SANTA FE, NM — In 1916, Georgia O’Keeffe landed a job teaching art at West Texas State Normal College (now West Texas A&M) and moved to a town called Canyon. She lasted two years before decamping to New York, where she joined the avant-garde circle coalescing around 291, the gallery established by Alfred Stieglitz, the groundbreaking photographer and the artist’s future husband.
During her time in Texas, O’Keeffe made 51 watercolors, experimenting with color, flirting with abstraction, and pushing the paint around to see what it could do. Twenty-eight of these works, which stand in distinct contrast with the Jazz Age paintings that made her name, are currently on display at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe, in an exhibition called Georgia O’Keeffe’s Far Wide Texas. It’s a show marking the centennial of her genesis as an artist.
O’Keeffe’s mature style — streamlined imagery rendered in thin, tightly controlled strokes of oil paint — couldn’t be farther in look or feel from the watercolors, which change markedly in content and style from one to another — a variety of approach due in no small part to the wayward fluidity of the medium and the multiplicity of ideas flooding the imagination of a young artist spreading her wings.
Among the earliest pieces in the show are two highly mannered depictions of a train racing in our direction, both called “Train at Night in the Desert” (1916). The front of the engine (the only component of the train that we can see) is reduced to an inverted teardrop shape at the tip of a curve — the abstracted tracks — pointing inward from the left edge of the sheet.
The dominant element of the painting, however, is the cloud of steam billowing from the engine’s smokestack, filling the upper right quadrant of the sheet with outwardly spiraling strokes of yellow, green, blue, and red. It’s a lyrical stylization that comes down somewhere between the speed-besotted art of the Futurists, who had published their manifesto seven years earlier, and Art Deco advertising design.
Other works are more wedded to reality, such as “Roof with Snow” (1916), despite its lurid patches of red snow clinging to a dramatically pitched green-black roof and turquoise-gray dormer. The colors here are carefully contained within their contours, but there are two studies of the same subject that are much looser, where the watercolor is allowed to spill and spread across wide areas, the pigment seeping across borders and staining places where it doesn’t seem to belong.
In one of the studies, the artist has written color indications in pencil: “pink” for the snow and “blue” for the sky — a charming touch that would go unnoticed if not for O’Keeffe’s foundational importance to American modernism. Reading these little proto-meta annotations, it’s easy to fast-forward to Andy Warhol’s paint-by-number canvases and Jasper Johns’s early ’60s works featuring the words “red,” “yellow,” and “blue.”
O’Keeffe’s experimentation with color and application comes to a mini-climax in a jewel of a painting, “Sunrise and Little Clouds No. II” (1916), a striated near-abstraction with a band of midnight blue at the top, mottled waves in dark rust and greenish black on the bottom, and fiery explosions of crimson and yellow in between.
Starting at the top, the brush travels a zigzagging route until it reaches a horizontal red stroke dividing the sheet nearly in half, resulting in a latticework pattern incorporating the dark, lowering sky and the pink clouds dancing toward the horizon. There is no overt description; rather, the painting is an all-over composition in which the brushstroke and medium operate as independent entities, a coherent image conjured entirely through materials-based means.
Similar explorations occur to striking (if not quite as magical) effect in a series of nude self-portraits the artist completed in 1917, which range from delicate forms sculpted in light and shadow to overlapping, randomly spilled pools of violet-red paint. The more extreme versions resemble the Expressionism of Emil Nolde, a far cry from the sublimated eroticism and serene fatalism of her later work.
In a numbered series called “Evening Star,” also from 1917, O’Keeffe presents variations on a radiating yellow orb against a red sky, with strokes of dark paint beneath. The brushwork can be calligraphic (No. II) or blocky (No. VI) or liquidly atmospheric (No. VII), but each approach enables her to merge an abstract handling of paint with a recognizable image in a fresh, new way.
During that same year, O’Keeffe made a decision to delve into pure abstraction. There are two examples on display, neither one terribly convincing: “Untitled (Abstraction/Portrait of Paul Strand),” which resembles a plume of smoke rising from red to black, and “Portrait – W – No. III,” consisting of two vertical black shafts running down the center of the picture that curl around themselves as they hit bottom, a configuration that seems to depict the subject’s intestinal tract rather than his or her face.
The most striking painting in the exhibition was made in 1918, one of two versions of the same scene — a house with a tree — which are differentiated by the color (red or green) that the artist chose for the house. “House with Tree — Green,” in watercolor and graphite, possesses the graphic punch of a woodblock print — its two tall black trees partially obscuring a mint-green moon, its house simplified to a chimneyed, triangular silhouette. A black border runs around the edge of the image, like a William Morris bookplate, accentuating its connection to printmaking.
With this work, O’Keeffe has achieved complete mastery over her medium, with solid forms played against translucent strokes, and color gradations that bleed effortlessly from light to dark. Bits of unpainted white paper pierce the surfaces and limn the edges of the flattened shapes, leavening the overall darkness of the palette.
But this small triumph was achieved near the end of O’Keeffe’s West Texas interlude, and by the time she resurfaced in New York, her work had changed once again, attaining a fresh sense of clarity and detail. The echoes of European art had fallen silent, and she was fully equipped to embark on her journey as a resolutely American original.
Still, as this exhibition suggests, there was something lost in the process — a freewheeling sense of materials, for one, and a chameleon-like capacity to switch tactics on a dime. Perhaps the watercolors will lead us to look at O’Keeffe’s oil paintings with new eyes, finding in them some of the things she seemed determined to leave behind.
Georgia O’Keeffe’s Far Wide Texas continues at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum (217 Johnson Street, Santa Fe, New Mexico) through October 30.