American Art

Georgia O'Keeffe's Natural Instinct

By Sotheby's

T hroughout her life, Georgia O’Keeffe collected natural objects including flowers, bones, shells and leaves. She portrayed these organic forms in her paintings with a unique sense of freedom, using innovative form and colour. Shell (1937) and Blue and White Abstraction (1958) – two highlights of the upcoming American Art sale — were completed more than twenty years apart and exemplify the artist’s career-long fascination with relics of the natural world.

O’Keeffe first incorporated shells as subject matter in her artwork in 1926, when she produced a group of realistic paintings of clamshells. That same year, she embarked on Shell and Old Shingle, a series which challenged the boundaries between figuration and abstraction, distilling the shell and shingle to their essential shapes. The shape of the shell held a special place in O’Keeffe’s imagination. Having grown up far from the ocean in rural Wisconsin, she recalled visiting her grandmother, who had a collection of shells that O'Keeffe, as a child, was not supposed to touch. O'Keeffe said, “I would take a shell...and hold it close to my ear. I had been told that the sound I heard was the sound of the sea – I had not heard the sea at that time but it was wonderful to me to listen to it in the shell.”

GEORGIA O'KEEFFE, SHELL, 1937. ESTIMATE $700,000 — 1,000,000.

Painted in 1937, Shell exemplifies O’Keeffe’s mastery of form and colour, particularly her opulent sense of white. Through subtle variations of tone paired with precise brushstrokes, O’Keeffe renders the undulating edges of the shell and creates volume to convey the tactile quality of both the shell and the surrounding coral. The work is a testament to the artist’s experimental thought process as the composition can be viewed both horizontally and vertically.

By 1958, the year of Blue and White Abstraction''s creation, O’Keeffe had permanently moved to Abiquiu, New Mexico. Since her first visit to New Mexico in 1929, O’Keeffe had consistently mined the unique landscape for subject matter. This work captures a bird in flight against a blue sky, but the bird is merely implied rather than concretely identified. Filling the picture plane with the sinuous lines and curves of its form, O’Keeffe rejects conventional notions of space, depth and perspective removing the environmental cues that would typically allow for instant recognition of the subject.  Instead, she compels her viewer to consider it less as a likeness of the bird, and instead as an abstract design of overlapping planes and shapes within the space. The abstraction alluded to in Shell  has become more complete, though O'Keefe's subject matter — objects of the observed natural world — has remained unchanged. 


“Nothing is less real than realism,” O’Keeffe said in 1922. “Details are confusing. It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis that we get to the real meaning of things”  It is this unique and experimental ability to transition back and forth between abstraction and figuration that distinguishes O'Keeffe from many of her contemporaries and places her among the most innovative and inventive artists of her time. 

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