominent change in style between the red flowers from 1903/1905 and the abstract pond from 1922. Though both works depict natural elements, the shift in representation reflects O’Keeffe’s discovery of her own technique. She explained this shift:

“I decided to start anew – to strip away what I had been taught – to accept as true my own thinking. This was one of the best times of my life. There was no one around to look at what I was doing – no one interested – no one to say anything about it one way or another. I was alone and singularly free, working into my own, unknown – no one to satisfy but myself. I began with charcoal and paper and decided not to use any color until it was impossible to do what I wanted to do in black and white. I believe it was June before I needed blue.”

-Georgia O’Keeffe

(O’Keeffe n.p.)

This personal vision is still prominent when O’Keeffe moved into oil. Looking at these paintings, we can see the influences of her earlier pastels and watercolors:

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Georgia O’Keeffe | Series I – From the Plains | 1919 | oil on canvas | 27 x 23 inches | Gift of The Burnett Foundation | copyright Georgia O’Keeffe Museum

As I look at these, I think of Georgia O’Keeffe during her younger years:

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Alfred Stieglitz | Georgia O’Keeffe | 1918 | gelatin silver print | 9 1/2 x 7 1/2 inches | Gift of The Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation | Georgia O’Keeffe Museum

Determined, inspired, full of life.

These characteristics were still present later on when she was making many of the masterpieces people think of today. Look at that sense of adventure!

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Maria Chabot | Georgia O’Keeffe Hitching a Ride to Abiquiu with Maurice Grosser | 1944 | photographic print | 5 x 3 1/2 inches | Gift of Maria Chabot | copyright Georgia O’Keeffe Museum

Georgia O’Keeffe | Pelvis IV | 1944 | oil on board | 36 x 40 inches Georgia O’Keeffe | Gift of The Burnett Foundation | copyright 1987, Private Collection

But what truly fascinates me is the work Miss O’Keeffe created in the 1970s, a time when she was still determined, inspired, and full of life.

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Jill Krementz | Georgia O’Keeffe | 1971 | photograph

Did this attitude ever really change? Miss O’Keeffe’s spark drove her to continue making art in an intentional, deliberate way. This persistent effort shows that O’Keeffe never stopped her quest to depict the simple beauties of life.

Her determination was crucial to continue artistic practice because by 1972 and 1973, Miss O’Keeffe admitted there was a fundamental change to her vision due to macular degeneration, a delicate and potentially devastating situation for anyone, especially an artist. Therefore, Miss O’Keeffe was creating works during this time with assistance. But she was still creating.

Knowing she was in this challenging situation and kept making artwork makes my heart melt when I walk into the last gallery. The space currently holds the watercolors Georgia O’Keeffe made during this time. It is a beautiful, poignant bookend to the exhibit and to Miss O’Keeffe’s volume of work. The watercolors are poetic, full of emotion, movement, and meditative repose. I find myself spending a majority of time in this space because the colors Miss O’Keeffe confidently balanced within the white negative space of paper give me space to breathe and reflect on her pieces as a record of life and artistic experience.

As I move around the room, I can’t help but see these watercolors mimicking O’Keeffe’s early work:

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Georgia O’Keeffe | Untitled (Abstraction Blue Curve and Circles) | 1970s | watercolor on paper | 30 1/2 x 22 inches | Georgia O’Keeffe Museum | Gift of The Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation | copyright Georgia O’Keeffe Museum

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Georgia O’Keeffe | Blue II | 1916 | watercolor on paper | 27 7/8 x 22 1/4 inches Gift of The Burnett Foundation | copyright Georgia O’Keeffe Museum

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Georgia O’Keeffe | Untitled (Abstraction Red Wave and Circle) | 1970s | watercolor on paper | 15 1/4 x 22 1/2 inches | Gift of The Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation | copyright Georgia O’Keeffe Museum

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Georgia O’Keeffe | Old Tree | 1918 | watercolor on paper | 12 x 18 inches | Gift of The Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation | copyright Georgia O’Keeffe Museum

These watercolors are the perfect iteration in O’Keeffe’s artistic process to show a personal vision of the essential elements.

Especially this:

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Georgia O’Keeffe | Untitled (Abstraction Blue Circle and Line) | 1976/77 | watercolor on paper | 22 1/2 x 29 7/8 inches | Gift of The Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation | copyright Georgia O’Keeffe Museum

I could sit and stare at this work forever. But why? It is only a line and a circle. There are no frills, details, or distractions. But that’s just it. These essential shapes give my mind and eye the space to wander to something bigger – a horizon beneath the moon floating in a sea of white. To me, this work so directly captures Miss O’Keeffe’s vision and aesthetic, a style that makes us see the world in a new way.

On December 5, 1986, the year of Miss O’Keeffe’s death, the American Academy of Arts and Letters held their annual meeting. Robert Motherwell read O’Keeffe’s memorial tribute, as written by Louise Nevelson:

“[O’Keeffe] lived on earth in an area that she made her own . . . and therefore her work transcends time and space. And we salute her because she shows the way that one person can change our seeing.”

(quoted in Reily 465)

O’Keeffe changed our seeing because she painted not what she saw, but what she felt. And it is this feeling that we can still connect with today through her art.

During the last week of my internship, I sit in this room of watercolors and reflect on how they are a bookend to a beautiful chapter in my own life. But, inspired by O’Keeffe’s continual practice, I look forward to opening the pages again to write more.

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John Loengard | Holding a Book by Leonard Baskin, Bedroom, Abiquiu | 1966 | photographic print | 14 x 11 inches | Gift of The Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation | Georgia O’Keeffe Museum

Thank you, Miss O’Keeffe, for inspiring us to see our world in a beautiful way and to keep creating, keep recording, keep growing.

Thank you, Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, for this unforgettable experience – another firefly in my own jar.

And thank you, readers, for joining me on this summer journey.

It has been a joy.

Written by:

Liz Brindley, Curatorial Intern

Works Cited:

O’Keeffe, Georgia. Georgia O’Keeffe. New York: Viking Press, 1976. Print.

Reily, Nancy Hopkins. Georgia O’Keeffe, A Private Friendship. Print.

Featured Image:

Georgia O’Keeffe | Untitled (Abstraction Blue Circle and Line) | 1976/77 | watercolor on paper | 22 1/2 x 29 7/8 inches | Gift of The Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation | copyright Georgia O’Keeffe Museum