Born on her family’s dairy farm in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, Georgia O’Keeffe studied at the Art Institute of Chicago (1905-1906) and the Art Students League in New York (1907-1908). After finishing school, she abandoned painting for several years due to family difficulties and her own doubts about her artistic direction, choosing instead to work as a commercial illustrator in Chicago. She subsequently pursued a career as an art teacher, taking courses at the University of Virginia and Columbia University’s Teachers College in New York, where she studied with influential art educator Arthur Wesley Dow and earned a teaching certificate in 1916. Between 1915 and 1917, during teaching stints at colleges in South Carolina and Texas, O’Keeffe created a series of radically abstract charcoal drawings and watercolors, many of which contained a spiraling, organic form. These works brought her to the attention of photographer and gallerist Alfred Stieglitz, who exhibited them at his 291 gallery in 1916, launching her career as one of America’s foremost modernists. As a member of Stieglitz’s stable, O’Keeffe joined the company of Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, and John Marin; during this period she also began a lifelong relationship with Stieglitz, whom she married in 1924.
In 1918, O’Keeffe quit teaching and moved to New York, dividing her time for the next ten years between the city and the family estate in Lake George, New York, belonging to Stieglitz. As she began to paint full-time, O’Keeffe transitioned from watercolor, which was her primary medium while in Texas, to oil painting. Her earliest oils are largely abstract, based on natural forms and the rhythms of music. By the mid-1920s, she was painting her iconic, voluptuous depictions of flowers—magnified and cropped as if by a camera—as well as Manhattan skyscrapers and Lake George landscapes. In 1929, O’Keeffe began to spend her summers painting in New Mexico; she settled there permanently in 1949, three years after Stieglitz’s death. In New Mexico, O’Keeffe found a rich source of subject matter, painting churches, the landscape, and bones that she collected in the desert. In her late work, she returned to the abstract forms of her early charcoals and watercolors, while also expanding her repertoire to include monumental paintings inspired by the architecture of her home in Abiquiu, New Mexico, and the experience of traveling by airplane. By the mid-1970s, O’Keeffe’s failing eyesight forced her to cease painting. She published her autobiography in 1976.
Although Georgia O’Keeffe’s abstract works have often been overlooked by critics and curators, abstraction was an ongoing concern for the artist throughout her career. As she once stated, “The abstraction is often the most definite form for the intangible thing in myself that I can only clarify in paint.” Sasha Nicholas, one of the co-curators of Georgia O’Keeffe: Abstraction, gives an inside look at the exhibition and O’Keeffe’s process and method.