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Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986)
Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986)

Two Calla Lilies Together

Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986)
Two Calla Lilies Together
signed and dated 'Georgia OKeeffe/1923-' (on the reverse)--bears artist's star device (on the backing)
pastel on board
16 x 10 in. (40.6 x 25.4 cm.)
[With]The Intimate Gallery, New York.
Mitchell Kennerly, New York, acquired from the above, 1928.
The artist, acquired from the above, 1931.
Doris Bry, New York.
Acquired by the present owner from the above, 1973.
B.B. Lynes, Georgia O'Keeffe: Catalogue Raisonné, vol. II, New Haven, Connecticut, 1999, p. 1103, no. 44, illustrated.
B.B. Lynes, Georgia O'Keeffe and the Calla Lily in American Art, 1860-1940, New Haven, Connecticut, 2002, p. 40, fig. 1, illustrated.
New York, The Intimate Gallery, 1928.

Lot Essay

Georgia O'Keeffe first took the elegant calla lily, with which she was to become so closely associated, as a subject in 1923, rendering the flower's distinct form in a series of seven works, including Two Calla Lilies Together. Charles Eldredge wrote of the pictorial and expressive possibilities that O'Keeffe realized in these striking floral subjects, "In the callas O'Keeffe discovered the ideal combination of organic subject and formalist design that was to motivate her finest work. ("Calla Moderna: 'Such a Strange Flower,' B.B. Lynes, et al., Georgia O'Keeffe and the Calla Lily in American Art, 1860-1940, New Haven, Connecticut, 2002, p. 25) Two Calla Lilies Together is a sophisticated meditation on color, form and line and a provocative composition that definitively positions O'Keeffe as one of the leading figures of the avant-garde.

O'Keeffe was not the first Modernist to adopt the calla lily as a subject and she credited works by her friend and fellow Steiglitz Circle artist, Marsden Hartley, who had begun depicting the flower in his Still Life No. 9 of 1917 (Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minnesota), as the genesis of her interest in the blossom, "I had seen Hartley's calla lilies, and thought I would try one to see if I could understand what it was all about." (as quoted in "Calla Moderna: 'Such a Strange Flower,'" Georgia O'Keeffe and the Calla Lily in American Art, 1860-1940, p. 25) Her curiosity in the pictorial possibilities of the flower were accompanied by a cool detachment, "I started thinking about them because people either liked or disliked them intensely, while I had no feeling about them at all." (as quoted in R. Robinson, Georgia O'Keeffe: A Life, New York, 1989, p. 305) This allowed O'Keeffe to focus on the flower's physical attributes, which she explored in a serial format, capturing the blossom at various angles and settings. These works collectively form a counterpoint to her other major still life theme of 1923, the weightier and more richly-hued alligator pear.

In the present work, which is her most sophisticated of 1923, O'Keeffe presents two entwined calla lilies set against a pale gray background. The closely cropped composition, which removes the flowers from any outside context, forces the viewer to focus on the blossoms well-delineated forms. As a result, Two Calla Lilies Together becomes a strikingly beautiful study of line, color and the relation of forms in space. This cropping as well as the subtly modulated gray tones demonstrate the influence of photography, the most recent innovations of which O'Keeffe was intimately aware of through her dealer and soon-to-be husband, Alfred Stieglitz. In the present work she combines a crisp line with various hues of gray, white, blue and yellow to give the flowers mass and a sculptural presence. She deliberately omits the callas' signature bright yellow stamen to concentrate on subtle tonal relations between the blossoms, instead introducing a burst of brilliant color into the composition through their verdant stems.

Central to the success of Two Calla Lilies Together is the sensitive intonation of color and sensual surface imparted by the pastel medium. "Pastel afforded O'Keeffe a medium for her most unabashedly beautiful works of art. Exploiting pastel's broad range in hue and value, she was able to combine the graceful tonal imagery she had developed in charcoal with the intense abstract color she had explored in watercolor. Unexpectedly, she also found that pastel could project a captivating surface and texture. In contrast to her brief campaigns of focused work in charcoal and watercolor, O'Keeffe, beginning in 1915, used pastel steadily throughout her career." (J.C. Walsh, "The Language of O'Keeffe's Materials: Charcoal, Watercolor, Pastel" in R.E. Fine, B.B. Lynes, et al., O'Keeffe on Paper, Washington, D.C., 2000, p. 68) The rich, velvety surface of Two Calla Lilies Together as well as the carefully laid, softly modulated color allowed by pastel further enhance the blossoms' voluptuous forms.

Fellow artist Oscar Bluemner wrote of O'Keeffe's proclivity for subtly modulated colors and working in series, "Color, not of dramatic duachrome contrast, not triads demoting mysterious complex of musician or poet, but single color essentially felt, or at most, scales of related colors; one color to one line, one color and one line to one thought, one thought to one painting, a hundred paintings to a hundred different versions of one idea." (as quoted in J.R. Hayes, Oscar Bluemner, New York, 1991, p. 128)

Two Calla Lilies Together is the only work from 1923 to depict two flowers and can be seen as the culmination of O'Keeffe's first foray into the subject. As with all of O'Keeffe's best work, this pastel seamlessly combines sensuous beauty with underlying formalist concerns to create a psychologically compelling work that feels as contemporary today as when it was first produced. When they were first shown, works such as Two Calla Lilies Together aroused a considerable response due to their utterly unique and bold aesthetic. "They were extraordinarily controversial and sought-after, and made their maker a celebrity. It was the flowers that begat the O'Keeffe legend in the heady climate of the 1920s." (N. Calloway, Georgia O'Keeffe: One Hundred Flowers, New York, 1989, n.p.)

Two Calla Lilies Together and Two Calla Lilies (lot 16) 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.

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