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O’Keeffe’s Texas watercolors: prototype for postwar modernism?

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

If the Arts News review of the Texas watercolors  exhibited in 1958 made the backhanded compliment that they were Georgia O’Keeffe’s best works — and that she had peaked early — other critics and historians chose to look forward, rather than backward. Could the artist’s primal abstractions, they wondered, be a precedent for the latest American abstraction?

“Although these watercolors derive from the period 1916-1918,” James R. Mellow wrote in Arts magazine, “one is constantly surprised by their freshness as well as by the fact that in one or two cases they predate styles that are currently being taken as up-to-the-minute modern.”

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Later critics would draw more direct lines from O’Keeffe to the likes of Kenneth Noland, Adolf Gottlieb, and Mark Rothko. O’Keeffe was fond of Rothko, but had no use for Jackson Pollock. She felt a kinship with Ellsworth Kelly, telling one interviewer that “I’ve actually looked at one of Kelly’s pictures and thought for a moment that I’d done it.”

Five decades later, where does art history place O’Keeffe in the canon of twentieth-century modernism? The current retrospective at the Tate Modern in London makes a bid to answer, or intervene in the answering of, that question. I’m heading there in October, eager to know how O’Keeffe fares in 2016, one hundred years after her first group show in New York City.

More on the Texas watercolors:

Georgia O’Keeffe: Far, Wide Texas

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





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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