Georgia O’Keeffe and the Shapes in Her Mind

It would be a safe bet to say that most of the line snaking outside of MoMA thinks of Georgia O’Keeffe as a synonym for pastel flowers. Going into this summer’s new exhibition of her work, among the other uninitiated, a friend and I were able to wax poetic about dainty blooms, beautiful colors, and vibrant oil paintings that grace the covers of twelve month calendars. This idea of the artist—pretty and stagnant—is exactly what the curators expect of you. And it is exactly what they turn on its head.

“To See Takes Time” features Georgia’s works on paper, and there is not a single flower in sight. Walking through the exhibit—running until August 12th, and curated by the all-female team of Samantha Friedman, Laura Neufeld, and Emily Olek—is like seeing something of an exercise in identity for the artist. 

The works span from the earliest moments of Georgia’s art in 1915 to the 1960s, and cover the course of her many different styles and mediums. She circles around styles obsessively, revisiting them at times, and pursuing the exact opposite at others. She takes a hard left from abstraction to realism, she alternates between watercolors, pencil, pastels and everything in between. It is hard to believe you’re looking at the same artist from one room to the next. 

In an early quote that has served as a focal point of this exhibition for curator Samantha Friedman, Georgia writes, “it’s as if my mind creates shapes that I don’t know about.” If there is a throughline that connects her different versions, then this is certainly it. The softness of her shapes—which move and slope in ways unique to her—is perhaps the only sign that the Georgia of the first room is that of the last. A charcoal wave, curving into gray shadows, is connected with the realistic beach wave of decades later by the rounded movement of the artist’s hand. 

Click on image to enlarge

These shapes, radically different from anything in traditional art teachings, are what make her the mother of modern art. Their long curves are, in a word, natural—foregrounding Georgia’s connection to the organic, even in watercolors of industrial trains. In these shapes she is able to effortlessly blur the worlds between representation and abstraction, refusing to put her feet solidly on either side. 

In one of her first watercolors, called “Special No. 9,” Georgia paints red and black valleys in a hellish depiction of what it feels like to have a migraine. To anyone else, this work wouldn’t show a thing. But to Georgia, who sees the shapes in her mind, it is as real as looking at a photograph. In works like these, she challenges our very notion of the abstract, imbuing her art with a style that is half depiction and half invention. 

The exhibit’s title, “To See Takes Time,” is a nod to its central concept…

The exhibit’s title, “To See Takes Time,” is a nod to its central concept, which features the subjects that she seems to be ruminating on, repeating. It’s intimate to see her experimentation, an investigation into the best way to interpret the world. Different versions of the same view—from inside a tent flap at night, for example—are varied, with two done in watercolor, one oil, and a preliminary sketch. As arranged, it feels like the subject gets sparser and sparser, until nothing is left but a sloping triangle, colorless and bisected by two lines. 

There is something almost voyeuristic to seeing these pieces together, as you follow Georgia’s indecision. The repetition and slight variations make you hear her voice as she is working, stopping in the middle of a piece to wonder what it would look like if it had more color. Or if the background was blank. The greatest strength of this exhibition is, perhaps, how personal the curators have made an artistic giant, who feels just as mired in self-doubt as we are. 

This is not to say that Georgia feels, in any way, insecure in what she is producing. Her transition between different techniques does not indicate easily definable eras of her career as much as it suggests the mastery of an artist with so much in her toolbox that every style is an active choice. It is shocking to see that all three tents at night, for example, are painted in the same year, but this is the case—she is unable to be confined by time period just as she cannot be confined by style. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen an artist do before. 

Georgia’s famous magnified close-ups of flowers began in 1924—a year that this exhibit passes almost completely by in favor of early shapes and later photo-realistic banana blossoms. But therein lies the beauty of this curation—here, you see a version of Georgia O’Keeffe that you haven’t anywhere else. Oh, how much we have been missing out on. 

© Catherine Sawoski (7/13/23) Special for FF2 Media


Read FF2’s previous feature on Georgia O’Keeffe.

Listen to the podcast episode with curator Samantha Friedman.

See Georgia’s full quote and selections from the exhibit.

Find information about the exhibit.


Feature Photo: Georgia O’Keeffe. Over Blue, 1918. Pastel on paper
28 × 22″ (71.1 × 55.9 cm). Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester. Bequest of Anne G. Whitman. © 2023 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Middle Images: Georgia O’Keeffe: To See Takes Time exhibit at MoMA. Photos by Catherine Sawoski.

Bottom Photo: Cover of Georgia O’Keeffe: To See Takes Time, published by The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2023.

Permission to use Featured Photo & Bottom Photo provided by MoMA in their EPK. All Rights Reserved.

Tags: Emily Olek, Exhibit Review, female artist, Georgia O’Keeffe, Laura Neufeld, modern art, MOMA, Samantha Friedman, To See Takes Time, Visual Arts

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Catherine Sawoski is an art critic specializing in theater, literature, and visual arts. She is a senior at Barnard College at Columbia University studying English and Philosophy, and a Deputy Editor for Arts and Culture at the Columbia Daily Spectator. She has covered everything from Off Broadway shows to emerging poets and gallery exhibitions from young female artists. In her free time, you can usually find her at a show somewhere in the city or with her goldendoodle, Amber.
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