Dhe first presentation of her works in a gallery happened without her knowledge and consent. She was very upset about that. Alfred Stieglitz, the important photographer and owner of the New York gallery “291”, could only persuade her to leave her pictures on the walls with difficulty, after all the leading gallery of the American avant-garde.
The anecdote, set in 1916, says a lot about what made Georgia O’Keeffe an artist. Firstly, that she was strong-willed and would not let anyone dictate anything to her, not even someone as celebrated as Alfred Stieglitz. On the other hand, however, that the story of the young woman, who has been told for a hundred years and who unsuspectingly enters the New York scene and is discovered there as an artist, belongs in the realm of artist legends.
Because O’Keeffe, who grew up in rural Wisconsin in 1887, had already studied in New York and taken courses with one of the most influential promoters of a new conception of art before she found employment as an art teacher in Texas. But she was not just the pure novice of the legend, but an independent personality from her youth who had an idea of where she could find resonance with her art.
It is this corrected image by the artist Georgia O’Keeffe that is the focus of the exhibition in Riehen near Basel Beyeler Foundation conveyed. Theodora Vischer, the house’s chief curator, has organized the selection of 85 works, organized jointly with the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid and the Center Pompidou in Paris, according to the main geographical locations of O’Keeffe’s creative period, which spanned more than six decades.
New York, where she finally moved in 1918, is the beginning. Then comes the rural retreat of Alfred Stieglitz’s upper-class family, with whom O’Keeffe first had an artistic relationship and soon also as a partner and who had been married since 1924, on idyllic Lake George north of the metropolis, and finally New Mexico, where the artist first traveled to in 1929 to take a second summer residence there soon after and to move completely after Stieglitz’ death in 1946.
Three different environments, three distinct work phases, but a very consistent artistic approach: this gives the exhibition a clear message. The second legend that has been spun out over time, alongside that of the art trainee, that of the pioneer in the men’s art business, is not served at all. She didn’t start with the feminist re-examination of art history in the mid-1970s, but with her first solo exhibition in 1917, when American society was beginning to open up to modernity and O’Keeffe attracted all sorts of projections regarding female sexuality.
From the mid-1920s, this applied to her paintings of format-filling, brightly colored blossoms, which, in their extreme enlargement, gave rise to corresponding interpretations. The first room of the current exhibition shows that the young O’Keeffe had already shown herself to be on a par with the European avant-garde with remarkable abstractions. She had studied them in the writings of Kandinsky, of course, in order to go her own way.
O’Keeffe turned from abstract to abstract painting, henceforth taking motifs from reality such as flowers or trees, buildings, even the entire landscape. “Nothing is less real than realism. details confuse. Only through selection, through omission, through emphasis do we arrive at the true meaning of things,” she confidently explained to a newspaper in 1922. The early date shows just how big the artist had become on the New York art scene.
Her paintings, whether of flowers or the skyscrapers of New York – she lived with Stieglitz for years on the 30th floor of a skyscraper – are never depictions. Rather, they address perception itself. She painted flowers large, she said, with a much-quoted expression and not without coquetry, because she wanted the viewer to see what she saw.
That they perceive the flowers as such and not as metaphors for something else. In the big city she saw light reflections from the sun and street lamps, caught the light from the moon and neon signs, but also the sober grey-blue of everyday life, seen from the exposed height of her apartment, while Stieglitz created new objective photographs next to her.
That is the only, albeit important, shortcoming of the Beyeler exhibition: that it ignores the close partnership and mutual stimulation of O’Keeffe and Stieglitz and banishes it entirely to the pages of the excellent catalogue. In the carefree summer months on Lake George, the artist found inspiration in the lush green nature and the down-to-earth architecture of wooden barns, while Stieglitz constantly photographed her, especially her hands, which are as sensitive as they are expressive.
The trip to New Mexico in 1929 was not an adventure, but followed a tourist path that had been paved since the turn of the century. But O’Keeffe’s incorruptible eye testifies to the fact that she immediately left everything folkloric behind and instead recognized the picturesque richness of the landscape and the barren nature for herself.
She mastered the vastness of the sparsely populated country as confidently as she had before the close-up view of leaves and flowers. Everything fitted into her pictures by freeing her subject to pure color. After Stieglitz’ death in 1946, she distributed his estate as a photographer and art collector to the country’s most important institutions in order to concentrate entirely on rural life in the American Southwest.
In later years, the apparently so limited repertoire of forms of her traditional adobe courtyard house was enough for her to create a grandiose late work, which only superficially has a door to the courtyard or the celestial quadrant above it as its subject, but in fact effortlessly represents a completely individual version of contemporary American abstraction and especially the color field painting.
The small format painting of a crooked path in the snow from 1963 became iconic, while the artist was increasingly revered as an exponent of genuinely American art. Curator Vischer casually hints at this symbolic function by including a mobile by Alexander Calder, a friend of the artist and himself a figurehead of his country’s post-war art, which outstripped Europe, in the final, largest room of the exhibition.
The life’s work of Georgia O’Keeffe, who died of old age in 1986, is rich enough to once again place little-known works in this exhibition on an equal footing with the icons that are often shown. After presentations in London, Zurich, Munich and Vienna, her oeuvre is no longer unknown in Europe either; just not represented at all in museum collections.
The overview in the Fondation Beyeler succeeds in showing what drove Georgia O’Keeffe: to create an art based on the experience of American reality. Or, as she noted in 1946 on the occasion of her solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, the first female artist there: “I am probably one of the few who give our country its own voice at all.” This voice can be heard clearly at the Fondation Beyeler.