Georgia O'Keeffe 1887 - 1986
- Georgia O'Keeffe
- Inside Clam Shell
signed with the artist's star, initialed OK and titled and dated Inside Clam Shell 1930 on the backing
- oil on canvas
- 24 by 36 in.
- (61 by 91.4 cm)
- Painted in 1930.
The Downtown Gallery, New York
Private Collection, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1951
Kennedy Galleries, New York, 1968
Private Collection, New York, 1968
Bernard Danenberg Galleries, New York
Acquired by the present owner, 1970
New York, An American Place, Georgia O'Keeffe: Recent Paintings, New Mexico, New York, Etc. - Etc., January-February 1931, no. 3 or 4 (as From a Shell)
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, The One Hundred and Forty-Seventh Annual Exhibition of Painting and Sculpture, January-February 1952, no. 65
Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art; Chicago, Illinois, Art Institute of Chicago; Dallas, Texas, Dallas Museum of Art; New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art; Los Angeles, California, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Georgia O'Keeffe, November 1987-June 1989, no. 62
Washington, D.C., The Phillips Collection; Santa Fe, New Mexico, The Georgia O'Keeffe Museum; Dallas, Texas, Dallas Museum of Art; San Francisco, California, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, Georgia O'Keeffe: The Poetry of Things, April 1999-May 2000, illustrated in color p. 91 (as From a Shell)
West Palm Beach, Florida, Norton Museum of Art; Santa Fe, New Mexico, Georgia O'Keeffe Museum; Minneapolis, Minnesota, Minneapolis Institute of Art, Georgia O'Keeffe: Circling Around Abstraction, February 2007-January 2008, no. 26, p. 132, illustrated in color
New York, Whitney Museum of American Art; Washington, D.C., The Phillips Collection, Georgia O'Keeffe: Abstraction, September 2009-April 2010, p. 231, illustrated in color p. 137
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We are grateful to Sharyn R. Udall for preparing the following essay. Udall, a leading scholar on modern artists of the Southwest, is author of O'Keeffe and Texas (1998) and Carr, O'Keeffe, Kahlo: Places of Their Own (2000).
Georgia O'Keeffe's Inside Clam Shell is a painting that brings together concerns always hovering near the center of her oeuvre. A pioneering modernist, O'Keeffe continually looked for ways to paint natural objects in new ways; moving from realism to abstraction and back again. By manipulating scale and context in ordinary objects such shells, flowers and bones, she taught herself to transform them into compelling new subjects. Besides allowing her to keep nature close at hand, her still life subjects–especially when painted in series–enabled her to use color, line and shape for her own expressive purposes.
The shells O'Keeffe began painting in the 1920s are of many types, but when she focused on them more intently in the latter half of that decade, she especially favored the simple, slightly asymmetrical form of the humble clam shell. Inside Clam Shell and its close companion Clam Shell (Metropolitan Museum of Art, illustrated), were both painted in 1930, by which time shells had excited O'Keeffe's eye and stimulated her imagination for over twenty years.
O'Keeffe's interest in shells began in a childhood spent far from the sea. "When I was small and went to visit my O'Keeffe grandmother," she recalled, "I sometimes got into the parlor by myself and would take a shell from the 'whatnot,' a set of fancy shelves between two windows. The shelves held many things I was not to touch but when I got in there alone I would take a shell from the whatnot 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. So when I grew up and went where there were shells I was always looking for them."1
Looking, noticing, focusing–visual acts that O'Keeffe combined with her own artistic inventiveness–provided a lifetime of images that transcend observable fact. Along with flowers, shells especially preoccupied her as a still-life subject. When she magnified the shells and painted them in close-up, as she did her delicate flower blooms, she must have considered the opposed temporality of shells and flowers. Colorful, soft and fragile, flower blooms must be painted quickly, before they fade, wilt and die. By contrast, shells suggest hardness, durability, and permanence; more easily than flowers, the same shell could be revisited. Working in series, through a half-dozen open and closed clam shells in 1926 she went on to combine one with a rough-textured roofing shingle and, twice, with a green leaf, in her Shell and Old Shingle series.
O'Keeffe discovered in painting six versions of the shell and old shingle that those simple objects could become springboards for her abstract imagination: "They fascinated me so that I forgot what they were except that they were shapes together–singing shapes."2 Those "singing shapes," especially within Shell and Old Shingle I, predict what O'Keeffe would do four years later in Inside Clam Shell. What she had begun in the 1926 series with a clam shell brought from Maine, she now expanded and turned into a fully-realized abstraction on a much larger scale. By 1930, a vision rooted in her close observation of the precise shapes within a particular clam shell was ready for translation into something much more inventive. By expanding the shell's scale to cover a whole canvas and eliminating a central focal point, O'Keeffe knew that she was coaxing her viewers to consider subjects they had never before seen. Inside Clam Shell opens a new world, brought close and turned into a grand, expansive motif. Shapes, convex and concave, recede and emerge through finely-drawn contours, subtle shading and pale color variations. Within the shell, matters of scale and context are knowingly blurred to give–or rather to force-- the viewer into a new subject-matter experience, born in a Maine clam shell but carefully distanced from it.
Freed from the strictures of literalism, O'Keeffe could explore new expressive possibilities. As Charles Eldredge has written, "Release from the representational imperative brought not only freedom for formal invention, but also for the exploration of subjective states."3 A world of nuanced feeling could be contained, as O'Keeffe knew, within an ordinary shell. Or within a plant form evolving from realism to abstraction, as she demonstrated later that year in her darkly-evocative Jack in the Pulpit series. In that series, with its veined, hooded plant interiors, O'Keeffe peered into a space as secret, as mysterious, as that within a clam shell.
Still, besides suggesting nature's mysteries, Inside Clam Shell is also hauntingly topographical, reminiscent of the wind and water-sculpted shapes the artist had begun to find in the sand hills of New Mexico when she started summering there in 1929. Returning to the Southwest in 1930, O'Keeffe painted more than a dozen landscapes of those hills–works whose pristinely-scoured landforms owe a distinct debt to her close observations of shell interiors. Perhaps her discovery of fossilized shells in the foothills of Northern New Mexico reinforced that connection in O'Keeffe's mind. As she recalled, "The plain was covered with the grey sage that in a few places crept up a bit against the base of the mountains, looking like waves lapping against the shore. It was a wide wide quiet area. But out in those hills I picked up mussel shells in groups all turned to stone–probably millions of years old. They sometimes even had a little bit of the original blue color. I carried them back and left them somewhere in the unknown."4
Whether intended or unconscious, O'Keeffe's 1930 high-desert landscapes, (as well as the sun-bleached animal bones and skulls she would begin painting) start with the clam shell's subtle, pale colors, gradually intensifying into a broader range of color. The generalized undulations of her painted hills often suggest the ancient seas O'Keeffe imagined there, but they suggest as well her predilection for exploring the fertile recesses of her own mind. In the vastness of the sea, and in the landscape of the West O'Keeffe found expanses large enough to contain the intensity of her feeling.
O'Keeffe's travels would take her to many of the world's beaches, where she gathered shells that would grace the inside and outside spaces of her homes, carefully arranged as objects for contemplation or as subjects for her paintings. "I have picked up shells along the coast of Maine–farther south, in the Bermudas and Bahamas I found conch shells along the pure sandy beaches. Then when I was in Yucatán out on the beach from Mérida there were very fine bleached white shells in the undergrowth where the water must have washed them up. ... Each shell was a beautiful world in itself."5
Shells, flowers, bones: whether O'Keeffe painted their exteriors or looked deeply within–her gaze caressed their surfaces with wonder. Ordinary objects never lost their fascination for this most careful observer, who seemed to recognize, as the poet Paul Valéry pointed out in his Les Coquillages, that shells, like flowers, are "more intelligible for the eye, even though more mysterious for the mind" than other objects in nature. Inside Clam Shell, in O'Keeffe's inimitable way, both probes and preserves that mystery.
1 Georgia O'Keeffe, Georgia O'Keeffe (New York: Viking, 1976), opp. Pl. 76.
2 Georgia O'Keeffe, Georgia O'Keeffe, opp. pl. 51.
3 Charles C. Eldredge, "Skunk Cabbages, Seasons & Series," in Georgia O'Keeffe: Natural Issues 1918-1924 (Williamstown, MA: Williams College Museum of Art, 1992), 40.
4 Georgia O'Keeffe, Georgia O'Keeffe, opp. pl. 76.
5 Georgia O'Keeffe, Georgia O'Keeffe, opp. pl. 79.