Georgia O’Keeffe’s art and materials
Georgia O’Keeffe once said, “Nothing is less real than realism. Details are confusing. It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis that we get at the real meaning of things.” When it comes to the work of this artist, getting to the real meaning of things is about to take a fresh turn, thanks to the exhibition O’Keeffiana: Art and Art Materials, which showcases the artist’s works in various media alongside her tools — paints, brushes, canvases, sketchbooks, and more — as well as found objects that served as the physical inspiration behind her works. The exhibit opens at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum on Friday, Sept. 24.
“We’re excited about this exhibition because it’s the first time we’ve shared such an extensive selection of the museum’s archive of O’Keeffe’s personal art materials,” said Carolyn Kastner, curator of the show and associate curator of the museum. “Her passion for creating art is expressed in the specificity of the materials she preserved.” Deciding which pieces would be part of the exhibition was based on Kastner’s own form of selection, elimination, and emphasis. “I looked for the materials that helped to shape her artistic practice,” she said. “Paired with her art, these materials will shed new light on O’Keeffe’s imaginative and technical processes.”
Getting a glimpse at the inner workings of an artist’s mind and gaining insight into her unique processes holds value for both the casual and serious museum-goer. Kastner made some discoveries when she pored through O’Keeffe’s numerous sketchbooks. “At the time of her death, O’Keeffe had over 700 sketches,” she said. “By comparing the sketches to the finished paintings, I began to see how she translated her first perception of an object into a composition.” A case in point is the drawing Untitled (Tent Door at Night). Barbara Buhler Lynes, museum curator and Emily Fisher Landau Director of the Georgia O’Keeffe Research Center, said: “By comparing this sketch to the oil painting Inside the Tent While at U. of Virginia, the clarity of O’Keeffe’s first idea is apparent. The drawing is created with a firm, clear line that frames an abstract triangular shape; only the title identifies it as a tent door. From her first visual realization to the finished oil painting, the strength and commitment of O’Keeffe’s ideas are expressed by her consistent use of the triangular form at the center of each work.”
In O’Keeffiana, the artist’s commitment to her ideas and to the precision of her craft is demonstrated not just through the works on display, but also through the materials, like brushes and paint chips. “O’Keeffe shaped her brushes by trimming and shaving them to accomplish specific tasks, such as tracing a precise contour or feathering the paint to craft an even surface,” Lynes said. “Further, she was persistent in her effort to find just the right combination of colors to represent the subjects she loved. Once satisfied, she documented the color formula visually by painting it on a small rectangle of canvas and then writing the ingredients she had used on the back of it so that she knew which colors to combine if she wanted to work with the color again.”
Color is a dominant and immediate aspect of O’Keeffe’s numerous landscape paintings, and in O’Keeffiana we see the deliberateness behind not just her palette but also in the objects she chose to include. In 1976, O’Keeffe said: “I have picked flowers where I found them, have picked up sea shells and rocks and pieces of wood where there were sea shells and rocks and pieces of wood that I liked. When I found the beautiful white bones on the desert I picked them up and took them home too.” Kastner explained that displaying found objects such as the ones O’Keeffe described here highlights how closely attuned O’Keeffe was to her materials. “O’Keeffe’s particular and personal encounter with the landscape of Northern New Mexico is articulated in the astonishing collection of bleached bones and smooth stones she gathered in her desert walks,” she said. “Shown with her paintings, these