‘Nothing is less real,’ the American modernist painter Georgia O’Keeffe once said, ‘than realism.’ In the first decades of the 20th century, with Europe ablaze with artistic innovation, O’Keeffe developed her own, distinctly American form of modernism. Her extraordinary paintings of flowers, desert landscapes and sun-bleached bones have become iconic images of the American West and, with the 2014 sale of her Jimson Weed, White Flower No. 1 (1936) for $44.4 million, O’Keefe became the most highly valued female artist ever.
Born in Wisconsin, O’Keeffe attended the School of the Art Institute in Chicago before moving to New York in 1907 to train at the Art Students League. She worked as a commercial artist from 1908 and, in the early 1910s, became exposed to the works of European modernists like Picasso and Braque at the photographer Alfred Stieglitz’s New York gallery, 291. Stieglitz became interested in O’Keeffe’s own work and exhibited a series of her abstract charcoals, including Special No. 9 (1915) at 291 in 1916, followed by a solo exhibition of her paintings in 1917. O’Keeffe and Stieglitz married in 1924.
By then the abstraction of her early work had achieved a new and unique synthesis of the photographic techniques pioneered by Stieglitz and his circle, and her own painterly abstraction. With works such as Black Iris (1926) and Ranchos Church (1930), O’Keeffe had forged a new kind of abstracted realism — a forensic, photographic approach that, through close observation and the simplification of form to essentials, unearthed the abstract potential inherent in all nature’s multifarious forms.
After 1929, O’Keeffe began to summer near Taos, New Mexico. From the desert landscape and skies, its animal bones and flora, she created some of her finest works, such as Ram’s Head, Blue Morning Glory (1938) and Black Cross with Stars and Blue (1929). By the 1940s she had become widely recognized as one America’s most important painters, with retrospectives at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1943, and in 1946 at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. New Mexico would remain synonymous with her work and, after Stieglitz’s death in 1946, she settled permanently outside of Santa Fe.
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