GEORGIA O’KEEFFE: TO SEE TAKES TIME
The exhibition is organized by Samantha Friedman with Laura Neufeld and Emily Olek
MoMA PRESENTS GEORGIA O’KEEFFE: TO SEE TAKES TIME, THE FIRST EXHIBITION TO FOCUS ON THE ARTIST’S PRACTICE OF DRAWING IN SERIES
Exhibition Includes Over 120 Works Spanning More Than 40 Years,
Including Rarely Seen Drawings and Watercolors
The Museum of Modern Art presents Georgia O’Keeffe: To See Takes Time, the fir st exhibition to investigate the artist’s works on paper made in series. Using charcoal, watercolor, pastel, and graphite, she explored forms and phenomena – from abstract rhythms to nature’s cycles – across multiple examples. Some of these sequences also gave rise to related paintings, which will be installed alongside these works on paper.
On view in MoMA’s third-floor south galleries from April 9 through August 12, 2023, the exhibition reveals a lesser-known side of this artist, foregrounding O’Keeffe’s persistently modern process on paper. Over 120 works created over more than four decades – including key examples from MoMA’s collection – demonstrate the ways in which O’Keeffe developed, repeated, and changed motifs that blur the boundary between observation and abstraction. Seen together, these works demonstrate how drawing in series allowed O’Keeffe to revisit and rework subjects throughout her career, and reveal the thoughtful material choices behind her resplendent compositions.
The exhibition is organized by Samantha Friedman, Associate Curator, Department of Drawings and Prints, with Laura Neufeld, Associate Paper Conservator, The David Booth Conservation Department, and Emily Olek, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Drawings and Prints. Realized with the participation of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe.
Though MoMA’s 1946 Georgia O’Keeffe exhibition was its first retrospective of a woman artist, the Museum has not had an exhibition devoted to the artist since. This exhibition is the first to reunite drawings that are most often seen individually, in order to illuminate O’Keeffe’s innovative serial practice. In the formative years of 1915 to 1918, O’Keeffe made more works on paper than she would at any other time, producing her breakthrough series of charcoals and sequences in watercolor of abstract lines, organic landscapes, and nudes. While her practice turned increasingly toward canvas after this period, important series on paper reappeared – including flowers of the 1930s, portraits of the 1940s, and aerial views of the 1950s – all of which are included in this exhibition.
“O’Keeffe’s works on paper are the perfect expression of her belief that ‘to see takes time,’” says associate curator Samantha Friedman. “She recognized the necessity of slowing down for her own vision, and, in turn, her sequences of drawings invite us to take time in looking.”
Among the key works in the exhibition is the early charcoal No. 8 – Special (Drawing No. 8) (1916). O’Keeffe called some of her works “specials,” indicating her belief in their success; this drawing features a spiraling composition that would recur throughout the artist’s decades-long career. She once noted of this work, “I have made this drawing several times – never remembering that I had made it before – and not knowing where the idea came from,” emphasizing the seriality of her practice.
Another highlight of the exhibition will be the first reunion of all eight watercolors in the Evening Star series (1917), whose luminous palette reflects O’Keeffe’s response to a Texas sky. Together, these works express how the artist’s development of an idea across multiple sheets mirrors the shifting forms and movement of nature itself. Tracing the course of a dramatic sunset, O’Keeffe transitions from discrete bands of color separated by areas of blank paper to fully bled areas of liquid pigment.
Drawing X (1959), made the year O’Keeffe took a three-month trip around the world, was inspired by the views of the landscape she witnessed from a plane. One in a series of such charcoals that also led to subjectively colored paintings, this work offers a key example of the complex and subtle relationship between representation and abstraction within the artist’s project.
SOMETHING TO SAY
“Did you ever have something to say and feel as if the whole side of the wall wouldn’t be big enough to say it on,” O’Keeffe wrote to a friend in 1915, “and then sit down on the floor and try to get it on to a sheet of charcoal paper?” At the time, O’Keeffe was teaching art at Columbia College in South Carolina, after having studied in Chicago, New York, and Virginia. Deciding to “[start] all over new,” she began to experiment with abstract forms in a series of charcoal drawings.
A selection of these early works was exhibited in 1916 at “291,” a New York gallery run by the photographer Alfred Stieglitz (who would later become O’Keeffe’s husband). In several of the titles, O’Keeffe included the term “special,” suggesting her belief in the drawings’ success. This designation was affirmed by their reception: one reviewer declared that the gallery “had never before seen a woman express herself so frankly on paper,” while a visitor reported being “startled into admiration of the self-knowledge in them.”
THEY KEPT COMING
O’Keeffe spent the summer of 1916 teaching at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. It was during this period that she undertook new experiments in watercolor, which she produced at a persistent cadence. “When I crawled out of my shell here and took the first step toward doing things—they kept coming and I kept doing them so that I have hardly had time to think,” she wrote to Stieglitz.
Beginning with progressions of abstract forms dominated by blue, O’Keeffe soon incorporated motifs inspired by her excursions in the Appalachian Mountains, such as hills and tents. Harnessing the material properties of watercolor, she would coax the watery pigment to pool, or control it to demarcate boundaries within a composition. In many of these works, O’Keeffe complicated the relationship between abstraction and representation, an approach that she would continue to develop throughout her career.
A FEELING OF BIGNESS
In late August 1916, O’Keeffe moved to the small city of Canyon for a teaching post at West Texas State Normal College. In response to this new environment – with its sprawling landscape and vibrant skies – her practice expanded, becoming freer in technique and more daring in palette. “I guess it’s the feeling of bigness . . . that just carries me away,” the artist wrote to Stieglitz. “If there is anything it must be big – and these plains are the biggest thing I know.”
O’Keeffe explored this newfound sense of scale and intensity in multiple series, including one that comprises shifting depictions of Palo Duro Canyon’s dramatic slopes, and another that traces a sunset’s brilliant progression. During the same moment, she also made a sequence of nude self-portraits that she compared to her surroundings, locating in them “a feeling of bigness like the red landscape.”
MATERIALS AS A LANGUAGE
O’Keeffe determined early in her career that “what I had been taught was of little value to me except for the use of my materials as a language – charcoal, pencil, pen and ink, watercolor, pastel and oil.” She started out working almost exclusively on paper, and though oil painting eventually became her primary medium, she returned to drawing at pivotal moments of transition in her practice.
Applying natural or fabricated charcoal to sheets of laid paper, she created tonal variation by rubbing or lifting the sooty medium into or out of the paper’s ribbed surface. She exploited the luminosity and liquidity of watercolor to investigate color relationships, and experimented with how different types of paper reacted to moisture, causing varied effects. Using the vivid color and matte effect of pastel – whether commercially produced or made by the artist herself – O’Keeffe meticulously hand-blended the powdery pigment to produce soft gradations of tone and hue. And she constantly drew in graphite and ink on sketchbook pages, loose sheets, or whatever scraps of paper or stationery she had at hand.
ALL SORTS OF THINGS IN MY HEAD
O’Keeffe’s June 1918 move to New York marked the beginning of a period in which she turned increasingly to painting. In tandem, the artist developed her use of pastels, whose vibrant color and matte texture complemented those same qualities in oil paint. “There are all sorts of things in my head but it’s so late now – I’ll do the best I can with the pastels – I can manage very well,” she wrote to Stieglitz in 1922. Weighing pastels’ benefits against those of painting, she continued: “I like them too because they go very fast and I can leave them at any time – I guess the reason why I like oils is that they seem more definite.”
Over the following decades – during which the artist spent time in New York, Maine, Bermuda, and New Mexico – O’Keeffe’s experimentation across materials proved to be an engine for her serial production. Moving between pastel and oil, charcoal and oil, or charcoal and pastel, she tested the effect one medium or another might have on the development of a composition.
IN THE AIR, ON THE GROUND
O’Keeffe moved to New Mexico in 1949, after having spent summers there since 1929. She traveled extensively throughout the following decade, visiting Peru in 1956 and taking a trip around the world in 1959. Through these changes in location and perspective, she encountered new forms, which she explored in her work: a blue circle of sky framed by a curving horn; the interlocking geometries of Incan stonework; aerial views of deserts and rivers, as seen from airplane windows.
“I was three and one half months flying around the world,” O’Keeffe later told an interviewer. “But of course we stopped often and spent time on the ground.” These shifting positions also reflect her overall approach to image making: a constant and complex negotiation between objective description – a mode she referred to as being “on the ground”- and abstract reduction.