Georgia O’Keeffe painted Blue and White Abstraction
in 1958, by which time she had permanently moved to Abiquiu, New Mexico. Since she first visited New Mexico in 1929, O’Keeffe consistently mined the extraordinary landscape of this unique place for subject matter. The spectacularly expansive sky above the desert often caught her attention—this is exhibited in the present work, in which she captures a bird in flight. Through the artist’s unique lens, however, 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, 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. Her title, Blue and White Abstraction
, further indicates that O’Keeffe’s objective is to distill the non-objective qualities of an objectively familiar world. The intent is not dissimilar to that of Constantin Brancusi, whose iconic series Bird in Space
presents this motif through highly simplified means to emphasize, above all, the motion of the animal (fig. 1). In works such as Blue and White Abstraction
, O’Keeffe uses the imagery of the Southwest to diverge from her European counterparts, communicating similar ideas in a thoroughly American visual language.
Working in and around New York City in the early decades of the 20th
century, O’Keeffe found kinship with a group of American artists who drew inspiration from the Transcendentalists of the 19th
century. Best represented through the works of writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, the Transcendentalists believed the key to spiritual enlightenment lay in the study of nature and natural forms—in the words of Emerson, “to look at the world with new eyes.” This essential belief in the purity of an unrestricted vision informed the circle of artists managed and represented by the legendary photographer and art dealer, Alfred Stieglitz. Rather than create an exact likeness of nature, these artists, including O’Keeffe, sought to reduce it to its most essential forms, which then served as a framework upon which they could express a profound emotional state. “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” (quoted in Jonathan Stulman and Barbara Buhler Lynes, Georgia O’Keeffe: Circling Around Abstraction
, West Palm Beach, Florida, 2007, p. 22).
O’Keeffe is celebrated, in particular, for her ability to overcome the traditional boundary between abstraction and realistic representation. While nearly always rooted in the organic forms she observed in the world around her, her best works ultimately serve as meditations on the formal qualities of color, line and form, and the ability of these qualities to communicate deeper emotions and subjective meanings. As Charles C. Eldredge wrote, “Release from the representational imperative brought not only freedom for formal invention [for O’Keeffe], but also for the exploration of subjective states” (“Skunk Cabbages, Seasons & Series,” in Georgia O’Keeffe: Natural Issues 1918-1924
, Williamstown, Massachusetts, 1992, p. 40). Blue and White Abstraction
reveals O’Keeffe’s unrelenting desire to get to the root of the thing, to seek the essential. “From experiences of one kind or another shapes and colors come to me very clearly,” she wrote in a 1957 letter to John I.H. Baur. “Sometimes I start in very realistic fashion and as I go on from one painting after another of the same thing it becomes simplified till it can be nothing but abstract—but for me it is my reason for painting I suppose” (quoted in Georgia O’Keeffe: Art & Letters
, Washington, D.C., 1989, p. 267). This radical consideration of the world and of her own art positions O’Keeffe among the most innovative and inventive artists of her time. Indeed, the trajectory from realism towards abstraction continued to engage American artists throughout the 20th
century, even those who are chiefly known today for their purely non-objective work (fig 2.).