As a critic and cultural historian, I find myself more curious about an artist’s formative moments than her culminating masterworks. “Georgia O’Keeffe’s Far Wide Texas,” on exhibit at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum through October 30, gives a rare and exhilarating glimpse into those several years, 1916 to 1918, in Canyon, Texas, when the artist forged the foundations of her métier.
Of course, there is the subject matter, so often remarked as to have become a distracting cliché of the O’Keeffe narrative. The Big Sky she loved in Texas prefigured that of New Mexico. She was lucky enough to find her imagination’s soulmate not once, but twice.
But O’Keeffe’s art was never about the landscape per se. It was about her way of seeing the landscape as an experience of the sublime: those “slits in nothingness” that she first experienced in Palo Duro Canyon. That she had already noticed looking out of tent flaps. That she would see in the canyons between New York City skyscrapers. That she’d portray looking upward through the holes in bones.
She’d already restricted herself to charcoal for a while, mastering tone and texture within those rigorous limits. With the shift to watercolor, she next challenged herself to layer tones and vary density in a fluid medium. She continued to explore the radical reduction of composition, generating a lifelong storehouse of unitary forms like the horizon line (those later landscapes), or a puff of train smoke (the crinoline-like flowers), or a window (that patio door).
In the Canyon watercolors, we see her doing what she did best: work. She was working to find ways to paint what she’d later call “the faraway nearby.” The best examples are Starlight Night (1917) and Sunrise and Little Clouds No. II (1916).
In Starlight Night O’Keeffe doesn’t actually paint the mass of sparkling stars. They are left as gaps — bare creamy paper –in the watery blue of the night sky. She indicates the stars as flat negative space — without the pretense of perspective — and invites us to look “through” this wonky grid of holes to the great beyond.
Similarly, O’Keeffe doesn’t actually paint the clouds in Sunrise and Little Clouds No. II. Instead, she paints a kind of thick decorative braiding across the sky to frame a succession of “little clouds.” We don’t look at the clouds themselves. We look “through” the frame of the braids to those fluffy, floating bits of pink and orange.
What was she doing in Canyon? That’s the question I’ve been asking myself.
She is figuring out how to portray the sublime of the Big Sky without resorting to old conventions and assumptions. Inspired by her teacher Arthur Wesley Dow, she believes in the canvas as an autonomous space of composition, not as a mere stand-in for the landscape. She is searching for the modern.
The Evening Star series, with its jewel colors and stark arabesque, is the obvious showstopper, but I found myself besotted instead by the series of nudes. Yes, nudes. O’Keeffe quickly left behind the human figure, but in Canyon she used it to work out problems of paint technique and composition. She deftly, subtly choreographs tone-on-tone to create the body’s form and mass. She plays with the densities and saturation of the watercolor, which pools and puddles and feathers and bleeds. And breathes. Pinks and browns and reds come alive, transubstantiated, made flesh. And with mere swathes and swipes of color O’Keeffe separates figure from ground.
Already, she is choosing to construct her compositions from broad shapes of color, rather than building them up with brushstrokes. So she’s got to figure out what to do with the outlines of her shapes and the edges in between those shapes. In the nudes, she tries both extremes: shapes that overlay each other without clear borders and shapes that are separated by narrow borderlands of bare paper. When she moves on to oil, she’ll use what she learned here to create her characteristic style of edging and contouring.
“Georgia O’Keeffe’s Far Wide Texas” is a portrait of the artist at work. And, too, it dazzles with radiant colors, dynamic shapes, and pitch-perfect gestures. Even if you can’t make it to Santa Fe before October 30, you can acquire the accompanying catalog, Georgia O’Keeffe: Watercolors 1916 – 1918. Exquisitely printed by Radius Books, you can enjoy full-scale images in extraordinary detail.