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Georgia O’Keeffe and the Politics of Seeing

When Jesse’s girlfriend brought him to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in season three of “Breaking Bad,” he was confounded why anyone would paint a door over and over again. Kinda psycho, he thought.

The artist herself called it a “mania,” this feverish compulsion she felt during the first flush of her art-making. It didn’t matter whether the things she was doing were good or bad. “They are only good relatively—and only excitement to try again — more—always more.”

Her earliest, breakthrough series — like “Blue Lines” (1916) and “Evening Star” (1917) — were among the show-stoppers in “Georgia O’Keeffe: To See Takes Time” at the Museum of Modern Art. The exhibit, which was the first to focus on the artist’s serial practice on paper (watercolor, charcoal, pastel), ran through August 12.

Installation view of “Georgia O’Keeffe: To See Takes Time,” on view at The Museum of Modern Art, New York from April 9 through August 12, 2023. “Blue Lines” series at right. Photo: Jonathan Dorado.

“Fancy me working a whole week – all my spare time doing the same thing over and over again,” O’Keeffe wrote to her BFF, Anita Pollitzer, in October 1915. “Ive [sic] been painting in between people and classes–all day—standing up—A water color landscape—and it looks rotten. Im [sic] going to start all over again tomorrow [ . . . ] If I ever get this darned water color anything like I want it maybe I’ll send it to you—Todays [sic] is the tenth edition of it—and there it stands saying—’Am I not deliciously ugly and unbalanced!!’”

At the time, O’Keeffe may have had her doubts about these serial watercolors, but by the 1950s she recognized their shared impetus with Abstract Expressionism. Considered irrelevant by the critics in the heyday of Pollock and de Kooning, O’Keeffe had been largely dismissed by the art establishment since the late 1940s. Then she happened upon a 1956 essay by British art historian Herbert Read. Referencing Kandinsky, Read theorized what he called the “internal necessity” at the core of their artistic practice. “It made me smile at similar things that went on in my head a long time ago – before I lived in N.Y. and heard all the Art talk that went in a different direction at that time – I had read Kandinsky before the watercolors or maybe at that time.” She set about sorting 50 of her early watercolors into what was billed as a “surprise” exhibit at The Downtown Gallery in 1958.

O’Keeffe’s nimble thinking set her on the path back into art history. By 1967, critic E.C. Goossen published a lengthy and laudatory reconsideration of her work in Vogue magazine. Singling out “Blue Lines X,” he called her early experiments “perhaps the boldest and brashest avant-garde art done by an American in this century. [ . . . ] Not until 1948, with the advent of the now historic Abstract Expressionist period, did contemporary art begin to catch up with them.” Goossen’s encomium helped launch O’Keeffe’s comeback, culminating in the Whitney retrospective of 1970, when she remarked about those early works, “I never did any better.”

Fifty years on, O’Keeffe has fallen victim to her celebrity. “The loner in the desert” overshadows the art. But with the MOMA exhibit, “Blue Lines X” is once again raising the flag. “Georgia O’Keeffe: To See Takes Time” has received largely positive critical response, and curator Samantha Friedman is hearing what she hoped to — lots of people saying, “I never knew that . . .”

MOMA’s show may very well be our once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see “Blue Lines X.” As a century-old watercolor, the painting that she referred to as “my blue streaks” is vulnerable to light exposure, and rarely displayed. And it’s likely a never-again opportunity to view together all three extant works in the series. The trio is given the show’s pride of place, hanging side-by-side on a freestanding wall, greeting each visitor as she enters. Here is O’Keeffe’s ur-series, the one that tells us most everything we need to know about her process, her project, and even her politics.

Georgia O’Keeffe, “Blue Lines X,” 1916. Watercolor on paper. © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

In the first of the series, a charcoal, O’Keeffe drew a primal figure-and-ground composition. Two verticals, slightly shadowed, ascend from a sturdy base. The taller line ascends straight up, and the other takes a zig-zag half way up. She explained to Alfred Stieglitz, the pioneering modern photographer and gallerist who would become her husband, that the work was made during her brief stay in New York in Spring 1916, when she was attending Columbia University Teachers College. “The first one I got up and made in the night — the charcoal one — my bed was by the window and I always sat on it — the dark buildings going up into the night across the street were great.” You can certainly see in her drawing two rising lines of a building, or two buildings with an avenue running between them, interrupted by an angular – perhaps foreshortened roof? – line.

By the next iteration on display, the artist has moved on from charcoal to black watercolor. The verticals have become fluid, graceful. Each one is now doubled — deftly drawn, like calligraphy, in two layers, a darker line running over and alongside a lighter one. Organically swelling and narrowing as they rise up from an almost impenetrable dark horizontal wash, they take on the majesty and mystery of a cathedral. With the merest, surest, most palpable touch, O’Keeffe has activated the two lines and animated the space. She had already looked carefully at Chinese and Japanese paintings and calligraphy; she practiced extensively with a watercolor brush. And she learned well the lessons of Columbia art educator Arthur Wesley Dow, who advocated for freehand drawing as a felt expression rather than imitation, deploying “fine rhythm, good spacing, and unity” of line. “Action is expressed by the direction of the lines,” he said, “and life lies in the quality of the drawn line.”

It’s in “Blue Lines X,” after five or six more of the black watercolors, that O’Keeffe makes the magic. The lines, more attenuated, even spire-like, come fully to life, simply by shifting from black to blue. At top, where the lines thicken out into something like a burst seed pod, we can glimpse their tantalizing depth. The oceanic blue, infinite and mythic, draws us in. Like so much of O’Keeffe’s work, it is deceptively simple and surprisingly affecting.

O’Keeffe usually explained her serial practice as a progression from naturalism to abstraction, but the “Blue Lines” series suggests that she was over-simplifying the process. Its basic figure-ground schema, however naturalistic or abstract, remains consistent. What changed was her rigorous deployment of materials and tools, brushstroke, texture, tone, density, opacity, line and color. With continual re-imagining, “Blue Lines” begins as a well-anchored structure, a solid fact, and concludes as a gesture toward the sublime.

Jesse, unsurprisingly, missed the point of those patio doors.

As O’Keeffe explained it, the series are iterations, not mere repetitions. “You paint it and you didn’t quite get it. You have to do it again, and you think of another way to do it better. And to keep on as if you’re never going to stop.” O’Keeffe had a single-track mind, and she worked on her ideas for a long time, learning as she went. “Good things have to be done over and over again—that is if you are to understand what they are all about.”

O’Keeffe was not about creating the one-off masterpiece. She was as interested in the process as the product. “Success,” she said, “doesn’t come with painting one picture. It results from taking a certain definite line of action and staying with it.”

This serial practice was essential to her modernist inquiry. Again and again, in early series like the evening stars (how to make shapes of color without line), the nude self-portraits (how to delineate a figure without a ground), and the tent doors (how to frame space), we can see how O’Keeffe is working to solve the fundamental question of her time: how to create an expressive space without the illusion of perspective. She is trying to solve the same problem as Cezanne and Picasso and Matisse, using her own preference for organic form, tactile line, and intense color. She carried the series format into her painting for the rest of her life, a favored strategy for driving visual innovation. Finding a new angle, so to speak, was what excited her. There would come the shell and old shingles, the jack-in-the-pulpits, Black Place, pelvis bones, patio doors, and clouds, to name a few.

To create a series is to say: there is more than one way to make this picture. There is no single, right, proper way to see it, understand it, or make it. That’s the moral of O’Keeffe’s oft-repeated origin story. She rejected the rules of academic representation just as soon as she had mastered them, because she really did not want to be a simulacrum of her teachers. She may have won a scholarship award at the Art Students League for her “Dead Rabbit with Copper Pot,” but who, she recalled incredulously, “wants to spend their life painting rabbits and copper bowls?” She wanted to see more, and see different.

So she rejected the rules of perspective. She scrapped the muted palette. She abandoned the showy brushstroke. She refused the false dichotomy between naturalism and abstraction. And she dumped narrative. Instead, she painted what was in her head. She made flowers as big as skyscrapers. Floating animal skulls. Clouds you could walk across. Doorways you could fall into. This was her artistic project: an incessant search for new ways to shift her – and her viewer’s — point of view. She showed us that there is no fixed or finite way to see, or be. O’Keeffe insisted on art as a radical open space, even if it came with instability and incoherence. And doubt.

Here is her real subject matter: her own subjectivity. How it wants to see around corners. How it resists solid ground and a predictable point of view. In front of her paintings, you often have to ask yourself: where am I?

Not that she wanted us to see as she saw. She wanted us to see for ourselves, as ourselves. That’s the only advice she would ever offer to aspiring artists — besides telling them to go home and work. Find your own way of seeing things, then nurture and protect it at all costs.

If O’Keeffe’s art had a politics, this was it: embrace your difference. It’s an act of defiance, and the place where freedom begins.

In 1949 O’Keeffe donated a substantial portion of Stieglitz’s modern art collection to the historically black Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. She made the donation with clear intent: “with the hope that it may show that there are many ways of seeing and thinking, and possibly, through showing that there are many ways, give some one [sic] confidence in his own way, which may be different, whatever its direction.”

Curator Samantha Friedman’s emphasis on seriality, particularly in the early years, restores to O’Keeffe the significance of her practice. By realigning our sights with the art-making rather than the clichés and worn-out narratives, “Georgia O’Keeffe: To See Takes Time” lays plain the artist’s radical project: to ditch the ideological certainty of conventional representation for an aesthetics, and politics, of difference. Don’t let anyone tell you how to see the world, she insisted, because that only serves to reproduce their old thinking. Look for yourself. Make your own world. And then make it again . . .

(PS—If you couldn’t get to New York this summer, many of the MOMA watercolors are beautifully reproduced in large format in Georgia O’Keeffe: Watercolors 1916-1918, Radius Books, accompanied by a vividly detailed essay by Amy Von Lintel, art history professor at West Texas A&M.)

Ann Daly PhD is an essayist specializing in women and women's history. She is working on a book about Georgia O'Keeffe.

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