Something Abstract About Nature

So you think you know Georgia O'Keeffe? Well, think again.

That, in a nutshell, was my immediate reaction to "Georgia O'Keeffe: Circling Around Abstraction," a relatively small but disproportionately thrilling exhibition now at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach. Is it a retrospective of the great American artist's long, prolific career? Yes and no.

The show, which originates at the Norton and will travel later this year to the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe and then to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, isn't intended as a comprehensive examination of its subject's vast body of work. As the title indicates, this is a tightly focused look at a specific component of the artist's output — her highly varied use of more or less circular forms in more or less abstract works.

Although that may sound like a gimmicky premise on which to hang an exhibition, it's not. Curator Jonathan Stuhlman, formerly of the Norton and now at the Mint Museum of Art, has assembled the work both chronologically and thematically, with text panels that illuminate O'Keeffe as well as her connections to (and contrasts with) other artists.

And as you move through the exhibition, you may begin to pick up on a sense of what a succinct if incomplete précis it is, a snapshot that proves to be surprisingly full of revelations. The show occupies a cluster of interlocking small galleries in the museum's often-underused west wing, adjacent to the permanent Dale Chihuly installation of glass art, and I found myself circling through the space several times, not just to avoid the appallingly loud, unruly group of what appeared to be Harvard alumni but to drink in the images again and again. It's that kind of exhibit.

That O'Keeffe excelled at abstraction is not exactly news. Her most widely known works are probably the oversized florals in which she zooms in so close that the imagery approaches, and often moves right into, abstraction. There are two or three of those paintings here. But there are also nominal landscapes and still lifes, even a portrait of sorts (although you'd never know it without reading the accompanying wall text) of Alfred Stieglitz, the photographer who was O'Keeffe's friend, lover, mentor, and ultimately husband.

The full exhibition includes 51 works, although a handful appear in only one or two of the three venues. All are included in a catalog that, aside from its aridly academic writing, is as well-conceived and well-executed as the show itself. About two-thirds of the pieces are oil paintings, with the remainder divided among watercolors, charcoals, and pastels, along with two graphite drawings and a pair of white-lacquered bronze sculptures that are essentially identical except in scale, one ten inches tall, the other three feet tall (a ten-foot-tall aluminum version of the same form is in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art).

The subjects that inspired O'Keeffe's abstractions run the full gamut of her career. Along with flowers are leaves, rocks, pieces of fruit, bones, landscapes both urban and rural, and other items that defy classification. Amazingly, she was no less daring at the start of her long haul — she was born in 1887 and died a year short of her centennial — than she was near the end. The show opens, for instance, with a trio of 1915 charcoals and a 1916 watercolor, all with inward-curling forms that immediately come across as fetal but also suggest, say, the coils of fiddlehead ferns or the curves of such musical instruments as violins and violas.

One of the famous series of 1917 watercolors called Light Coming on the Plains is included, with a nebulous solar form on the horizon rippling up and out. And perhaps as a nod to the much-debated erotic content of O'Keeffe's work, there is Music — Pink and Blue II, a 1919 oil with undulating liplike forms. The aforementioned portrait of Stieglitz, another 1919 oil, called Lake George, Coat and Red, features a small white orb nestled among small red wedges, with great curving swaths of dark color extending from it — the ostensible subject of the portrait minimally suggested by the overcoat that envelops him.

In a succession of simple still lifes from the early 1920s, O'Keeffe takes her cue from Cézanne and photographer Paul Strand but goes further. The title objects in Dark Red Apples & Tray No. 2 (1920-21) occupy a flattened, compressed space that undermines realism in favor of abstraction, and with Red Apple on Blue Plate (1921), the fruit seems to hover just above the distorted plate, an effect even more pronounced in Green Apple on Black Plate (1922), in which only the apple's trace of a stem anchors the image in anything approaching reality. O'Keeffe plays similar visual tricks with stark images of avocados and a fig.

One of the artist's most dramatic experiments with nature-based abstraction is the voluptuous Leaf Motif No. 2 (1924), in which the negative and positive spaces create an almost architectural form that will later be echoed in her famous use of animal bones for imagery.

City Night, from 1926, reduces the urban landscape that O'Keeffe often painted with a much greater emphasis on realism to black and white pillars stretching upward into the sky, with a small hazy moon at the bottom of the frame. It's an eerily prescient portrait of the World Trade Center towers.

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.

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.

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Michael Mills