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Georgia Is Always on Our Minds

Trying in 1976 to explain her tendency toward abstract art, Georgia O’Keeffe said, “The abstraction is often the most definite form for the intangible thing in myself that I can only clarify in paint.”

It’s a shame then to be tasked with describing in words that same intangible thing that O’Keeffe’s art communicates. Especially because “Georgia O’Keeffe: Abstraction” leaves one utterly speechless.

The touring exhibit, which opens Wednesday at the Phillips Collection (1600 21st St. NW), comprises more than 100 abstract works from the cherished American painter. O’Keeffe’s signature bold strokes, vibrant colors and clearly demarcated layering techniques demonstrate a career fertile with emotion and purpose, and her pieces trigger a visceral, even physical, response in the onlooker.

She is probably most universally known for her representational renderings of flowers, animal bones and New Mexico’s vast auburn buttes. But often overlooked is her important contribution to American abstractionism, even though the style marked her career. It’s this fact the curatorial team hopes the striking exhibit underscores and re-examines.

“It’s not the same old, same old Georgia O’Keeffe by any means,” Phillips Director Dorothy Kosinski said. In fact, O’Keeffe was painting abstracts when few others were, Kosinski added.

The show commences roughly chronologically, beginning with O’Keeffe’s radical charcoal drawings that took the New York art scene by storm in 1915. She produced these following a four-year lull, during which she completely set down her brushes.

The sparse, black-and-white drawings set the tone for the rest of her career. Her flowing spiral, sometimes resembling a violin’s head (as in 1915’s “Early Abstraction”), is a motif that O’Keeffe would incorporate into her later art.

“In a sense, what she did was create a vocabulary,” said Barbara Haskell, curator of New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, a partner in presenting the exhibit. “In these works, she is actually saying something.”

O’Keeffe honed her message in the later 1910s, when she added color to her palette. The 1918 oil on board “Series I, No. 3” injects vivid colors into the spiral motif and seems to stretch space, leaving the audience to imagine what exactly O’Keeffe meant to depict — perhaps a wave or cloud, or maybe nothing corporeal at all.

“This is the beauty of Georgia O’Keeffe,” said Barbara Buhler Lynes, curator of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, N.M., another partner in the exhibit. “This is a complex and important artist if the work can lend itself to several interpretations.”

O’Keeffe’s recurring bulbous phallic forms and ethereal uterine spirals, in fact, may not have been intended as erotic. But a female abstract painter in the early 20th century was subject to sexualization, even by her husband, Alfred Stieglitz. Beautiful nude photos of the artist taken by Stieglitz adorn one room of the exhibit.

The misreading and pigeonholing of her work may have been the reason that O’Keeffe turned increasingly to representational work, Buhler Lynes said, plus the fact that abstract work was not yet profitable. Her “Alligator Pears” and “Pattern of Leaves” are evidence of the shift to recognizable forms.

But O’Keeffe also had a great sense of humor about her art, Buhler Lynes said. And her famous 1930 “Jack in the Pulpit” series, sensual paintings of androgynous flowers, confoundingly juxtapose the phallic and uterine forms.

“She was playing a joke on her critics,” Buhler Lynes said. “They didn’t get it then, and I’m not sure they still get it today.”

Five of this series hang in the exhibit — all but one, which a stingy collector wouldn’t part with. They capture the “dynamic character of nature and its animate quality,” Buhler Lynes said. “I always have the feeling that if I look away from the ‘Jack,’ the next time I look, it’s going to be different.”

The exhibit ends with O’Keeffe’s late-career work, including the austere 1954 mural, “Black Door with Red.” Also on display are letters written between O’Keeffe and Stieglitz, and even the museum’s namesake, Duncan Phillips, who was an early O’Keeffe patron.

In the 1970s, nearly blind from macular degeneration, O’Keeffe had an assistant place her hand on the canvas and tell her when she was at the center or the edge. In a testament to how clearly she was able to articulate the intangible thing inside of herself, and of how much the art was a part of her, O’Keeffe was still able to construct her signature spiral. The exhibit is on view through May 9 and will be marked by several lectures, tours and workshops.

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