The magnified images of flowers that Georgia O'Keeffe painted in the 1920s and 1930s became her best known and most celebrated paintings. These years dedicated to exploration and development of floral themes yielded some of the most important works of her oeuvre. The thoughtful and highly sophisticated study of line and composition as demonstrated by Two Calla Lilies, executed circa 1925-26, characterizes her finest work.
In Two Calla Lilies, O'Keeffe creates a perfect balance of form, executed in a muted palette of whites and grays to emphasize the natural harmonies of the flowers and of nature. Two vivid yellow stamens pierce the lilies, the vivid splash of color offsetting the pure white petals of the blossom. The intense deeply hued background playing against the sensuous lines of gray, in turn, attracts the viewer's eye and grounds and balances the entire composition. The bold diagonal line of the lily in the foreground serves as a jarring juxtaposition to the flowing curvilinear lines that often predominate the artist's floral subjects, making the overall composition of Two Calla Lilies a bold statement and a departure from her other works in the series.
O'Keeffe's lifelong fascination with the forms and colors found in nature manifested itself in her various depictions of diverse physical forms. Natural objects ranging from wonderfully sensuous shells and exotic flowers, to more modest objects such as autumn leaves, skunk cabbage and animal bones found their way equally into O'Keeffe's paintings. In 1944, the artist said: "I have picked flowers where I found them--Have picked up sea shells and rocks and pieces of wood where there were sea shells and rocks and pieces of wood that I liked. When I found the beautiful white bones on the desert I picked them up and took them home too. I have used these things to say what is to me the wideness and wonder of the world as I live in it." (as quoted in E.H. Turner, Georgia O'Keeffe: The Poetry of Things, Washington, D.C., 1999, p. vi)
During the period that O'Keeffe painted Two Calla Lilies she was also experimenting with serial images of other plant forms, including poppies and skunk cabbage. This working method was typical of the artist, as she often created series of four, five or six canvases painted on a single theme. O'Keeffe painted Two Calla Lilies as part of a series and said: "I work with an idea for a long time. It's like getting acquainted with a person, and I don't get acquainted easily...Sometimes I start in a very realistic fashion, and as I go on from one painting to another of the same thing, it becomes simplified till it can be nothing but abstract." (as quoted in D.W. Galenson, Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity, Princeton, New Jersey, 2006, p. 30)
A truly modern depiction, Two Calla Lilies evokes the medium of photography with its abstracted, magnified and cropped composition. Though O'Keeffe denied the direct influence of photography on her art, her relationship with Alfred Stieglitz makes the possibility seem entirely likely. Patterson Sims wrote: "Her direct observation of lush natural details has antecedents on the photographs of de Meyer, Sheeler, and Steichen, and parallels in the contemporary photographs of Blossfeldt, Cunningham, Hagemeyer, and Strand. O'Keeffe's magnifications also developed simultaneously with the beginning of Stieglitz's detail-oriented photo portrait of her. The atmosphere of innovation in which O'Keeffe operated was thus as directed toward photography as it was toward painting." (Georgia O'Keeffe: A Concentration of Works from the Permanent Collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1981, p. 23)
Two Calla Lilies reflects the pictorial strategies that O'Keeffe had developed as an avant-garde American Modernist: interest in a type of heightened realism that pushes an image to the edge of abstraction. The image is at once an objective interpretation of a flower as well as a meditation on form and color. It is this near abstraction that evokes the mystical and spiritual qualities, which O'Keeffe associated with her flowers and which are the source of their strength. By magnifying a small, traditionally feminine subject, she creates a bold abstraction. At the same time monumental and intimate, the work reflects the artist's dedication to showing the viewer the beauty and wonder in nature.
Two Calla Lilies and Two Calla Lilies Together (lot 14) are two of the six calla lily works that Mitchell Kennerly, the head of Anderson Galleries in New York, purchased from Alfred Stieglitz on April 8, 1928 for $25,000, a tremendous price at the time that generated considerable publicity. Kennerly made payments until 1931 at which point he returned the six works to O'Keeffe.
We would like to thank Barbara Buhler Lynes for her assistance in cataloguing this work.