From left image Alfred Stieglitz, Portrait of Georgia OKeeffe, 1918. Platinum print; Alfred Stieglitz, Portrait of Arthur G. Dove, 1912. Public domain images from The Art Institute of Chicago and the

Transforming nature: the birth of American abstraction

Georgia O’Keeffe and Arthur Dove were inspired by the landscape to make pioneering non-representational pictures in the early 20th century — and were also great admirers of each other’s work

Framed by rings of cerulean blue and pale yellow, a burst of light seems to emerge from a hillside and spread across a night sky flecked with stars. At once captivating and inscrutable, the image March, April (1929) by the American modernist Arthur Dove (1880-1946) asks the viewer to question the line between landscape and abstraction, nature and imagination.

Abstraction (1917) by Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) shows a similar interest in organic abstraction — here a blue portal offers a view into a pool where shards of light sit like confetti on the surface, or a pale night sky punctured by stars. March, April and Abstraction are closely linked, says Caroline Seabolt, Specialist and Head of Sale for Christie’s American Art department, whose 17 May auction in New York will be led by these two works on paper from the same collection.

The two artists met in 1918 through Alfred Stieglitz, the photographer and gallerist who represented them both and later married O’Keeffe. ‘They were part of a group of Modern artists in the early 20th century known as the Stieglitz circle and described by Alfred Stieglitz as 'two of a kind,’ explains Seabolt.

The pair found they shared an admiration for each other’s work. O’Keeffe, who had first come across a reproduction of an abstract pastel by Dove in 1914, described his artworks as standing out for their ‘abstract organic shapes that coalesced into a seductive, undulating, rhythmic pattern’.

Dove had been similarly taken by O’Keeffe’s ‘burning’ watercolours in a 1917 exhibition at Stieglitz’s 291 gallery, commenting, ‘This girl… is doing what we fellows are trying to do. I’d rather have one of her watercolours than anything I know.’ This encounter with her work led him to take up the medium and to further develop his exploration of abstract natural forms. ‘There was this profound and deep mutual respect,’ says Seabolt. ‘O’Keeffe later said she wished she had bought more of his watercolours.’

Arthur G. Dove (1880-1946), March, April, 1929. Pastel on canvas. 20 x 20 in (50.8 x 50.8 cm). Estimate $800,000-1,200,000. Offered in American Art on 17 May at Christies New York
Arthur G. Dove (1880-1946), March, April, 1929. Pastel on canvas. 20 x 20 in (50.8 x 50.8 cm). Estimate: $800,000-1,200,000. Offered in American Art on 17 May at Christie's New York

While the two shared a love for nature and abstraction, March, April and Abstraction were inspired by very different places. Dove spent most of his working life painting on the East Coast, in the New York area and Long Island. Between 1921 and 1933 he lived on a houseboat named Mona, which he moored at Halesite and Huntington Harbor, the subject of many of his paintings from this period.

O’Keeffe, by contrast, was drawn to the West: at first the great plains of Texas, where she spent many years working as an art teacher, and later New Mexico. Despite the differences of these locations, the two artists were both fascinated by the way a landscape can be split by the line of the horizon, and the changing effects of light on open skies and bodies of water.

Both Dove and O’Keeffe pushed this interest in landscape to its limits, extracting shapes and lines from natural forms to produce non-representational compositions at a time when abstraction was still in its nascent stages.

‘Dove was working at the same time or maybe even before Kandinsky was doing his improvisations in Europe, and he was working with abstraction prior to the 1913 Armory Show, but I don’t think he gets proper credit for exploring abstraction before anyone else,’ says Seabolt. Likewise, O’Keeffe ‘started to explore abstraction in the mid-1910s, first through a series of charcoal drawings and eventually through watercolours and paintings’.

Georgia OKeeffe (1887-1986), Abstraction, 1917. Watercolour on paper. 15¾ x 10⅞ in (40 x 27.6 cm). Estimate $1,000,000-1,500,000. Offered in American Art on 17 May at Christies New York
Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986), Abstraction, 1917. Watercolour on paper. 15¾ x 10⅞ in (40 x 27.6 cm). Estimate: $1,000,000-1,500,000. Offered in American Art on 17 May at Christie's New York

Seabolt describes March, April and Abstraction as representing the ‘exploration of individual and yet complementary forms of abstraction’. As well as being connected by the mutual admiration of their makers the works share similarities in terms of subject and style. ‘They represent the special connection the two of them shared, and both works are clear manifestations of their similar reactions to their natural surroundings — you can see them exploring rhythmic, circular forms’.

These similarities were highlighted in a 2009 exhibition at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, where March, April was exhibited. Entitled Dove/O’Keeffe: Circles of Influence, the exhibition catalogue quotes O’Keeffe as saying, ‘The way you see nature depends on whatever has influenced your way of seeing. I think it was Arthur Dove who affected my start, who helped me to find something of my own’.

The two artists remained lifelong friends, and their influence on each other’s practice remains visible throughout their later work. In O’Keeffe’s magnified depictions of flowers and Dove’s abstract compositions from the 1930s and 1940s, the pair continued to explore, as Dove put it in a diary entry, the ‘point where abstraction and reality meet’.

Joyful celebrations of colour and light, March, April and Abstraction are remarkable works on paper by two of the giants of American modernism, and their joint appearance at auction is sure to cause a stir, says Seabolt. ‘You often get to offer one work that tells a story, that has meaning and significance — we do that every season — but I think it’s rare to have a pair of works from the same collection that are so organically in conversation with one another.’