Georgia O’Keeffe: The Revolutionary Abstractionist

Georgia O’Keeffe’s painting Series I, No. I, from 1918, found at the Amon Carter Museum, was made during a pivotal point in the artist’s early professional career. The label that accompanies this painting somewhat addresses this fact, but fails to recognize anyone else’s influence on her art, except for Arthur Dow. Although he was a major influence on her, the museum label marginalizes the other modernists who contributed to her personal style. The catalyst to O’Keeffe’s abstract style was one of her first art teachers, Alon Bement, who introduced her to other innovators of modern art, including, Wassily Kandinsky, James McNeill Whistler, and Alfred Stieglitz. Dow instilled his principles of painting in her as a student, and she continued to paint by those same principles throughout her career. Although Dow’s influence is apparent in Series I, No. I, the painting is actually a culmination of his and other modernists influence on O’Keeffe during the early stages of her professional career, as a close examination of her early professional career and the painting will prove.

In the early twentieth-century, O’Keeffe’s career began in a similar fashion as many other artist at the time, with academic training. Alon Bement was really the first teacher to open the door for O’Keeffe to modern art. During the summer of 1912, she attended Bement’s class at Columbia University, where he introduced her to the Dow-Fenollosa method of painting and the artistic theories of Wassily Kandinsky.[1] Bement’s class was based on two ideas that concerned O’Keeffe: “balance of light and dark (tonal harmony)… [and] organization of flat pattern on the surface (relation of shape and color).”[2] Bement recognized her talent and encouraged her to train with Dow, who continued teaching her new, non-traditional approaches to painting.

In Dow’s class, O’Keeffe learned basic principles that she would ultimately follow for the rest of her career. Dow’s own radical principles were a combination of two artist’s theories, Ernest Fenollosa and James McNeill Whistler. Ernest Fenollosa, an orientalist, was a friend of Dow, who introduced him to Japanese art.[3] Fenollosa’s theories were based on two ideas, first, “music… in essence, [was] the key to the other fine arts, since it is the essence of pure beauty” and second, the idea of “beauty and not representation” in art.[4] Dow also turned to James McNeill Whistler’s theories to construct his own. Whistler believed that art was music’s visual companion and equal.  By emulating music, painting could directly appeal to emotions and transcend language.[5] Dow combined these theories to create his own standards of painting, which he taught to all his students, including Georgia O’Keeffe. Subordination and rhythmic representation formed the basis of his artistic theory, which relied upon the basic building blocks of art, line, notan, the Japanese term for the interaction of light and dark, and color[6]. He believed that “harmony and balance were the key”[7] to arts production. As seen in Series I, No. I, O’Keeffe took Dow’s teachings to heart. Georgia O’Keeffe learned basic principles of painting with Dow, but Wassily Kandinsky led her to abstraction.

Wassily Kandinsky’s art and writings were influential on not only Georgia O’Keeffe, but also on the entire modern art community of the early twentieth-century. Alon Bement introduced Kandinsky’s theories of painting to O’Keeffe in 1912. Similar to those of Dow, Fenollosa, and Whistler, his theories were based on the relationship between color and music. Kandinsky’s believed “painting should cease to depict external appearance but express, like music, the inner nature of form.”[8] Each color, Kandinsky thought, brought a different emotional response; for instance the color blue, he thought, had a connection with the heavens.[9] These theories based on color and form in painting helped O’Keeffe move toward abstraction, especially in Series I, No. I. The figures in the painting resemble nothing found in nature. The forms are clearly produced from hand and imagination. Examining the movement of line and color through the composition, it is as if she painted a visual representation of Kandinsky’s theories. However, it was Stieglitz’s attentiveness to O’Keeffe and her painting that cultivated her desire to express herself through abstraction.

Stieglitz firmly believed that he had discovered the great female artist of his generation in Georgia O’Keeffe. As one of America’s leading modern art supporters, he introduced O’Keeffe to other revolutionary artists of the day, including Arthur Dove (whose abstract compositions were based on observations of nature) and the magnified detail photographs of Paul Strand.[10] Stieglitz gave “O’Keeffe the confidence to pursue her early artistic ideas… and [provided] her with… annual exhibitions” to showcase any and all work that she produced. [11] It was during this time, specifically 1918, when she moved back to New York, that O’Keeffe painted Series I, No. I. With all this knowledge at hand, a close observation of the image reveals characteristics of all these theories in O’Keeffe’s artwork during the early twentieth-century.

In Series I, No I, O’Keeffe utilizes abstract forms, seen in the theories of Kandinsky, and a wide variety of intense colors to create a fluid, musically inspired composition, stemming from the ideas of Whistler. Line, color and contrast between light and dark are all key compositional elements.  Each works in perfect unison and harmony with one another to unify O’Keeffe’s abstract painting.

From one edge of the canvas to another, lines moves in a fluid motion producing abstract forms. At the outer regions of the canvas, lines blur and are less defined compared to the well-defined flowing lines in the center of the image. This fluidity of line creates a sense of movement and motion on the two-dimensional canvas. A focal point is made by the convergence of all the lines, which begin to curl into a vortex motion at the center of the canvas. This movement of line across the canvas resembles what one might imagine the waves of music might look like when they hit the ears of the audience.

Color is the second important element Georgia O’Keeffe in Series I, No. I. Consisting of a wide variety of brilliant and vibrant colors, ranging from reds and pinks to deep blues and teals, O’Keeffe manages to continue the fluid motion in Series I, No. I, not only with line but also in color. Each color works off of one another and although they might not all be natural, the colors work together in the composition. If the lines O’Keeffe made were meant to represent waves of music, then each color must represent the different instruments used in the orchestra. Combining line and color, O’Keeffe constructs a beautiful composition by contrasting the colors of each line against one another.

Light and dark areas vividly contrast one another on the canvas because O’Keeffe placed each right next to each other. The lightest elements of the painting appear in the outer regions of the canvas; while the darker tones occur where line converges in the center of the canvas. This contrast of colors generates a certain, yet limited, sense of depth to the painting. Light, created by the choice of colors, radiates from an internal source, illuminating the canvas. By contrasting light and dark, O’Keeffe produces a sense of internal warmth. The light and dark elements in O’Keeffe’s painting is the source of volume and depth to the otherwise flat surface.

Each element works together in unison achieving the ultimate goal of producing an abstract self-expression of what music must look like imagined in O’Keeffe’s minds eye. Fluid motion of sound waves are portrayed by the combine use of line and color; while a sense of depth to the flat canvas is made by the contrasting light and dark elements. Through the harmonious combination of elements, O’Keeffe is able to combine different artistic theories to create the visualization of music from a symphony.

At the Amon Carter museum, the label that accompanies the painting recognizes only Arthur Dow’s influence on O’Keeffe’s work.  Although, she has credited Dow’s impact on her style, stating that “[he] had one dominating idea: to fill space in a beautiful way”, it is clear that O’Keeffe’s inspiration came from a myriad of sources when she painted Series I, No. I in 1918. [12] In marginalizing the other modernists who stimulated O’Keeffe’s early perceptions of painting, key information is lost and misunderstood on her concepts of abstract painting. By recognizing their theories on painting in O’Keeffe’s work proves that she had the ability to morph different concepts into a personal style, making her a revolutionary artist in the early twentieth-century. O’Keeffe created a style all her own in Series I, No. I by combining these artistic theories into something that had never been done before in such a beautiful manner.

Georgia O’Keeffe’s interest in abstraction began in her preliminary studies, between 1912 and 1916, with Alon Bement and Arthur Dow, who taught her the importance of harmony between line and color. Their classes introduced her to new, non-traditional theories in art, including Wassily Kandinsky’s belief in capturing abstract forms over traditional forms found in nature, and John McNeill Whistler’s notion that art should visualize the sensation of music. In 1918, O’Keeffe began work on a series of abstract paintings, which included Series I, No. I. In this series, O’Keeffe synthesizes these theories of form and music, giving her a new approach to self-expression through abstraction. In Series I, No. 1, O’Keeffe believed “the idea that music could be translated into something for the eye.”[13]


[1] Sarah Whitaker Peters. Becoming O’Keeffe: The Early Years. (New York: Abbeville Press Publishers, 2001), 40-41.

[2] Rita Donagh. “O’Keeffe in Context” Oxford Art Journal, (1980): 47.

[3] Peters, 82.

[4] Arthur Dow. Composition. (Garden City: The Country Life Press, 1913): 5.

Peters, 82.

[5] Judith Zilczer. “Color Music: Synaesthesia and Ninteenth-Century Sources for Abstract Art,” Artibus et Historaie (1987): 101.  JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1483303.

[6] Peters, 84.

Dow, 5.

[7] “Georgia O’Keeffe,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin (1984): 5. www.jstor.org/stable/3258762.

[8] Donagh, 48.

[9] Peters, 99.

[10] “Georgia O’Keeffe,” 14.

[11] “Georgia O’Keeffe,” 3.

[12] Peters, 39.

[13] Zilczer, 104.

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