Sunday, July 2, 2017

Georgia O’Keeffe and “The Art of the Draw”

The “Art of the Draw” is a collaborate effort this summer of  the cultural institutions in Santa Fe.  A few weeks ago I wrote about the drawings from the British Museum at the New Mexico Museum of Art.

The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum has joined this effort in quite a different way.  The drawings of O’Keeffe are woven into the exhibition, “A Great American Artist. A Great American Story.” It shows how she used drawing both as an art form and as initial thoughts with the paintings that they relate to nearby.

The museum owns 700 of Georgia O’Keeffe’s (1887-1986) drawings and the exhibition starts with some small drawings she did of her siblings when she was a teenager.  If you saw them out of context you would never believe what a great artist she would become.

By the time she was in her 20’s, however, she was making the kind of charcoal drawings that she would become famous for.  Those sumptuous, sensuous abstractions that are not just read by the eye but enter the imagination, launched her career.  In 1916 Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946), the famous photographer and later her husband showed a group of her charcoals at his Gallery “291” in New York.  She sold her first for $400, which was two months of her teaching salary at West Texas Normal College.  This charcoal on paper is titled simply “Drawing”, circa 1915-1916.

From what I have seen and what was shown at the O’Keeffe, Georgia did charcoal drawings that were finished works as well as much simpler sketches as aides-memoir so she could retain an idea for future reference.

Georgia was very interested in simplification reducing subjects to their most basic elements.  As an illustration here is a painting of the Barns at Lake George, New. York done in 1926 where Stieglitz maintained a small house with his wife at the time, Emmeline Obermeyer.

“It’s my private mountain.  It belongs to me.  God told me if I painted it enough, I could have it.”  That is what Georgia said about the Pedernal that she could see from her beloved, Ghost Ranch when she moved to New Mexico.  She did a number of pictures of it.  Here are her drawing and a painting she did of the road to her mountain in 1941.

A long time ago, Sherman Lee, former director of the Cleveland Museum, gave me some sage advice.  He was quoting another renowned art historian, Erwin Panofsky (1892-1968), “if you want to make a point don’t illustrate it”, --an unusual statement for an art historian to make!  I don’t know in what context Panofsky said it nor why Dr. Lee quoted it but I understand in the following context.  O’Keeffe’s abstract charcoal Composition IX from 1959 does not represent one of the many trees around Ghost Ranch that she painted but let’s leave it that there is clearly a relationship.

So much of Georgia’s work stimulates the imagination.  People often believe that her paintings of flowers are extremely sensual and sexual but as a good school chum used to say, “The evil is in the mind of the beholder”.

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