VOA Special English TV: Georgia O’Keefe Exhibit Presents the Familiar With the Unfamiliar

Georgia O’Keeffe is considered one of the great American artists of the 20th century. O’Keeffe is best known for her paintings of deserts and flowers. Some of her works are at the Phillips Collection in Washington. Elsa Smithgall works there.

ELSA SMITHGALL: “Most people really do associate O’Keeffe with her sensuous flower paintings, with the bleached bones of the desert of Southwest, of the beautiful verdant landscapes in Lake George. And yet in this exhibition we get to bring together those works, the familiar, alongside some of the really pure abstractions that O’Keeffe herself didn’t exhibit often in her own lifetime.”

The show has these drawings from 1915.

ELSA SMITHGALL: “And they are just exquisite gestural drawings, very organic in form, and no recognizable reference to a known subject.”

By the 1920′s, critics described some of her paintings as sexually suggestive. O’Keeffe rejected those claims.

ELSA SMITHGALL: “Well, I think that the sexualized reading of her work she fervently resisted in its time when it really first surfaces in the twenties. She really spoke out strongly against it and has said that she was making a concerted effort to shift her focus in her work towards more recognizable subject matter as a way to try to steer the critics towards another kind of reading of her work.”

O’Keeffe began spending time in New Mexico in 1929. Twenty years later, she moved there permanently.

ELSA SMITHGALL: “And it brings up a whole new body of subject matter, a lot of the New Mexico landscapes, but also those great, sun-bleached bones that she’ll hold up against the sky to frame the view through the socket of a pelvis bone, for example.”

During this period, her paintings changed.

ELSA SMITHGALL: “You start to see her depicting flowers increasingly large in format and increasingly greater in magnification, and so you start to see a major change in her scale, in her viewpoint taking these unusual birds and bees-eye perspectives.”

By the late 1950′s, O’Keefe’s art changed once again.

ELSA SMITHGALL: “This is not a work that you probably would see on the wall and say ‘Oh, yes, an O’Keefe!’ So there’s that surprising aspect to them. What’s so exquisite about them is that she has, with very spare compositions, created these exquisite forms that are extremely expressive and that do recall those earliest charcoal drawings in that respect.”

Georgia O’Keefe’s later paintings excited a younger generation of artists. And, her work continues to interest art lovers around the world. I’m Steve Ember.