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Georgia O’Keeffe’s Texas watercolors: “astonishing” and “touching”

Evening Star No. VI |
Evening Star No. VI (1917) by Georgia O’Keeffe. Watercolor on paper. 8 7/8 x 12 (22.5 x 30.5). Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. Gift of The Burnett Foundation (1997.18.003). © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum

Here’s an interesting take on Georgia O’Keeffe’s Texas watercolors (click here for my review of their current exhibition at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum) when they were shown in 1958, for the first time in some 40 years:

“.. an astonishing and, in many ways, touching group of watercolors now on view at the Downtown Gallery, sent there from New Mexico where they turned up in an attic.

“One sees here a sense of flow and change, a surprising directness, an ease in handling the brush and the curl of color, a boldness vis-a-vis the white paper, whose texture is often rippled by the heavy watercolor. There is a softness of outline, a luminosity of color, a variety of image and stress, and an evolving tension within each series, which O’Keeffe hardly ever achieved again. Once she elected to be an ‘artist,’ she began to focus upon those soon-famous distillations of nature which are so tidy and compositionally static. Those more formal compositions seem today to point down a byway to Magic Realism, an obsessive and provincial American phase of Surrealism. But the early sketches in this exhibition seem to hesitate on the doorstep of freedom. [ . . . ]

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“In this [Arthur Wesley Dow’s] system of abstract design in two dimensions, O’Keeffe was soon entrenched, but here at the beginning, she was testing its possibilities, feeling it out as a liberating aesthetic. [ . . . ]

“Preciousness, eccentricity and obsessiveness were the traps set for her generation of revolutionaries. Hence the unintended pathos, and interest, of this exhibition — a glance back to a first way-station of style en route to the more casually accepted freedoms of painting today.”

(“Georgia O’Keeffe” by E.C.M. [Eleanor C. Munro]. Arts News 57, no. 1 (March 1958): 38, 57.)

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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