Of the various flowers that she painted – irises, poppies, sweet peas etc. – it was arguably in the calla lily that O’Keeffe found her ideal motif, one that provided the perfect synthesis of subject and form that now defines her most celebrated work. Many modernists were visually exploring the calla lily during this time including Marsden Hartley, Salvador Dali and Charles Demuth. Intrigued by their infatuation with the exotic blossom, O’Keeffe decided “to see if I could understand what it was all about.” (Charles C. Eldredge, Ibid., p. 83) In typical fashion, she outpaced all the men and by the end of the 1920s the calla had become her signature subject – an association that was further strengthened by the April 1928 revelation that an anonymous collector had paid an astonishing $25,000 for six of her small callas, the record price for any living artist at the time. So close was the popular association between O’Keeffe and the waxy white blossom that in 1929, the year after Calla Lilies on Red was painted, Miguel Covarrubias published a drawing of O’Keeffe in the New Yorker titled Our Lady of the Lily. Covarrubias’s elongated rendering of O’Keeffe’s form mimicked the elegant curves of the calla lily she is depicted holding, creating the impression of the flower as an extension of the artist herself.
O’Keeffe painted Calla Lilies on Red in 1928, five years after the distinctive flower first captured her attention. She would ultimately depict the calla lily six times that year, revisiting the blossom on each occasion with a new viewpoint or altered perspective. O’Keeffe’s fondness for serial imagery was partly ingrained in her by one of her early instructors, Arthur Wesley Dow, who used this method to emphasize the importance of unique ways of seeing. Hence, O’Keeffe often created a series of four, five or six canvases painted on a single theme and explained, “I work with an idea for a long time. 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 Tompkins, Notes from Interview with Georgia O’Keeffe for his New Yorker profile, “The Rose in the Eye Looked Pretty Fine,” March 4, 1973)
“Despite the apparent dissimilarity in subject, the floral enlargements provided an analogue to the forces of nature O’Keeffe had previously examined and are thematically related to her abstractions, her Texas skyscapes, and her Lake George panoramas.” (Charles C. Eldredge, Ibid., p. 78) Indeed, although its orientation is vertical, there are clear compositional similarities between Calla Lilies on Red and the Lake George reflections that O’Keeffe had painted several years earlier.
Calla Lilies on Red was first shown in 1929 at Alfred Stieglitz’s Anderson Galleries at a solo exhibition of O’Keeffe’s work and was immediately embraced by the critics. Murdock Pemberton’s admiration for the painting was such that he felt compelled to single it out in both his New Yorker and Creative Art reviews remarking of its visual power, “Her ‘Calla Lilies on Red’ is as exciting a painting as anything we have seen this season. The intense, pure white of the two flowers shines with an uncanny luminosity against the green leaves. Behind the leaves is red. We believe it was Marsden Hartley, writing of O’Keeffe, who once said that she seems to catch red at the point where it turns into green. We know of few who have been able to juxtapose the two and achieve such beauty.” He continued with his adulations in the subsequent review, “We think that her study of Calla Lilies on Red is a painting that might be used as a text book. It has all the form and design necessary and presents almost a chemist’s balance of the proper amounts and degrees of color. We thought that this picture was a good deal more thrilling than some of the larger ones...” (“The Art Galleries: A Fortunate Lady and Some Mere Mortals,” New Yorker 4, February 9, 1929 and “Mostly American,” Creative Art 4, March 1929 reproduced in Barbara Buhler Lynes, O’Keeffe, Stieglitz and the Critics, 1916-1929, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1989, pp. 294, 299)
As Pemberton clearly recognized, Calla Lilies on Red possesses the balance, tension and rapture that characterize O’Keeffe’s best works. She sets two beautifully articulated, sculptural white blossoms against an undulating leaf in a sea of modulated red. By removing these organic elements from any recognizable context she creates an enthralling composition that forces one to consider the formal qualities of her subject – to concentrate on color and line, shape and contour. She emphasizes the simple elegance of the curves of the flower by reducing extraneous details, while the verticality of the canvas further accentuates its oblong form. The precision and control of her brushwork is juxtaposed with the emotional energy of the painting to great effect and she is able to triumphantly capture and convey the vitality and rhythms of the natural world. It has also been suggested that the two callas in the present work are avatars for O’Keeffe and her husband, Stieglitz, who represented by the leaf that signifies his cloak, rises up behind as if about to envelop her. Beyond the multitude of interpretations the flower paintings have invited, these images are undeniably deeply personal ones. As Marjorie P. Balge-Crozier explains, “combined with the enlarged, close-up view of the object, O’Keeffe’s technique offers an assertive brand of realism that prompts a more modern, emotional involvement with the subject, an involvement heightened by the fact that the subject is abstracted just enough to remind us that it is not solely the ‘thing’ it purports to be. It can be many things, including a surrogate for the artist herself.” (Elizabeth Hutton Turner, ed., Georgia O’Keeffe: The Poetry of Things, New Haven, Connecticut, 1999, p. 74)
O’Keeffe acquired Calla Lilies on Red in 1965 and kept the painting in her own collection until her death in 1986, signifying the importance she ascribed to the present work. Like the best examples of her work, its imagery conveys her wholly unique vision of the natural world and ultimately, of herself. O’Keeffe wrote in 1939: “I make you take time to look at what I saw and when you took time to really notice my flower you hung all your own associations with flowers on my flower and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower – and I don’t.” (Charles C. Eldredge, Ibid., p. 83) O’Keeffe’s intent to consider the natural world in a new way is one that would be explored even more deeply throughout the twentieth century, when artists such as Mark Rothko, Ellsworth Kelly, Helen Frankenthaler and Barnett Newman produced their own distilled and powerful reactions to their environment. In Calla Lilies on Red, O’Keeffe makes strange and enthralling something that was once familiar, and approaches the elusive boundary between realism and abstraction that is central to her singular language of modernism.
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