In what's perhaps the purest abstract in the exhibition, the stunning Black Abstraction of 1927, a huge black circle threatens to spill off the canvas, overlaid with a dark gray form that cascades down and across, punctuated slightly off-center by a tiny white dot. The wall text explains that the composition was inspired by O'Keeffe's experience of losing consciousness prior to surgery, and the painting indeed captures, by way of abstraction, what it's like to have consciousness reduced to a pinpoint of light rapidly receding into the darkness.
A few paintings later, in Inside Clam Shell (1930), O'Keeffe goes so far into the bivalve's shell that all distinguishing characteristics vanish in a wash of whites and grays. A pair of oils featuring roundish and oblong rocks stacked on top of each other becomes pure studies in form. And, displayed together for the first time, the artist's "piece of wood" paintings, three dark oils from 1942, revel in the sinuous concentrical lines in cross-sections of trees.
Her inward-curling forms come across as fetal but also suggest the curves of violins and violas.
On display through May 6. Call 561-832-5196.
Norton Museum of Art, 1401 S. Olive Ave., West Palm Beach
The exhibition reaches its glorious high point near the end with a suite of O'Keeffe's "pelvis paintings" of the mid-1940s. The series includes a jewel from the crown of the Norton's own permanent collection, Pelvis With the Moon New Mexico (1943), in which a gigantic pelvis floats majestically above the barest suggestion of a landscape, with a wispy full moon barely visible, seeming to rest like an egg on one of the bone's outcroppings.
For others in this series, the artist is clearly less interested in the bleached-out desert bones themselves she smooths away virtually all details and more interested in how their circular holes can be used as windows to an intensely blue, cloudless sky. (One vivid variation substitutes red for bone and yellow for sky.) In one 1947 painting, the abstraction has become so complete that nothing remains but a large blue ovoid form surrounded by featureless white.
It's worth noting the logistical complexity of assembling an exhibition as ambitious as this one. While a little more than a third of the show's contents are culled from the collections of its three venues most from O'Keeffe Museum in New Mexico, two each from the Norton and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts the rest had to be negotiated on loan. More than a dozen are from private collections, with the remainder coming from major institutions in New York (MoMA, the Met, the Whitney, and the Brooklyn Museum); Washington, D.C. (the National Gallery); several museums in Texas (including the Amon Carter and the Menil Collection); and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Birmingham, Alabama. The Norton, curator Stuhlman, and their unsung collaborators are to be commended for an extraordinary show that provides new insights into one of America's most important 20th-century artists.