Take a look inside the AGO’s gorgeous new Georgia O’Keeffe exhibition
Georgia O’Keeffe might be best known for her suggestive flower paintings, but throughout her career, the pioneering American modernist also painted stunning cities, landscapes and abstracts. No genre is left behind in the AGO’s new O’Keeffe retrospective, which features more than 100 pieces from galleries and privately collections around the world. Here, we tell the stories behind some the most striking works.
Music, Pink and Blue No. I 1918
This early abstract work is from the private collection of St. Louis businessman Barney A. Ebsworth. It marks one of O’Keeffe’s first attempts to articulate her own artistic vision: “It’s supposed to represent her experience of sound and music,” says Georgiana Uhlyarik, associate curator at the AGO.
The Eggplant 1924
O’Keeffe married photographer Alfred Stieglitz in 1924. Stieglitz was protective of O’Keeffe—whom he saw as a homegrown visionary without any European training—and reluctant to let any of her pieces leave the U.S., because he felt they were nurturing the growth of modern art in America. This piece from the AGO’s private collection is her first painting to ever leave the States; it was bought by the Canadian artist Doris Huestis Speirs (then Mills). “She was good friends with the Group of Seven, and they were trying to launch their own modern Canadian project,” Uhlyarik says. “That’s probably what convinced Stieglitz.”
New York, Night (Madison Avenue) 1926
In 1918, Stieglitz convinced O’Keeffe to move to New York, where she could develop her craft. She began to interpret the city in her art, creating textured, abstract pieces to reflect her new, energetic environment. O’Keeffe would regularly paint lines or diagonals that converged at a specific point, Uhlyarik says, and this piece is an early expression of that tendency.
Lake George Barns 1926
Stieglitz and O’Keeffe spent their summers at Lake George in upstate New York, where she continued to paint landscapes and nature. “The other thing she loved about Lake George was these barns,” Uhlyarik says. “People don’t associate structure with O’Keefe because they tend to think of organic shapes, but in fact she painted architecture throughout her life. That’s how how she got to know a place.”
New York, Night 1928–1929
Many people told O’Keeffe that cities were subject matter for male artists, Uhlyarik says. “So, naturally, she took it on, because she liked the challenge. She also liked the fact that she could paint at night, because she absolutely loved the moon.” O’Keeffe created this canvas (from the Sheldon Museum of Art) on the 30th floor of the just-built Shelton Hotel, littering diagonals and dots of light between monolithic, shadowy shapes.
Horse’s Skull and Pink Rose 1931
By the early 1930s, O’Keeffe was spending large chunks of time in New Mexico, where she collected animal bones and the cloth flowers commonly used for Spanish funerals. “She was looking through her collection of cloth flowers when someone came to her door, and on her way to answer the door, she just placed a flower on the skull this way,” Uhlyarik says. “When she returned, she was captured by it and decided to paint it.” The addition of the smooth, hard bone makes this piece a distinct departure from the softer flower close-ups that had made her famous.
Nature Forms, Gaspé 1932
In August 1932, O’Keefe took her first excursion outside of the U.S., travelling to Gaspé, Quebec, where she was instantly enchanted by the turbulence of the water around Cap-des-Rosiers. She recreates it in this piece. “This is a classic O’Keeffe, where she makes something so small seem so powerful,” Uhlyarik says.
Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1 1932
In 2014, this painting (from the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art) sold at auction for $44.4 million, the highest price ever paid for a piece by a female artist. O’Keeffe’s intention with her flower pieces was for people to remove themselves from their busy lives and take the time to notice their beauty—contrary to urban legend, they were never representative of female genitalia. “She hated when people made that association,” Uhlyarik says. “She’d say, ‘If that’s what you see, it’s because that’s what’s in your head.’”
Georgia O’ Keeffe 1933
Stieglitz was a modern art dealer and photographer in his own right, and he consistently returned to his wife—and particularly her hands—as a photographic subject. His photos helped make O’Keeffe even more famous within modern art circles.
My Front Yard, Summer 1941
In 1940, O’Keefe bought a house at Ghost Ranch, about an hour north of Santa Fe. Her front yard looked out to the majestic Cerro Pedernal, a flat-topped, faraway hill. She painted Pedernal many times over. She’d say, “It’s my private mountain. It belongs to me. God told me if I painted it enough, I could have it.”
Winter Road I 1963
In 1945, O’Keeffe bought a second house in Abiquiú, just down the river from Ghost Ranch, and built herself a huge studio with an accompanying bedroom. The house was on a hill, so from her window she could see the river valley and this—the road from Aibquiú to Española and Santa Fe. “With one calligraphic shape, she’s split open the world on this canvas,” Uhlyarik says of this piece from Washington’s National Gallery of Art. “This was the road that opened up the whole world to her. She woke up to this view for almost 30 years, and she simplified it to this most beautiful thing.”