Saturday, November 14, 2009

Georgia O'Keeffe Abstractions
Barbara Haskell, editor
Yale University Press 246 pages

This coffee table sized book is officially the catalog of an exhibition of this name, cosponsored by the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Phillips Collection in Washington and the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe. Gorgeous color illustrations of familiar and less well known but often even more spectacular works provides only one reason for O'Keeffe fans to want this book. Edited by Barbara Haskell with her usual rigor and taste, and with essays by Haskell (one of my favorite writers on art) as well as Barbara Buhler Lynes, Bruce Robertson and Elizabeth Hutton Turner, it tells a compelling story of O'Keeffe's development as an artist within the context of her times.

For the idea of abstraction in art was just blossoming as O'Keeffe was discovering it, and this young woman from the hinterlands pushed it further in some respects than more vocal and renowned artists of the world's art capitals. Haskell's opening essay tells this compelling story, which also defines O'Keeffe's formal contribution: "As would often happen over the course of her career, a visual image, sound, or experience would trigger intangible, inexplicable emotions, which she would try to clarify for herself through shape and color."

This volume also includes photos of O'Keeffe by Alfred Stieglitz, including the nudes. What might seem at first cynical glance as an attention-getting addendum is justified by the importance of these photos to O'Keeffe's own work, as she followed them through the process, learning about creating and focusing images with cropping, and by studying the forms in the photos themselves. She later had to downplay these photos, and her relationship with Stieglitz, to shift her image to an American artist rather than a woman artist.

This book is delightful in every detail. Its references are orderly and informative, and the essays are user-friendly (the pictures are most often very near the text discussing or referring to them.) Its illustrations are sumptuous, and both words and pictures tell an absorbing story, with wonderful use of O'Keeffe's letters. So it is the perfect gift book for both the casual and serious O'Keeffe admirer, as well as for those interested in twentieth century art and American art.

Yale Press has also recently published another O'Keeffe book which I haven't seen: Dove/O'Keeffe: Circles of Influence.

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