To hear it now, the name Georgia O’Keeffe echoes with the bold statements and famous forms that her erudite career, more than 60 years long and adorned with outstanding professional achievements, has since become synonymous with. Huge, billowing flowers with yonic organs at their centres, painted in bold, electric colours, for example. The fiercely feminist statements that a contemporary audience has come to revere her for: “Men put me down as the best woman painter… I think I’m one of the best painters,” being another. She’s widely referred to as the mother of American modernism, is easily one of the foremost feminist artists of her time, and her work continues to visibly influence painters regardless of whether they cite her as an inspiration. And yet, beneath these grand simulacra, a subtle and nuanced vision is at play.
This vision begins, as a beautiful new book from Radius Books demonstrates, with watercolours. The book takes as its subject the two years from 1916 to 1918 that O’Keeffe spent working as head of the art department at West Texas State College, often painting at the Palo Duo Canyon in her free time. The watercolour studies produced in this period, of both the landscape she found herself in and of her own nude figure, are at once delicate and powerful, calling on a tradition of working in the medium that began when O’Keeffe was studying. As a small child she was taught to paint by a local watercolour artist in her hometown of Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. Later, in 1908, on a visit to New York, she stopped in at an exhibition of Rodin’s watercolours at Midtown gallery 291, a space owned by Alfred Stieglitz, the man who was later to become her husband and great artistic collaborator. This period from 1916-18 was a key one in terms of her creative development. “These years mark a period of radical innovation for the artist, during which she firmly established her commitment to abstraction,” Radius explains. “O’Keeffe’s watercolours explore the texture and landscape of the Texas desert and the artist’s own body in an exceptionally fragile and sensitive medium, representing a substantial achievement in their own right.”
In these early works the young O’Keeffe made her first strong steps into experiments with colour and abstraction, stripping back the mystical and unapologetic landscapes she found herself surrounded by, and of the silhouettes created by her own nude body, with her brush. The result is a series of strikingly raw studies which contain the hallmarks that would later define her practice: bold, abstract shapes; gradients of vibrant colour; the juxtaposition of intimately feminine curves alongside industrially masculine landscapes. It’s a breathtaking clue about what would develop into one of the most groundbreaking and important artistic careers of the 20th century. Now, as London’s Tate Modern prepares to open a new retrospective exhibition re-examining O'Keeffe's oeuvre, the book’s content stands up more than ever, forming a quiet but vigorous counterpoint to her later, larger pieces in oil.
Georgia O’Keeffe: Watercolours 1916-1918 is out later this month, published by Radius Books.