Throughout her career, Georgia O’Keeffe strove to depict what she described as “the wideness and wonder of the world as I live in it.” Her spirit of adventure and passion for the natural world drove her to explore the landscape of the United States, and to do so in such diverse places as Lake George, New York and Abiquiú, New Mexico. As such, the core of O’Keeffe’s work lies in the natural imagery around her, but her ability to capture the elusive boundary between representation and abstraction is central to her singular language of modernism.Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1
is a strikingly bold and elegant representation of the artist’s mature intent and aesthetic. Painted in 1932, the work exhibits one of O’Keeffe’s most enduring motifs: her innovative renderings of magnified flowers. O’Keeffe first explored this theme early in her career, drawn to the flower as subject for what she felt was the challenge it posed to observation. It was easy, she believed, to overlook the beauty found in the details of these small forms. Beginning in the 1920s, she decided to paint them on a large scale so that “even busy New Yorkers” would have to stop and appreciate her unique, sensory experience of nature. “Where I come from the earth means everything,” O’Keeffe said of the profound connection she felt. “Life depends on it. You pick it up and feel it in your hands” (Debra Bricker Balken, Dove/O’Keeffe: Circles of Influence
, Williamstown, Massachusetts, 2009, pp. 24-5).
O’Keeffe utilized the Jimson weed as subject matter on multiple occasions, presenting it each time with a new viewpoint or altered perspective (fig. 1). The beauty of the blossom first attracted her when she discovered a group of them near her home in New Mexico, where these poisonous flowers grew in abundance. She examined one closely and remarked that “It is a beautiful white trumpet flower with strong veins that hold the flower open and grow longer than the round part of the flower—twisting as they grow off beyond it…Some of them are a pale green in the center—some a pale Mars violet. The Jimson weed blooms in the cool of the evening—one moonlight night at the Ranch I counted one hundred and twenty five flowers. The flowers die in the heat of the day…Now when I think of the delicate fragrance of the flowers, I almost feel the coolness and sweetness of the evening” (Georgia O’Keeffe, Georgia O’Keeffe
, New York, 1976, n.p.).
In Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1
, O’Keeffe transforms the poisonous into the sublime, presenting her perception of its essence rather than its literal form. She depicts the flower with subtly modulated tones of pure white, yellow and green to evoke the play of light and shadow on its delicate surface. Eschewing the details of the subject, O’Keeffe renders the blossom and leaves as elegantly simplified, circular forms—a motif essential to her aesthetic (fig. 2). She composes each element with precise, assured strokes of pigment to create sharply delineated contours and a lush surface. O’Keeffe’s perfectionism and technical facility was legendary, described by her longtime friend and collaborator, Doris Bry, as “a meticulous craftsman in everything she chose to do—from cooking to making clothes and gardens to grinding her own pigments between glass (on occasion) for greater translucency to having a go at creating her own pastel sticks. She loved the very substance of color” (Sarah Whitaker Peters, “Georgia O’Keeffe: Color and Conservation,” Georgia O’Keeffe: Color and Conservation
, Jackson, Mississippi, p. 18). Indeed, the artist came to consider color as essential to form, once explaining that she visualized shapes in her mind that she could not translate onto canvas or paper until she could identify the appropriate colors with which to portray them. “I work with an idea for a long time,” she explained. “It’s like getting acquainted with a person, and I don’t get acquainted easily…Sometimes I start in a very realistic fashion, and as I go on from one painting to another of the same thing, it becomes simplified till it can be nothing but abstract” (Calvin Tomkins, Notes from Interview with Georgia O’Keeffe, September 24, 1973, for his New Yorker
profile, “The Rose in the Eye Looked Pretty Fine,” March 4, 1973).
In the present work, the Jimson weed is monumental, filling the picture plane nearly to entirety with its velvety petals. The artist grants merely a glimpse into its larger context, showing only portions of its leaves and a vivid blue sky. As the muse and wife of Alfred Stieglitz, O'Keeffe was undoubtedly exposed to his ideas and aesthetic preferences. O’Keeffe’s dialogue with the photographs of Stieglitz and his colleague Paul Strand is plainly evident in Jimson Weed
/White Flower No. 1
as she crops the picture plane sharply and focuses intently on the blossom to present its form up close (fig. 3). Although she allows for a degree of three-dimensionality within the composition, the pictorial space is largely compressed, contributing to the impression of the blossom as a pattern of shapes and colors. These forms appear to ripple and swirl on the surface of the canvas, emanating outwards as if without definitive boundaries. A painter similarly inspired by the landscape of the American Southwest, Agnes Martin achieves a comparable, pulsating effect in her 1960 work, White Flower
, in which she interprets her botanical subject as a starkly minimal geometric grid of minute lines and dashes of white pigment (fig. 4). Set against the dark gray background, these strokes seem to float forward into space, pushing against the two-dimensional picture plane to impart a more immersive experence of nature.
Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1 represents one of the rare instances during the first few decades of O’Keeffe’s career that she selected a canvas size noticeably larger than her standard format. In 1932, the same year she executed the present work, O’Keeffe had begun plans for a mural commission for Radio City Music Hall—then under construction in Rockefeller Center—which may have compelled her to experiment with this larger scale. As in Martin’s work, the proportions contribute to the sense that the landscape is enveloping the viewer. Presenting the blossom as a commanding form, rather than the delicate entity it is in reality, O’Keeffe achieves an effect not unlike that of Jeff Koons’ 1995-7 work Pink Bow, in which the artist depicts his subject in isolation, similarly centralized and frontally (fig. 5). The meticulous, nearly photographic technique Koons utilizes in Pink Bow imbues the dainty folds of a ribbon with a bold sculptural presence and recalls O’Keeffe’s remarkably precise brushwork in works such as Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1, in which her color, noted Paul Rosenfeld, “has an edge that is like a line. She created her edges with the finest and most precise kind of brushwork” (Peters, p. 17). In both works, the artist changes the subject into an iconic, timeless object that defies the fragility and, in the instance of the Jimson weed, the impermanence that are inherent to it in reality.
O’Keeffe’s vision of the flower reveals the power and exuberance with which she viewed her natural environment. It is a deeply personal image that speaks to ideas of timelessness and universality. “O’Keeffe acted to suspend time,” explains Jack Cowart, “producing art that would capture the transient. [Here], O’Keeffe made a flower, with all of its fragility, a permanent image without season, wilt or decay. Enlarged and reconstructed in oil on canvas or pastel on paper, it is a vehicle for pure expression rather than an example of botanical illustration. In her art, fleeting effects of natural phenomena or personal emotion become symbols, permanent points of reference (“Georgia O’Keeffe: Art and Artist,” Georgia O’Keeffe: Art and Letters, Boston, Massachusetts, 1987, p. 2). As the enlarged blossom floats in the ambiguous pictorial space, O’Keeffe transforms this traditional still-life subject into a meditative experience. O’Keeffe’s intent foreshadows the work of artists like Mark Rothko, who also used color, shape and scale to induce an emotional reaction from the viewer (fig. 6).
Despite her initial association with Stieglitz and his circle, O’Keeffe’s aesthetic was always distinctly her own. Although connotations of sexuality and gender were continuously ascribed to the imagery displayed in works Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1, O’Keeffe repeatedly denied these suggestions “…when you took the time to really notice my flower you hung all your own associations with flowers on my flower,” she later explained of the tendency of audiences to misinterpret her work, “and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower—and I don’t” (Britta Benke, O’Keeffe, London, 2003, p. 38). O'Keeffe's flower paintings bring to mind the flowers of Andy Warhol, who also used the subject in a distinctive and individual way (fig. 7). Warhol met O'Keeffe in 1979 at her home in Abiquiú home to create her portrait. In Warhol's series, the artist presents his subject without narrative or context to purposely invite a greater degree of interpretation, questioning and reflection from the viewer. Both artists ultimately elevate an ordinary object into the realm of high art, compelling the viewer to consider something familiar in an entirely new way. “I have but one desire as a painter,” O’Keeffe once summarized of her creative intent, “that is to paint what I see, as I see it, in my own way, without regard for the desires or taste of the professional dealer or the professional collector. I attribute what little success I have to this fact" (B. Vladimir Berman, "She Painted the Lily and Got $25,000 and Fame for Doing It," New York Evening Graphic Magazine Section, May 12, 1928, p. 3M).