Georgia O’Keeffe not only occupies a unique position in modern times with her work, but also as an artist personality. Until her death in 1986 at the age of almost a hundred, she experienced all the art movements of the twentieth century without being close to a single one. Her suggestive flowers, often painted as macro-photographic details, or the barren landscapes of New Mexico with rock formations like pantheistic natural bodies, then again strict, minimalist farm buildings or almost metaphysical New York buildings that stretch up to the sky like menhirs, are primarily anchored in the figuration. Sometimes they play with the limits of abstraction.
For O’Keeffe, the fact that her painting drives the representation to dissolve or reduce it to elementary lines and forms remains a means of expression, not a programmatic goal. Even if paintings are called “Abstraction”, they are rooted in a noticeably sensual experience of the real. O’Keeffe is a pioneer of American modernism, in that she takes up and processes the avant-garde models that were consistently European in her younger years, but deeply shapes her painting with her inner feeling of being, which also means: with an American identity.
The dawn of American modernity
Although O’Keeffe is one of the most important American painters of the twentieth century – she is the first female artist to succeed in criticism, in the art market and in museums, and even has a place on the mythical table of Judy Chicago “Dinner Party” – for a long time there was hardly any opportunity to see her work in Europe. Most of her work hangs in North American collections, from where most of the loans for the retrospective at the Center Pompidou come. The number of European museums that own O’Keeffe’s works can be counted on one hand, including the Lenbachhaus in Munich. In the past decade, the Munich Kunsthalle (2012) and then the London Tate Modern finally organized retrospectives together with the Kunstforum in Vienna (2016/2017). So far, there has only been one thematic show in France that examined the influence of photography on O’Keeffe’s work in 2015.
The role of Alfred Stieglitz, probably the most important photographer and influential gallery owner for the dawn of American modernism, is decisive for Georgia O’Keeffe’s career; it forms the prelude to the exhibition organized by Didier Ottinger. From 1905 on, Stieglitz was the first and, for a long time, the only one to show the artists of European modernism in the rooms of his gallery 291 on Fifth Avenue. He exhibited the erotic nude drawings by Auguste Rodin, then Paul Cézanne (“the father of us all”, as Picasso said) and Henri Matisse, later Picasso, Picabia and Brancusi. Georgia O’Keeffe visited the gallery for the first time in 1908. In the following years she went to a certain extent through the Stieglitz exhibition school. Above all, she discovered the work of Wassily Kandinsky in Galerie 291 and enthusiastically read his recently published work “On the Spiritual in Art”.