Georgia O’Keeffe at the AGO

Saturday, June 3rd, 2017. Filed under: Art Legendary Landscapes New Mexico Review

Georgia O’Keeffe Oriental Poppies, 1927, oil paint on canvas, 76.2 x 101.9 cm Collection of the Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. Copyright: Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.

“I found I could say things with color and shape that I couldn’t say any other way–things I had no words for.” – Georgia O’Keeffe

The AGO in Toronto is the only North American stop for the blockbuster retrospective exhibition Georgia O’Keeffe.

Lucky Toronto!  The city is the only North American stop for the blockbuster exhibition Georgia O’Keeffe, on now at the Art Gallery of Ontario until July 30, 2017.   The retrospective covers six decades of work by iconic American painter Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986), a 20th century master as famous for her fiercely independent lifestyle as well as her oeuvre.

Nature Forms – Gaspé (1932), Georgia O’Keeffe, oil on canvas. Keeffe painted abstracts throughout her career, many inspired by nature and sense of place. 

I jumped at the chance to tour the AGO exhibition at a recent blogger event guided by Interpretive Planner Gillian McIntyre.  Room after room of stunning works bloomed before us, grouped thematically.  O’Keeffe lived for 98 years, and the AGO exhibition contains over 80 works including O’Keeffe’s famous large-scale studies of flowers, exquisite landscapes from New York to New Mexico, rocks, shells, mysterious bones and desert-clear skies.

A section of the exhibition considers O’Keeffe’s personal and professional relationship with her husband, photographer Alfred Stieglitz.  Stieglitz’s early portraits and nudes of O’Keeffe were key to the public’s perception at the time that her flower paintings were erotic in their folds and petals, something O’Keeffe always dismissed. Still they seduce with their colour and scale.

Georgia O’Keeffe portrait (1956) by Canadian photographer Yousuf Karsh. 

Born on a Wisconsin dairy farm in 1887, O’Keeffe worked as an art teacher, traveled to the American Southwest, and by 1918 had gained critical attention in New York where her milieu included her husband photographer Alfred Stieglitz and his modernist circle.  O’Keeffe distinguished herself as one of America’s most important artists decades before women even had access to art training at American universities. Early travels in New Mexico fueled her desire to live in a remote part of New Mexico she called “the Faraway”.  After the death of her husband, O’Keeffe moved permanently to New Mexico where she painted and lived alone for decades, becoming an icon of independence and American modernism.

Landscapes of New Mexico are central to the Georgia O’Keeffe exhibition. The painting on the far right depicts Pedernal, the black flint mesa on which Georgia O’Keeffe’s ashes were scattered after her death.

O’Keeffe’s paintings appear as fresh today as the day they were painted, thanks to O’Keeffe’s technique and meticulous care of her brushes.  I was intrigued to learn that while O’Keeffe’s paintings glow with colour, she herself wore only black and white clothing, saying that figuring out what colour to wear each day would be a waste of time.

A stunning grouping of O’Keeffe’s bone paintings, drawn from collections around the world.  For O’Keeffe, the landscape was profoundly mystical. 


Mule’s Skull with Pink Poinsettia (1936), Georgia O’Keeffe, oil on canvas. A favorite painting of mine from the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

So what does a masterwork by a legend go for?  O’Keeffe’s 1932 painting Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1 broke auction records as the most expensive painting sold at auction by a female artist, selling in 2014 for $44.4 million U.S.  The large, jewel-like painting is the centrepiece of the AGO exhibition.

Georgia O’Keeffe, Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1, 1932, oil on canvas, 121.9 x 101.6 cm. Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas. Copyright Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. Photography by Edward C. Robison III.

 A few years ago I made the pilgrimage to Georgia O’Keeffe’s home at Abiquiu, New Mexico.  It was thrilling as I progressed through the AGO exhibition to encounter favorite works I’d seen at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, and recognize elements of O’Keeffe’s adobe home at Abiquiu and the landscape that surrounds it.  From her flower paintings to her landscapes, it’s clear O’Keeffe loved nature, and was inspired by place.  I found myself especially drawn to her late abstracts in which elements of architecture and landscape are reduced with brilliant economy to the essentials of colour and form. 

Late abstracts inspired by the patio door in Georgia O’Keeffe’s adobe house in Abiquiu, New Mexico. A constant in O’Keeffe’s oeuvre is the relationship between colour and form.

 This is the summer to immerse yourself in the singular vision–and spirit–of Georgia O’Keeffe at the AGO.  The exhibition is on until July 30, 2017.

Georgia O’Keeffe Sky with Flat White Cloud (1962) oil paint on Canvas 152.4 x 203.2 cm National Gallery of Art, Washington, Alfred Stieglitz College. Bequest of Georgia O’Keeffe, 1987.58.8 Copyright Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington

Georgia O’Keeffe Wall with Green Door (1953) oil paint on canvas 76.2 x 122.6 cm National Gallery of Art, Washington, Corcoran Collection (Gift of the Woodward Foundation), 2015.19.155 Copyright Georgia O’Keeffe Museum

  • Georgia O’Keeffe is organized by Tate Modern in collaboration with Bank Austria Kunstforum, Vienna and the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto. The exhibition catalogue, offering new scholarship on O’Keeffe and including contributions by the exhibition curators and visual theorist and cultural analyst Griselda Pollock, is available in the exhibition boutique along with high-quality reproductions, colouring books, an O’Keeffe cookbook, cactus and other charming Southwest themed items.
  • O’Keeffe-related events and programming at the AGO include talks, art classes, yoga, movement and photography workshops.  Frank Restaurant also celebrates this once-in-a-lifetime exhibition with a floral cocktail and special menu inspired by New Mexico and O’Keeffe’s love of using seasonal bounty from her own garden. A prix-fixe dinner and exhibition package is $65.  See the AGO website for more information, and exhibition tickets.

The road outside O’Keeffe’s home at Abiquiu, New Mexico, in a snowy landscape. Georgia O’Keeffe, Winter Road I (1963), oil paint on canvas, 55.0 x 45.7 cm. National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of the Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation, 1995.4.1. Copyright Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington.

For more on Georgia O’Keeffe and travel to New Mexico, read my posts: 

Another great article (from Artsy) on O’Keeffe:

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