This winter I visited the Georgia O’Keeffe Abstraction exhibit at the Whitney Museum. It was a wonderfully-curated show that explored her groundbreaking beginning in abstraction, and traced its influence throughout her career. I have always loved O’Keeffe, but like most people, I am mainly familiar with her paintings of flowers and the Southwest. Until I saw this exhibit, I didn’t realize how much her work was grounded in the visual language and techniques she developed from her early abstract paintings. Now, of course, this makes perfect sense to me. Looking at her later work, I can see how her early explorations of abstraction helped her translate what she saw and experienced into a common language of form, shape, and movement.
Seeing the full range, depth, and beauty of her abstract work in person helped me better understand the importance of her style and its influence on my art. I am able to now see a clear connection to my own work. When I walked up to this painting, Series I—No. I, which I had never seen before, I was blown away by its resemblance to a piece I created from a sunflower just this summer:
Even though I had never directly seen this abstract painting of hers before, I had absorbed her primary lessons in shape and form from the rest of her paintings. Without directly realizing it, she has been my mentor all along.
One other thing I find interesting is that we have reversed our approach to abstracation and nature. She started working with abstraction, and later used that knowledge to craft her vision of nature. Whereas I started creating more representational images of nature, but over time have been abstracting them down further and further. I now feel I am most successful with a photograph when the original nature of the subject disappears, and you are left with a simpler expression of its true nature, its physicality and dynamism.