Carolyn Kastner sees Georgia O’Keeffe as a true experimental creative, a radical thinker and artist who may not get all the historical credit she deserves.
"From her earliest years, she was very interested in the cutting edge," Kastner, a curator at the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, says. "It's now very calm for us, it's an easy experience to look at abstraction, but when she began to paint in 1916 this was a question, not an answer—'Can painting exist without a subject?'"
O'Keeffe knew the answer, and she committed her life to its truth. "It's a very interesting story that really has been forgotten," says Kastner. "This is the problem of history; it's, 'How do you look back?'"
The most iconic images to ever come out of the Southwest are O'Keeffe's. Her landscapes, animal skulls and flowers are synonymous with her name, but the newest exhibit at the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum—which opened just in time to commemorate what would have been her 129th birthday—shows never-before-seen works from the artist's earliest years, inviting you to look back for yourself.
The works in the exhibit "are done sometime between 1912 and 1914," Kastner tells SFR. "She was a student at the University of Virginia during those years, and this is a student assignment."
The watercolors feature darker tones and starker contrast than the works for which O'Keeffe is better known. The young artist was building herself and her style; experimenting with technique and material; creating navy-toned foliage and amber horizons.
Influential educator Alon Bement taught O'Keeffe as she created these early works. He assigned some pretty avant-garde homework from a book written by his colleague, Arthur Wesley Dow, which is on display in the exhibit. Bement's lessons left an everlasting impression on O'Keeffe.
"The one that I have open that you see in the gallery is, perhaps, the mantra for the rest of her life. It's something like 'framing a landscape, omitting all detail,'" says Kastner.
These experiences birthed O'Keeffe's lifelong venture into abstraction. "It is the moment that she sees an expanded universe," Kastner says. "It was catalytic in creating a career path for her."
About a dozen framed pages from O'Keeffe's homework binder are on display, many painted from the same viewpoint. "This is at the heart of the lesson," Kastner explains. "The view doesn't dictate how you paint—your creative activity is framing the best view." O'Keeffe painted five of these watercolors sitting in the same spot. "It's a very interesting arrangement of views when you start imagining that they are all being generated by her looking in one direction and seeing five different ways she might paint that," Kastner adds.
"She is one of the most important figures in American art history. Why is she?" Kastner posits, "She made two really large contributions to American modernism." Kastner says that O'Keeffe's early and lifelong commitment to abstraction is one of those two great contributions. The other: After O'Keeffe came to the Southwest in 1929, she joined with a half-dozen artists known as the Stieglitz Circle as they set out to create what they referred to as the "great American thing." Kastner says they were seeking "an artwork that would telegraph the idea of being American and being modern. [Something] identifiably American, but not New York City ... not a skyscraper."
And so, this group of progressive painters, photographers and writers traveled around the country to experience it for themselves and create a new American iconography. "They travel to paint grain silos, factories and, in O'Keeffe's case, the landscape, the bones, the flowers, the culturally significant architecture of New Mexico," says Kastner.
The new exhibit is a rare opportunity to peer through a window into the early life and creation of the artist.
"O'Keeffe made herself into the artist she was. She wasn't born that way. It was through hard work, discipline and study, and this is part of that story," Kastner says. "I think if you really look at this as a pivotal moment from someone we think we know so well, it's very exciting."
O'Keeffe at the University of Virginia, 1912-1914:
Through Summer 2017.
The Georgia O'Keeffe Museum,
217 Johnson St.,