I first saw Georgia O’Keeffe’s pair of clam shells — one opened, one closed — at the Dallas Museum of Art. It was several years ago, when I attended the exhibit on Ida O’Keeffe (younger sister to Georgia) and stumbled upon the new acquisitions being debuted in another gallery. What I remember most, sad to say, were the fellow viewers parroting worn-out narratives about O’Keeffe and lady parts.
When I recently re-encountered the paintings at the McNay Art Museum in its “Georgia O’Keeffe and American Modernism” exhibition, in a quieter, more relaxed environment, they felt less burdened. More present, and willing to reveal themselves. Like a number of the other O’Keeffe paintings in the show, they are unglazed. That is, they are hung without any protective glass covering. And while this means they are more vulnerable to damage, it also means that we get unimpeded views of their surfaces. And that’s the view O’Keeffe meant us to have, not only because the surfaces are so beautiful, but because they are essential to what she wanted to say.
[This essay originally appeared in Sightlines on March 22, 2022. I’m grateful to editor Jeanne Claire van Ryzin for inviting me to write about the exhibit.]
René Paul Barilleaux was Deputy Director for Programs at the Mississippi Museum of Art 16 years ago when he co-curated an exhibit called “Georgia O’Keeffe: Color and Conservation” and co-edited the catalogue of the same name. By focusing on the conservation of O’Keeffe’s paintings, the book offers us a rare glimpse into the inner workings of her artistic process. (If you’re interested in O’Keeffe’s art and artmaking, I’d recommend this book, along with Lovingly, Georgia, the complete correspondence between the emerging artist and her art-school-BFF, Anita Pollitzer.)
Lucky for us in Texas, Barilleaux is now Head of Curatorial Affairs at the McNay, and he was kind enough to give me an up-close-and-personal tour of those clam shells.
“Open Clam Shell” and “Closed Clam Shell” were both painted in 1926, a remarkable year for O’Keeffe, during which she produced masterpieces of her early iconic themes: flowers, New York City skyscrapers, and Lake George barns. She thought highly enough of these clam shells to include them in her 1946 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. (There is yet a third one in the series, a pastel titled “Slightly Open Clam Shell,” now at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art. Conservator Judith C. Walsh details the close relationship between O’Keeffe’s pastels and her oil painting style in the Color and Conservation book.)
First things first: You’re not going to see that familiar clam shell shape. Instead, O’Keeffe has turned each one on its side lengthwise for a more complex view, kind of a double portrait. In the picture of the closed shell, we see its hinged edge, very puckered, from the outside. In the open one, from the opposite point of view, we see past the smooth edges of the shells, parted like stage curtains, through to the interior, where we get a reverse look at the muscled hinge from the inside.
Mounted side-by-side at the McNay on a wine-colored panel, each has a vertical, bulbous shape, its outer edges pressing at, even bulging beyond, the canvas. They possess a startling gravitas, like icons. And they remind me of the African masks that O’Keeffe’s husband, Alfred Stieglitz, was the first to exhibit in America. In later years, O’Keeffe remarked that she could tell if a painting of hers was any good if it could hold its own on a wall alongside one of those masks. And come to think of it, the open clam shell also reminds me of her skulls (like “Summer Days,” which opens the McNay exhibit), painted two decades later, with the same organically intricate holes and fissures, only more robustly depicted. And, okay, maybe I’m a little slow, but it dawns on me now, and Google confirms, that the clam shell is indeed the creature’s exoskeleton.
“It’s taking something that in life is small, and blowing it up,” Barilleaux says, looking at the clam shells. “But they’re still intimate.”
Not only does O’Keeffe play with contrast in scale. Between the two paintings she also plays with inside/outside, front/back, and convex/concave. And she plays with a beautiful juxtaposition in brushstroke and finish. The closed shell is rather glossy, and smooth. The open one is dry and rough.
“There is some visible brush work,” Barilleaux elaborates. “But she goes between a kind of flattened application of paint, and then building it up a little bit.”
O’Keeffe never piled on the paint. She worked wet-into-dry, pretty much a single layer of paint requiring serious control to choreograph her textural effects. Within this narrow range that she chose to work, her variations are virtuosic. The paint can be applied thickly, or barely grazing the canvas, its stroke long and contoured, or short and stubby. Or anywhere in between. And she strategically varies the paint body, using additives to control for opaqueness and gloss.
Like the soft muscle and hard shell of the clam shells, the painting surface offers both flow and structure. O’Keeffe seems to delight in exploring with her brush every wrinkle, every pinch, every crack, every dark recess that the clam shell offers up. The topography here is as rich and complex as anything she’ll find in the New Mexico landscape.
The color has its own equally deceiving simplicity. “They’re nearly monochromatic,” Barilleaux observes. “But with just kind of blue and gray and a little yellow and white, we get a lot of color. Gray that’s leaning toward blue, or gray that’s leaning toward brown, or gray that’s leaning toward a cool or warm. It’s just so subtly modulated.”
For color, the star of the show is “It Was Blue and Green” (1960), on loan from the Whitney Museum of American Art. It’s one in a series of oil paintings focusing on startling color combinations, hung on the slightest bit of form — serpentine lines that go as far back in her visual repertoire as 1916. And even though the painting is under glass, you can still see the perfect marriage of texture and tone. Blue and green (green translucent as the sea) gently converging and diverging through a white gauze (with a hint of pink?). It’s pure color and light. No wonder that O’Keeffe, who resented being labeled as anything, let alone a “precisionist,” made sure to send this one off to be exhibited in 1960, as a wry response to a show called “The Precisionist View in American Art,” which opened that year at the Walker Art Center and included one of her paintings.
In a brilliant bit of exhibit design, “It Was Blue and Green” hangs next to a pair of watercolor abstractions from 1916, and next to them hangs the McNay’s own O’Keeffe masterpiece, one of the “Evening Star” watercolor series (1917). In this grouping you can see how O’Keeffe kept on working at a fundamental formal problem: how to create shapes out of color without resorting to drawing a line around them.
In “Evening Star No. V” she leaves blank paper as the boundary between her colors. In the watercolor abstractions, she puddles each color, playing with how they overlap. In “It was Blue and Green,” she models the colors with a system of tonal expanses contrasting against sharp, ridged paint edges. It’s like a bas-relief, in paint. The range and brilliance of the colors here are as unfathomably subtle as the “Evening Star” are singularly bold.
“Leaf Motif, No. 2” (1924) has been part of the McNay collection since 1975. It’s a painting I love to revisit, because it’s frequently and imaginatively rehung. I couldn’t help but write about one particularly effective installation when O’Keeffe was flanked by Pollock and Klee. (Click here to read that blog post.)
In the current exhibition, “Leaf Motif, No. 2” has been hung next to a window, to connect with the natural world, and also near to an Alexander Calder mobile. I particularly like seeing the shared affinity that O’Keeffe and Calder (and many other early modernists) had for biomorphic shapes. Only in the case of “Leaf Motif, No. 2,” the biomorphic shapes are the curved spaces between the leaves rather than the leaves themselves.
“It doesn’t have a lot of surface buildup,” Barilleaux observes. “The paint is not fat on the surface, but there’s an area right in the center, where there’s a bit of work done there. There’s a kind of a scrumbly area down here. I love the way she creates these little halo effects to bring out the composition, or to bring up the volume. It’s forcing dimension, and then it kind of dissolves here into abstraction. That’s the joy of the work. It’s always playing between abstraction and representation.”
As a card-carrying modernist, having absorbed the lessons of Cubism, O’Keeffe excelled at creating ambiguous space. She could sculpturally model to the point of trompe-l’oeil, like that curled leaf edge cutting diagonally across the top of the picture, but she doesn’t let us forget that it’s just a painting, flat as a board, and completely artificial. In these deeply cleft leaves, she makes you wonder: are those voids or masses, and are they advancing or receding? There’s so much movement. You feel like you could take quite a ride along the intricately layered curves.
“Very animated,” Barilleaux remarks, “for dead leaves.
“There is definitely a dark-against-light effect pulsating through the composition. And also, you have a bright center here, which is kind of popping out and the dark receding. Your eye goes toward that center and then keeps moving around. It won’t let your eye rest.”
As Barilleaux explains, O’Keeffe deployed a variety of brushwork. “She’s not always doing it the same way. Her brushwork often fits the subject of composition. She’s tailoring the approach of the paint to the subject, to the mood, to everything.”
Textbook example: the two New Mexico mountains, hung nearly facing each other. Striking opposites. Even under glass, the textures are palpable. “The Mountain, New Mexico” (1931) looks dry, sunlit, the paint loose, open, in some spots thinly laid down in swatches. I love the renegade swipe of green rolling down one gully. That dusty red clay mountain, feet sinking with each step, would be hard to walk. “Purple Hills” (1935), in contrast, feels smooth enough to slide down. It has a more precise, glossy appearance. The brushstrokes have withdrawn, in service of those colored shadows and deep crevices.
The exhibit gives pride of place to “Summer Days” (1936), on loan from the Whitney. O’Keeffe used this painting for the cover of her eponymous book in 1976, after it had proven such a favorite in the retrospective given her by the Whitney in 1970. After a number of years comparing unfavorably with Abstract Expressionism, this exhibit marked her big comeback, at age 83. From all reports, the younger crowd loved “Summer Days.”
Me, not so much. But after having had time to sit and look at it at the McNay (every gallery needs a bench, thank you), I’ve become a fan. Which just goes to prove — once again – what Dale Kronkright told me at the start of my research: Georgia O’Keeffe is an artist who rewards curiosity. As Conservator at the O’Keeffe Museum since its inception, Kronkright has the inside track on O’Keeffe’s art and art-making. You can read more from him in the “Color and Conservation” book.
In “Summer Days,” we’re greeted (confronted?) by a very big skull with antlers in full arabesque, emerging through a white fog. Hovering below it is a loose bunch of wildflowers, as if laid at a shrine. Together they loom large over a neat row of red mountains ranging full across the bottom edge of the canvas, which in some moments read as an altar. Basically, it’s an out-sized still life floating at top and a relatively diminutive landscape grounded at bottom, with an expanse of clouds and strip of marvelous blue sky in between. As usual, O’Keeffe is confounding traditional perspective: her trademark “faraway nearby.” (O’Keeffe always reminds us: any point of view is valid; none is negated; all coexist.) That skull floats like a vision, what The New York Times called a “suspended apparition” when it was first exhibited in 1937, and a rather psychedelic one at that. Easy to see why it went over big with the younger generation in 1970.
I begin to enjoy the absurdity. And how self-conscious the absurdity is. As a gardener, I’d call it a “folly.” And I don’t think that O’Keeffe would disagree. She started painting “Summer Days” in August 1936, the first summer she stayed in the Ghost Ranch house she would eventually purchase. She was feeling good. On first mention of the painting to Stieglitz (who, by the way, hated the painting’s title), she wrote that it was “one of those paintings that I am almost positive is going to be a good one.”
About a week later, she wrote to him that: “[I]t will make you laugh pleasantly – even if it has bones – a beautiful deers [sic] head against almost (not quite) white with a few wild flowers – really lovely – even if they are mine – at the end of his nose – I like it – You will like it – it even makes me laugh – there is an indian paint brush – a red one – two little lavender asters – tiny ones – and a brown eyedsusan sun flower – I am not quite positive about what will grow on it tomorrow–”
And the next night, after a full day of painting: “I thought I’d be through today but I find I have at least another day on it – and I must do it now – it isn’t something I can put away and do later – it seems to grow as I go along with it and it is really lovely so far – I’m much excited over what I plan to put in tomorrow – maybe a bit foolish – but that is alright I guess.”
Come her annual exhibit with the debut of “Summer Days,” The New York Times commented that O’Keeffe was “doing the most brilliant work of her career. The brushwork has grown, if possible, still more elusive in its myriad delicate nuances of tone and blendings of color, be the subject skulls or landscape.”
There’s as much pleasure in looking at the unglazed picture up-close, in small bits — themselves like miniature paintings — as in the first arresting glimpse of the full picture. Like the lovingly rendered skull, the sharply etched horns in contrast to the wispy clouds, the clouds moving across the landscape. And that lovely little wispy stroke of a cloud in the lower right. It’s O’Keeffe at her best, and I think she knows it.
“Georgia O’Keeffe and American Modernism” also includes O’Keeffe’s “Barn with Snow” (1934), “Pink and Yellow Hollyhocks” (1952), and “From the Plains I” (1953), along with more than 50 works by fellow modern artists. (Don’t miss the Helen Torr paintings or “Black Duck No. 1” by Marsden Hartley.) The exhibit runs through May 8.