WANDACORN: Flower Abstraction by O’Keeffe was painted in the early 1920s when she was living in New York.
NARRATOR: Wanda Corn is a historian of American Art.
WANDACORN: We’re looking deep into a flower. So deep that it’s very hard to find forms that you can identify as a stamen, for instance, or a petal.
She had a wonderful phrase later on. She would talk about making something that was far away nearby. And I always thought that that phrase, the far away nearby, even works for these early paintings, where something small like a flower becomes large and embracing in an abstraction that’s 48 inches high.
When O’Keeffe came to New York to be with Alfred Stieglitz, she entered into the circle around him which was filled with photographers such as Paul Strand and Stieglitz himself. And she was very much taken with what the photographers were doing at that point, experimenting with close ups, experimenting with different more abstract ways of framing their subjects.I think it’s fair to say that she borrowed some of the camera thinking from her colleagues at that point. So that she gave herself permission to do what the photographers were doing, which is to move uncannily close to something like the flower in this painting and cutting out, if you will, the contours of the flower so that we move right inside it.
Audio guide stop for Georgia O’Keeffe, Flower Abstraction, 1924
NARRATOR: O’Keeffe’s abstractions from the early 1920s often have a fragile, petal-like quality. This one, Flower Abstraction, literally improvises on a floral form. The closely cropped motif seems to extend beyond its frame, as if without measurable boundaries. As a result, the composition suggests the immensity of nature.
O’Keeffe always insisted that her work had a broad range of references. But at times, people have only seen the bodily aspects of the work. As you perhaps heard in the gallery of photographs, at the beginning of her career, critics often argued that her paintings pictured her subconscious knowledge of her body—as if she had captured the essence of womanhood.
O’Keeffe found these interpretations much too simplistic. She became convinced that abstract paintings, like this one, were especially open to overly sexualized-interpretation. Partly for that reason, she began making fewer of them. But abstraction always remained an important means of processing experiences and emotions that she could not express verbally—you’ll see this as you continue through the exhibition. And the abstract work she did make tended to be among her largest, most ambitious canvases.
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