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All words and photos by Francis Chung.

Opening at The Phillips Collection on Saturday, Georgia O’Keeffe: Abstraction is an ambitious and impressive exhibition that presents a broad, yet thoughtfully curated selection of works by one of America’s most popular and acclaimed artists. Like any good museum show, it has an argument to make.  Challenging received notions of O’Keeffe as a painter preoccupied with eroticized representations of female experience, the Phillips exhibition seeks instead to reaffirm her position at the forefront of modern art’s (often male-dominated) exploration of the abstract.

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Any proper argument must include a working definition of the terms and concepts at stake, and the career-spanning exhibition at the Phillips begins with three charcoal drawings from 1915 in which O’Keeffe first established the fundamental visual vocabulary upon which her abstract work would be based.  Comprised solely of stark verticals and graceful arabesques, these early efforts provide an apt introduction to the artist’s own personal conceptualization of abstraction.  For O’Keeffe, “abstract” did not necessarily mean “non-representational.”  As stripped-down as they are, the 1915 charcoals remain at least vaguely evocative of natural or architectonic structures, and many later oil paintings such as Abstraction White Rose (1927) and Sky Above Clouds III/Above the Clouds III (1963) have overt representational grounding.  As these works indicate, distilling her subjects through abstraction offered O’Keeffe a means toward a more expressionistic engagement with nature, a way to convey not merely the appearance, but also the experience of people, places, and things, and to externalize what she called “the intangible thing in myself that I can only clarify in paint.”

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Perhaps paradoxically, O’Keeffe’s abstraction, at the same time that it opened a path to new levels and types of subject matter, simultaneously entailed a shift in emphasis from content to form: a move that aligned her work with some of the leading currents in the theory and practice of early twentieth-century art.  Indeed, one of the underlying (though slightly underdeveloped) agendas of the Phillips show is to reestablish O’Keeffe’s formalist credentials, presenting her as an artist committed to investigating principles and techniques of design and composition for their own sake, unfettered by the purposes of “realistic” representation.  A painting like Grey Blue & Black – Pink Circle (1929), while quite plausibly seen as a floral depiction, also presents itself (perhaps first and foremost) as a simple, but striking pattern of circles counterbalancing the rectangular shape of the canvas and framing a set of centralized rod-like forms.  It is, to cite O’Keeffe’s own words, “lines and colors put together so that they say something.”  On display at the Phillips, O’Keeffe’s abstractions continuously speak not only of the artist and her subjects, but also self-reflexively about themselves, and about what pictures literally and materially are or should be.

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Although some of the more dogmatic advocates of modernist abstraction insisted that it should be a medium-specific enterprise in which each art form focused solely on the qualities and properties unique to itself, the Phillips exhibition shows O’Keeffe freely borrowing from multiple artistic disciplines and exploring their potential resonances with painting.  In Music, Pink and Blue No. 2 (1918), O’Keeffe harmonizes chords of color in a rhythmically fluctuating pictorial space, while the sweeping, curvaceous brushstrokes in the monochromatic Blue II (1916) appears to echo movements ingrained in the muscle memory of the painter, who was at the time a practicing violinist.  In addition to these musical allusions, O’Keeffe was particularly interested in photography as a resource and reference point, and this is one aspect of her work in which her marital relationship and professional collaborations with the photographer Alfred Stieglitz had a profound effect.  The exhibition includes a selection of Stieglitz’s famous nude photographs of O’Keeffe, many of which focus tightly on the shapes and volumes of particular body parts such as her hands, breasts, or torso.  O’Keeffe was fascinated by the camera’s ability to isolate and abstract aspects of the visible world, and in paintings like Jack-in-Pulpit No. IV (1930), she sought to appropriate it, depicting flowers as if seen and captured through a macro lens.  Throughout the highpoint of her abstraction in the 1910s and 20s, O’Keeffe’s images were often cropped in a manner inspired by photography, while also trumping it by deploying a spectrum of color as yet untapped by the conventionally black-and-white photos of the time.

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Inevitably, Stieglitz’s shadow looms large over the exhibition, which pointedly addresses his decisive influence on O’Keeffe’s art and its legacy.  Stieglitz was unquestionably O’Keeffe’s greatest critical ally, facilitating her introduction to the modernist artworld, and regularly displaying her work at his prominent New York galleries.  Yet, his personal interpretation of O’Keeffe’s art, as filtered and disseminated through his eroticized portraits of her, also contributed to a gendering of her work that marginalized it as “feminine” sexual self-expression in contrast to the “masculine” arena of avant-garde formal experimentation and theoretical speculation.  At the Phillips, these reductive readings are tackled head-on, though the problems involved are by no means fully resolved or escaped.  Some of the tropes under critique are arguably replicated when, for example, a wall text declares that O’Keeffe’s paintings “suggest an equation between the rhythms of nature and those of the human body,” thus veering uncomfortably close to the “flower-as-vagina” clichés that the show successfully unsettles at its best moments.  Still, the Phillips exhibition effectively demonstrates that O’Keeffe’s art is in many ways as “androgynous” as the hermaphroditic flora she often depicted, offering a nuanced view on her abstraction that reflects its multifaceted complexity.

Georgia O’Keeffe: Abstraction is on view at The Phillips Collection from February 6 to May 9.

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