Early Abstract and Modernist Painting

Georgia O'Keeffe (1887–1986)
Red Amaryllis, 1937
Oil on canvas, 12 x 10 1/8 in. (30.5 x 25.7 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Gift of Mrs. Henrietta Roig. Image © Georgia O'Keeffe Museum/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York., C1984.1

Object-Georgia O’Keeffe, Red Amaryllis

Georgia O’Keeffe developed a singular modernist style that veered toward abstraction. She is best remembered for her studies of flowers and her views of Manhattan skyscrapers and the Southwestern landscape. In this painting, a single vibrant red blossom is seen close-up against an undefined yellow and white background suggestive of brilliant sunlight. Despite the work’s small size, O’Keeffe gives a single blossom a commanding presence—enhanced by cropped framing. The velvety textures of the petals, rendered through the juxtaposition of softly modulated surfaces, illustrate the artist’s careful observation of natural forms. Red Amaryllis differs from O’Keeffe’s earlier, somewhat abstract flower paintings in its greater naturalism and realism. This shift may be in response to contemporary interpretations of her abstract works as veiled expressions of her own sexuality, a reading O’Keeffe adamantly rejected.

Learn more about this painting on the Terra Foundation website.


Perspective

Georgia O’Keeffe’s flowers are the most difficult of her paintings to see. More than just familiar—as flowers in general are—her paintings have acquired an inconspicuousness: the overabundant merchandizing of these images has had the perverse effect of fueling the artist’s fame while stifling scholarly discussion of her singular accomplishments. The widespread popularity of these paintings makes art historians and curators almost instinctually bypass them for serious, analytical discussion, while nonetheless capitalizing on their ability to draw attention and crowds. While O’Keeffe is that rare artist who is a woman yet not unknown, her work and career are often presented as America’s twentieth-century pulp fiction.

From a Canadian viewpoint, O’Keeffe feels particularly familiar, given her profound influence on early Canadian modernists and her attitude toward nature, which resonates with the English Canadian idea of spiritual “wilderness” as a core cultural identity. Exhibited in Canada only in group shows until recently, O’Keeffe has been presented through this limited lens, with inevitable comparison to the forest paintings of British Columbia’s Emily Carr (1871–1945). Less discussed is O’Keeffe’s importance to the next generation of Canadian painters, such as Pegi Nicol MacLeod (1904–1949) and Marian Dale Scott (1906–1993), for whom O’Keeffe’s flower paintings offered new ways of seeing.

To see these flowers today requires first unseeing what obscures them—in other words, freeing the images from the burden of commodification and prior interpretations, including O’Keeffe’s own sustained resistance to any erotically evocative readings. These paintings offer that most elusive of artistic achievements: an image that is at once profound in its aesthetic simplicity and compelling in its ordinariness. It is predicated, as O’Keeffe insisted, on taking time to see: “Nobody sees a flower—really—it is so small—we haven’t time—and to see takes time.…So I said to myself—I’ll paint what I see—what the flower is to me.”Georgia O’Keeffe, Georgia O’Keeffe (New York: Viking Press, 1976), n.p.

For the Art Gallery of Ontario’s 2017 installation of the Tate Modern exhibition Georgia O’Keeffe, it was critical to add Red Amaryllis to the handful of flower paintings already touring with the retrospective. It was selected specifically to offer a foil to Jimson Weed/White Flower No 1 (1932, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas). Large, cool, and formal, Jimson Weed is the very opposite of Red Amaryllis.

Red Amaryllis is a small painting. The red is intensified by the halo of yellow and white. The layered petals, grounded by a hint of thick green stalk below, radiate to the edges of a canvas just beyond the size of a human face. The flower addresses the viewer with its brazen and redolent frontality. By 1937 O’Keeffe had been painting flowers for over a decade; she had magnified, zoomed in, and painted them large, scandalizing the audiences who first saw them. Red Amaryllis is exceptional precisely because of its size. Already confident in her ability to redefine monumentality, in this canvas the artist tests the limits of scale by com- pressing the resplendent blossom to harnesses its grandeur. Its smallness reveals O’Keeffe’s radical vision.

Georgiana Uhlyarik
Fredrik S. Eaton Curator, Canadian Art, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto


    Georgia O'Keeffe (1887–1986)
    Red Amaryllis, 1937
    Oil on canvas, 12 x 10 1/8 in. (30.5 x 25.7 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Gift of Mrs. Henrietta Roig. Image © Georgia O'Keeffe Museum/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York., C1984.1

    Early Abstract and Modernist Painting

    Joseph Stella (1877–1946)
    Telegraph Poles with Buildings, 1917
    Oil on canvas, 36 1/4 x 30 1/4 in. (92.1 x 76.8 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1999.139
    Max Weber (1881–1961)
    Construction, 1915
    Oil on canvas, 22 7/8 x 27 7/8 in. (58.1 x 70.8 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1987.31
    Patrick Henry Bruce (1881–1936)
    Peinture, 1917–18
    Oil and graphite on canvas, 25 5/8 x 32 1/8 in. (65.1 x 81.6 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1999.21
    Marsden Hartley (1877–1943)
    Painting No. 50, 1914–15
    Oil on canvas, 47 x 47 in. (119.4 x 119.4 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1999.61
    Arthur Dove (1880–1946)
    Nature Symbolized #3: Steeple and Trees, 1911–12
    Pastel on board mounted on wood panel, 18 x 21 1/2 in. (45.7 x 54.6 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection. Image courtesy: The Estate of Arthur G. Dove/Terry Dintenfass, Inc., 1992.33
    Arthur Dove (1880–1946)
    Sails, 1911–12
    Pastel on composition board mounted on wood panel, 17 7/8 x 21 1/2 in. (45.4 x 54.6 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection. Image courtesy: The Estate of Arthur G. Dove/Terry Dintenfass, Inc., 1993.10
    Charles Demuth (1883–1935)
    Welcome to Our City, 1921
    Oil on canvas, 25 1/8 x 20 1/8 in. (63.8 x 51.1 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1993.3
    Yasuo Kuniyoshi (1880–1953)
    Boy with Cow, 1921
    Oil on canvas, 16 1/8 × 20 in. (41 × 50.8 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Art Acquisition Endowment Fund. Image © Estate of Yasuo Kuniyoshi/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York., 2017.1
    Stuart Davis (1892–1964)
    Super Table, 1925
    Oil on canvas, 48 x 34 1/8 in. (122.2 x 86.7 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection. Image © Estate of Stuart Davis/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York., 1999.37
    Helen Torr (1886–1967)
    Purple and Green Leaves, 1927
    Oil on copper mounted on board, 20 1/4 x 15 1/4 in. (51.4 x 38.7 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1999.142
    Arthur Dove (1880–1946)
    Boat Going through Inlet, c. 1929
    Oil on tin, 20 1/8 × 28 1/4 in. (51.1 × 71.8 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Art Acquisition Endowment Fund. Image courtesy: The Estate of Arthur G. Dove/Terry Dintenfass, Inc., 2015.6
    John Graham (1881–1961)
    The Green Chair, 1928
    Oil on canvas, 39 1/2 × 28 7/8 in. (100.3 × 73.3 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1999.60
    John Storrs (1885–1956)
    Politics, 1931
    Oil on canvas, 40 x 40 in. (101.6 x 101.6 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Art Acquisition Endowment Fund, 2008.1
    John Marin (1870–1953)
    Brooklyn Bridge, on the Bridge, 1930
    Watercolor on paper, 21 3/4 x 26 3/4 in. (55.2 x 67.9 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection. Image © Estate of John Marin/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York., 1999.95
    John Marin (1870–1953)
    Sailboat, Brooklyn Bridge, New York Skyline, 1934
    Oil on canvas board, 14 x 17 3/4 in. (35.6 x 45.1 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Art Acquisition Endowment Fund, 2006.1
    Georgia O'Keeffe (1887–1986)
    Red Amaryllis, 1937
    Oil on canvas, 12 x 10 1/8 in. (30.5 x 25.7 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Gift of Mrs. Henrietta Roig. Image © Georgia O'Keeffe Museum/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York., C1984.1
    Albert Eugene Gallatin (1881–1952)
    Room Space, 1937–38
    Oil on canvas, 30 1/4 x 25 3/8 in. (76.8 x 64.5 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1999.56
    Milton Avery (1885–1965)
    Adolescence, 1947
    Oil and graphite on canvas, 30 × 40 in. (76.2 × 101.6 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection. Image © 2018 The Milton Avery Trust/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York., 1992.3
    George Tooker (1920–2011)
    Highway, 1953
    Egg tempera on gesso hardboard, 22 7/8 x 17 7/8 in. (58.1 x 45.4 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection. Image © Estate of George Tooker. Courtesy of DC Moore Gallery, New York., 1992.134
    Ed Paschke (1939–2004)
    Topcat Boy, 1970
    Acrylic on canvas, 71 x 51 in. (180.3 x 129.5 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Art Acquisition Endowment Fund, 2017.3
    Philip Evergood (1901–1973)
    Passing Show, 1951
    Oil on canvas mounted on Masonite, 65 1/2 x 48 in. (166.4 x 121.9 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1992.34
    Jamie Wyeth (b. 1946)
    Kalounna in Frogtown, 1986
    Oil on Masonite, 36 x 50 1/8 in. (91.4 x 127.3 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1992.163