PRINT November 1970

Georgia O’Keeffe’s Late Paintings

THESE DAYS IT IS FASHIONABLE to believe that we already have an accurate picture of the quality art of the sixties. The idea that any important work is unknown to us seems out of the question. Yet there exists a body of work done during the decade of the sixties, almost unknown to the general art public, which I believe will endure when the media favorites of today have long faded. I am speaking of the recent paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe which rounded out her recent Whitney Museum retrospective.

The works in question were painted in virtual isolation in O’Keeffe’s barn at the remote Ghost Ranch, her adobe home high on a plateau in the New Mexico hills. Yet they share certain characteristics that link them to the most sophisticated abstract painting of the sixties. Large in size and simple in format, the recent works are single image field paintings rather than multi-focus compositions. They are organized through broad spatial divisions rather than through the balancing out of analogous forms against one another. Like the work of post-war New York School painters, most of O’Keeffe’s recent paintings emphasize the relationship of the whole image to the frame rather than the internal relationships of part to part. In their bold imagery, deliberate simplicity and muralesque flatness and monumentality, they also identify themselves clearly as American paintings of the sixties.

All this comes as something of a surprise, since popular accounts of O’Keeffe’s spartan New Mexico life would give the impression that she lives in a kind of hermitlike seclusion. But from the look of her new work, it is evident that O’Keeffe has not been out of touch with current developments. Legend notwithstanding, she travels extensively––she has been around the world––reads a great deal in many fields, and has many visitors with whom she knowledgeably and enthusiastically discusses the latest exhibitions in London, Paris, and New York. (Recently, for example, she spoke of her interest in Barnett Newman’s last show at Knoedler’s.)

Because she does keep up with current developments, while at the same time evolving her imagery from her own work, the relationship of O’Keeffe’s paintings of the sixties to her earlier works is somewhat complicated. In certain respects the recent paintings appear merely to elaborate her traditional themes: the grandeur and vastness of the American landscape, the simple geometry of the patio, the enigma of a single isolated object like a stone, a flower, or a bone examined at close hand. In other respects, however, her recent work is quite different. Instead of the patio door recessed into a wall that is explicitly the side of a building of the forties and fifties we have, in a recent painting of her celebrated Abiquiu courtyard, an open abstract field punctuated by rectangular dashlike markings. Whereas the patio is depicted in past versions of the theme as bounded by a finite architectural context, the 1960 Patio with Red Door is distinguished by its lack of confining boundaries. It is quite evidently a fragment of a larger field––an endless blank whiteness infinitely extendible beyond the framing edge. Into this ambiguous ground––ambiguous in the sense that it suggests both the flatness of a wall as well as the incalculable space within a dazzling white cloud––is seen the familiar rectangle of the patio door. But the use of aerial perspective, in the fading of the red to pink from bottom to top, suggests that behind the door there is a view into an infinite distance.

The Patio with Red Door is thus a poetic reformulation of the concrete theme of the courtyard with undeniably metaphysical overtones. The rectangular door opens now not to a domestic interior but to the distant vista suggestive of a pure and limitless beyond. The insistent concreteness of O’Keeffe’s earlier paintings of skyscrapers, barns, and domestic buildings has been exchanged for a glimpse into the mysteries of a world beyond the one we know so well. The patio now is no longer anchored firmly to the ground, but floats, like the saints ascending to heaven in religious altarpieces, above the horizon. Within an abstract context, O’Keeffe is able to evoke the strange otherworldliness of a mystical experience. Yet even were her content not so deep, Patio with Red Door would be a significant painting sheerly on the grounds of its formal brilliance. Further refining and paring down an already highly selective vocabulary of form, O’Keeffe relieves the ascetic symmetry of this composition by value gradations. Thus the gradual reddening of the landscape strip at the bottom of the picture is picked up in reverse contrapunto in the graded red to pink of the patio door and the various roseate tints of the stitchlike row of irregular rectangles that carry the eye across the top of the canvas.

In earlier paintings, too, O’Keeffe’s profoundly mystical content was equally manifest. For example, in the highly original Shelton with Sun Spots, one of the skyscraper paintings of her New York period, she painted the hotel where she and Stieglitz lived illuminated by an unnatural brilliance reminiscent of the efflorescence of light surrounding traditional interpretations of the theme of the Transfiguration. But in Patio with Red Door, O’Keeffe introduces the theme of the infinite which will be dominant in her paintings of the sixties.

In addition to new themes in her recent paintings, we may remark several other novel elements in O’Keeffe’s work of the past decade such as Red Past View, the several versions of Sky Above White Clouds I, Above Clouds Again and the series of cloud paintings culminating in the extraordinary 1965 cloud mural. They include the following: the lack of external referents to orient the viewer geographically, and the use of a paler, whiter, more translucent palette, giving the impression that light is suffused from within rather than focused on forms from a source outside the painting. The absence of cast shadows in these works, together with the close-valued luminous white tints that predominate, contribute to the sense of an incandescent luminosity, of a radiance from within. Their generally pastel range, however, suggests a fragility that softens the forcefulness of their simple, bold design. Edges too are softened through O’Keeffe’s avoidance of sharp angles or hard linear contours.

Because we confront an unbounded field lacking the conventional visual cues for bodily orientation, we do not picture ourselves in relation to these paintings as looking at something; rather we are forced to project ourselves imaginatively
rather than intellectually, as in the case of carefully constructed Renaissance perspective view into the painting space. Thus, in a curious way, and as always in her own way, O’Keeffe, in her recent works, has joined an important direction
in the evolution of modern painting. In the past she has painted birds in flight, picturing their motion as they sweep across the sky. Now she gives us views of the clouds and sky that are in fact what the bird sees when he is flying, so that the floating sensation and the motion become transferred to the viewer’s own body. The greater immediacy gained by placing the sensation of movement within the viewer’s own body has a great deal in common with certain advances made by Monet in his late water lily paintings. In these paintings the absence of a horizon line forces us to perceive the view as if we were floating along with the lily pads. When Pollock, who studied Monet’s paintings closely, spoke of being “in” his paintings, he referred also to this sensation of a physical projection of the
body into the painting space.

I do not know how we can account for the presence of this kind of imagery, which has no precedent in earlier art, except perhaps to conclude it may have something to do with the experience of flying. In other recent paintings of the theme of the road or the river seen from an airview, O’Keeffe paints other subjects which refer to flying. Such air views are unique to 20th-century art. Perhaps the first artist to become conscious of the new perceptions induced through the experience of flying was Malevich, who published photographs of aerial views in Suprematism, revealing the manner in which his own compositions had been abstracted from such views.

But Malevich’s aerial abstractions differ from O’Keeffe’s cloud scenes, however, in the sense that we have mentioned: Malevich’s remain a bird’s-eye view, whereas O’Keeffe paints what we might see if we were floating among the clouds ourselves. Perhaps the most original of these views is that depicted in the poetic series Sky Above Clouds II, which culminates in O’Keeffe’s largest work, the immense 8 by 24-foot mural executed in 1965. Here a double image is unexpectedly insinuated through the introduction of a horizon line above the clouds, suggesting that the blue sky might be the blue sea flowing away toward a distant horizon. The rhythmic movement of the oblong cloud forms fading from view also suggests the rocking motion of the sea and supports the metaphor. The use of exaggerated and rapid diminution of scale pulls our eye rapidly toward a distant horizon, creating the impression that the patch of air or water we see lies at an angle to our vision. Yet the fact that the cloud patches themselves are parallel to the picture plane reasserts the flatness of the plane. Once again, one is reminded of certain of Malevich’s interests. He spoke, for example of “the sensation of fading away,” a pure sensation involved with the idea of infinity, because of its negation of measurable distances between foreground and background.

In O’Keeffe’s work, the relationships between foreground and background have always been somewhat peculiar and unconventional because she characteristically excludes the middle ground. Because of her use of close-up views together with rapid reduction in the size of cloud units, she creates the feeling that the eye zooms in quickly from foreground to background. Yet the spatial sense created is not that of Old Master paintings––partially because of the strange absence of middle ground, and partially because of the frontality of the cloud shapes. In addition, the toughness of the paint surface establishes a resistance to visual penetration, almost as strong as that created by painters who deliberately build up painterly crusts to establish a surface plane.

In her earlier paintings, O’Keeffe usually clearly established the background plane. In the paintings of the sixties, however, this is not the case. On the contrary, the “sensation of fading away” is carried to an extreme, the better to convey the impression of a view into infinity. O’ Keeffe’s images have always had a resolutely stable quality; but in her most recent paintings, the predominance
of the horizontal axis establishes a mood of tranquil serenity that projects an even greater resolution than even the architectonic severity of the earlier works.

In the past, O’Keeffe has frequently reworked a theme to refine it. But the cloud paintings represent a particularly significant group of works because they constitute a closed series. The progress from the first, relatively naturalistic and freely painted version to the final severe, hieratic mural not only documents a gradual process of refinement, but gives us important clues to O’Keeffe’s
current preoccupations.

In the intermediate second and third phases of the cloud series, overlapping in the foreground and reduction in scale of elements meant to be perceived as more distant, give the impression that what we view is gradually receding from us. There is, moreover, a strange sensation of movement attached to this perception, for the smaller clouds in the distance seem to be fading from view at a constant rate. This sensation of movement is achieved by the rhythmic quality imposed on the diminution of intervals in the size of the clouds. That is, the reduction in size of cloud forms from foreground to background is not haphazard.

In the final cloud mural, we can no longer think of ourselves as occupying a point in front of the painting from which we view clouds receding. The flattened clouds are nearly equal in shape and size; and we could only perceive them this way if we walked out of an airplane into the infinite blue sky she paints.

Movement in O’Keeffe’s work throughout her career is rhythmic. One of those modernists inspired by analogies between music and abstract painting, O’Keeffe has been extremely successful in creating a sense of rhythmic flow and movement. She also relies on other musical elements, such as repetition and interval. Earlier I spoke of the gentle sense of motion in the cloud paintings. In paintings like the 1932 Landscape Nature Forms, which was painted in the Gaspé, O’Keeffe creates this sense of a rolling or swelling motion through the use of rhythmic swirling and spiral patterns. In recent works like Red Patio, this sense of movement may be felt as the rapid speed of the highway, whose markings are recalled by the staccato row of rectangular patches which carry the eye rapidly across the canvas in that painting.

During her student days with Arthur Dow, O’Keeffe had learned the importance of interval, that is, the space between forms. Even before she came to Dow, however, she had a highly developed interest in Japanese art, with its emphasis on economy of means, simple forms, bold patterning, and appreciation of negative areas around forms.

Indeed this inborn affinity for both the forms and spirit of Japanese art defined O’Keeffe immediately as a natural modernist. Her earliest drawings and watercolors are amazingly contemporary, as various authors have noted. They are so not from any determined effort on O’Keeffe’s part to be up-to-date, but because they are an expression of a spirit that simply appears to have been born modern. For this reason, there is a consistency and a unity throughout O’Keeffe’s career that is rare in the art of a painter who has continued to grow and evolve as much as she has. Compare, for example, the sophisticated reductiveness of the celebrated 1916 drawing of blue lines (shown in O’Keeffe’s first show at 291) with the 1959 charcoal Drawing No. 10, which was the point of departure for the series of paintings based on aerial views of roads and rivers. A comparison of the two images is instructive in terms of comparing the frontality of the former with the oblique tilt of the image in the latter. There are many differences, of course, some of which I have mentioned in the discussion of new elements in the recent works, but there is the same sure control together with the originality and freshness of an artist unafraid to transcribe her experience simply––albeit with a maximum sophistication––and directly. Similarly the early watercolor Starlight Night is morphologically related to the recent cloud paintings.

There is no question of the authenticity or singularity of O’Keeffe’s vision. To those qualities she adds in the paintings of the sixties an authority which results from the complete mastery of her own idiom, and the extension of her expressive range to include both the most universal and the most contemporary experiences. These paintings, in the strength of their imagery and the character that this strength implies, are the work of an artist who has managed to achieve a rare balance between the extremes of the American temperament. Avoiding the literalist excesses of a photographic realism and the banality of sentimental genre, she nevertheless ties her work concretely to a world of perceived reality. Moderating between the subjective and the objective, the abstract and the concrete, the humble and the epic, the real and the ideal, O’Keeffe is perhaps America’s only true classicist. For in her work there is no extreme or excess, no violence and no brutal impact. The mood of her work is contemplative; its intention is to provide a spiritual discipline, not only for the viewer, but for the painter who conceives her art in this way, creating a firm order through will and expressing a moral integrity through craft.

Not much has been said of the intrinsically mystical content of O’Keeffe’s work, yet to ignore it would, I believe, miss the essential center of her work. Writing of O’Keeffe in 1936, Marsden Hartley spoke of her approaching “the borderline between finity and infinity” and of her quest “to inscribe the arc of concrete sensation and experience.” He saw her as a mystic, correctly locating her within the context of a mysticism firmly grounded in the direct experience of the here and now, a mysticism which insists on the sanctity and importance of the commonest flower or stone. One thinks of certain analogies with such mystics as Meister Eckhart and Saint Teresa as well as the Zen masters who valued the humble and insisted on the holiness of the commonplace. Because of this content, O’Keeffe’s paintings have far more in common with the still lifes of Sanchez-Cotán or Zurbarán than they do with the paintings of the Precisionists who were her contemporaries.

For too many American artists, the finiteness of appearances has been the totality of experience. This is not so for O’Keeffe, who transforms what she sees into something finer, more poetic and perfect than reality, thereby escaping the literalist materialism that has seemed the limit of the American imagination.

O’Keeffe’s transformations, her ability to transcend appearance through the medium of intuition, connect her I believe with the American nature religion of Transcendentalism. Describing what Emersonian transcendental idealism had in
common with Buddhism, William James wrote, “Not a deity in concreto, not a superhuman person, but the immanent divinity in things, the essentially spiritual structure of the universe, is the object of the transcendentalist cult.” He could have been describing O’Keeffe’s subjects as well.

It is almost too easy to see O’ Keeffe as the prototype for the struggles of today’s women for a spiritual freedom. Yet it is inspiring to trace the evolution of her imagery from violence and conflagration to the images of floods and deluge in the works of the early thirties through the struggle with mortality that the memento mori themes of the late thirties and forties suggest, to these beautiful new works which convey a profound spiritual resolution. In a 1923 review by Henry McBride, I was amused to find the following description of O’Keeffe: he called her “a sort of modern Margaret Fuller, sneered at by Nathaniel Hawthorne for too great a tolerance of sin and finally prayed to by all the super-respectable women of the country for receipts that would keep them from the madhouse.” In the context of the seventies, the modernity of O’ Keeffe’s spirit is perhaps even more evident, and the lessons of her discipline even more to be appreciated.

Barbara Rose