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THE WHITNEY TO PRESENT GEORGIA O'KEEFFE: ABSTRACTION

September 17, 2009-January 17, 2010


Georgia O'Keeffe

Georgia O'Keeffe, Red,Yellow and Black Streak,1924. Oil on canvas. Museé National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris. © Georgia O'Keeffe Museum/Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: CNAC/MNAM/Dist. Réunion des Museés Nationaux/ Art Resource, NY


NEW YORK, May 8, 2009 - The artistic achievement of Georgia O’Keeffe is examined from a fresh perspective in Georgia O’Keeffe: Abstraction, a landmark exhibition debuting this fall at the Whitney Museum of American Art. While O’Keeffe (1887–1986) has long been recognized as one of the central figures in 20th-century art, the radical abstract work she created throughout her long career has remained less well known than her representational art. By delving into her abstractions, Georgia O’Keeffe: Abstraction reconsiders O’Keeffe’s place as one of America's first and most daring abstract artists. The exhibition goes on view in the Whitney’s third-floor Peter Norton Family Galleries from September 17, 2009 through January 17, 2010.

 

Including more than 130 paintings, drawings, watercolors, and sculptures by O'Keeffe as well as selected examples of Alfred Stieglitz’s famous photographic portrait series of O’Keeffe, the exhibition has been many years in the making. The curatorial team, led by Whitney curator Barbara Haskell, includes Barbara Buhler Lynes, the curator of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum and the Emily Fisher Landau Director of the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum Research Center; Bruce Robertson, professor of the history of art and architecture at the University of California, Santa Barbara; Elizabeth Hutton Turner, professor and vice provost for the arts at the University of Virginia and guest curator at the Phillips Collection; and Sasha Nicholas, Whitney curatorial assistant. The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue with essays by the organizers, selections from the recently unsealed Stieglitz-O’Keeffe correspondence, and a contextual chronology of O’Keeffe’s life and work. Following its Whitney debut, the show travels to The Phillips Collection, Washington D.C., February 6-May 9, 2010, and to the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe, May 28-September 12, 2010.

 

While it may be that O’Keeffe’s art is often seen through the lens of female sexuality, she is viewed in the public imagination first and foremost as a painter of places and things. When one thinks of her work it is usually of her magnified images of open flowers and her iconic depictions of animal bones, her Lake George landscapes, her images of stark New Mexican cliffs, and her still lifes of fruit, leaves, shells, rocks, and bones. Even O’Keeffe’s canvasses of architecture, from the skyscrapers of Manhattan to the adobe structures of Abiquiu, come to mind more readily than the works made throughout her career that she termed ‘abstract’.

 

This exhibition is the first to examine the abstract side of O'Keeffe's achievement. In 1915, O'Keeffe leaped into the forefront of abstraction with a group of charcoal drawings that were among the most radical creations produced in the United States at that time. A year later, she added color to her repertoire; by 1918, she was expressing the union of abstract form and color in paint. First exhibited in 1923, O’Keeffe’s psychologically charged, brilliantly colored abstract oils garnered immediate critical and public acclaim. For the next decade, abstraction would dominate her attention. Even after 1930, when O’Keeffe’s focus turned increasingly to representational subjects, she never abandoned abstraction, which remained the guiding principle of her art. She returned to abstraction in the mid-1940s with a new, planar vocabulary that provided a precedent for a younger generation of abstractionists.

 

Abstraction and representation for O’Keeffe were neither binary nor oppositional. She moved freely from one to the other, cognizant that all art is rooted in an underlying abstract formal invention. For O’Keeffe, abstraction offered a way to communicate ineffable thoughts and sensations. As she said in 1976, “The abstraction is often the most definite form for the intangible thing in myself that I can only clarify in paint.” Through her personal language of abstraction, she sought to give visual form (as she confided in a 1916 letter to Alfred Stieglitz) to “things I feel and want to say - [but] havent [sic] words for.” Abstraction allowed her to express intangible experience—-be it a quality of light, color, sound, or response to a person or place.  As O’Keeffe defined it in 1923, her goal as a painter was to “make the unknown—known. By unknown I mean the thing that means so much to the person that he wants to put it down--clarify something he feels but does not clearly understand.”

 

This exhibition and catalogue chronicles the trajectory of O'Keeffe's career as an abstract artist and examines the forces impacting the changes in her subject matter and style. From the beginning of her career, she was, as critic Henry McBride remarked, “a newspaper personality.” Interpretations of her art were shaped almost exclusively by Alfred Stieglitz, artist, charismatic impresario, dealer, editor, and O’Keeffe’s eventual husband, who presented her work from 1916 to 1946 at the groundbreaking galleries “291”, the Anderson Galleries, the Intimate Gallery, and An American Place. Stieglitz’s public and private statements about O’Keeffe’s early abstractions and the photographs he took of her, partially clothed or nude, led critics to interpret her work—-to her great dismay--as Freudian-tinged, psychological expressions of her sexuality.

 

Cognizant of the public’s lack of sympathy for abstraction and seeking to direct the critics away from sexualized readings of her work, O’Keeffe self-consciously began to introduce more recognizable images into her repertoire in the mid-1920s. As she wrote to the writer Sherwood Anderson in 1924, “I suppose the reason I got down to an effort to be objective is that I didn’t like the interpretations of my other things [abstractions].” O’Keeffe’s increasing shift to representational subjects, coupled with Stieglitz’s penchant for favoring the exhibition of new, previously unseen work, meant that O’Keeffe’s abstractions rarely figured in the exhibitions Stieglitz mounted of her work after 1930, with her first forays into abstraction virtually disappearing from public view.

 

Catalogue
In addition to rethinking O'Keeffe's place in American modernism, the book which accompanies this exhibition reappraises the origin and singular character of her abstract vocabulary and the shifts in style which her art underwent over the span of her long career. It adds significant new insight into her art and life, publishing for the first time excerpts of recently unsealed letters written by O’Keeffe to photographer and gallerist Alfred Stieglitz, whom she married in 1924. These letters, along with a contextual chronology and other primary documents referenced by the authors, offer an intimate glimpse into her creative method and intentions as an artist.

 

Georgia O’Keeffe: Abstraction was organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC; and the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe, NM.

The national presentation of the exhibition is proudly supported by the Henry Luce Foundation.

Opening events for the Whitney’s presentation are sponsored by Pamella Roland
Significant support for the Whitney’s presentation is provided by the Daniel and Pamella DeVos Foundation, The Shen Family Foundation, Jody and John Arnhold, the Karen and Kevin Kennedy Foundation, and Barney A. Ebsworth.

Additional support is provided by The Cowles Charitable Trust, Judy and Stanley Katz, Michelle and Lawrence Lasser, The Karen and Paul Levy Family Foundation, Harvey-Ann and Harvey M. Ross, The Donald and Barbara Zucker Family Foundation, The Eugene McDermott Foundation, Johanna and Leslie Garfield, Marcia and Jan Vilcek, and several anonymous donors.

Media partner Thirteen/WNET

 

About the Whitney

The Whitney Museum of American Art is the leading advocate of 20th- and 21st-century American art. Founded in 1930, the Museum is regarded as the preeminent collection of American art and includes major works and materials from the estate of Edward Hopper, the largest public collection of works by Alexander Calder, as well as significant works by Jasper Johns, Donald Judd, Agnes Martin, Bruce Nauman, Georgia O'Keeffe, Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, Kiki Smith, and Andy Warhol, among other artists. With its history of exhibiting the most promising and influential American artists and provoking intense critical and public debate, the Whitney's signature show, the Biennial, has become the most important survey of the state of contemporary art in America today. First housed on West 8th Street, the Whitney relocated in 1954 to West 54th Street and in 1966 inaugurated its present home at 945 Madison Avenue, designed by Marcel Breuer. The Whitney is currently moving ahead with plans to build a second facility, designed by Renzo Piano, located in downtown New York at the entrance to the High Line in the Meatpacking District.


Current and Upcoming Exhibitions at the Whitney Museum:

Artists Making Photographs: Chamberlain, Rauschenberg, Ruscha, Samaras, Warhol
Through May 17, 2009

Jenny Holzer: PROTECT PROTECT
Through May 31, 2009

Claes Oldenburg: Early Sculpture, Drawings, and Happenings Films
Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen: The Music Room
Through September 6, 2009

Sadie Benning: Play Pause
Through September 20, 2009

Photoconceptualism, 1966-1973
May 22, 2009-September 2009

Dan Graham: Beyond
June 25, 2009-October 11, 2009

Georgia O'Keeffe: Abstraction
September 17, 2009-January 17, 2010

Roni Horn aka Roni Horn
November 6, 2009-January 24, 2010

Alice Guy Blaché: Cinema Pioneer
November 6, 2009-January 24, 2010


The Whitney Museum is located at 945 Madison Avenue, New York City. Museum hours are: Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Friday from 1 p.m. to 9 p.m., closed Monday and Tuesday. Admission is $15 for adults; free for members, children (ages 11 and under), and New York City public high school students. Senior citizens (62 and over) and students with valid ID: $10. There is a $6 admission fee for a pass to the Kaufman Astoria Studios Film & Video Gallery only. Admission is pay-what-you-wish on Fridays, 6-9 pm. For information, please call 212-570-3600 or visit whitney.org