Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986)
The Collection of Kippy Stroud
Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986)

Blue I

Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986)
Blue I
watercolor on paper
31 x 22 ¼ in. (78.7 x 56.5 cm.)
Executed in 1916.
[With]The Downtown Gallery, New York.
Robert Tobin, San Antonio, Texas, 1963.
Tobin Endowment, San Antonio, Texas.
Christie’s, New York, 24 May 2007, lot 22, sold by the above.
Acquired by the late owner from the above.
C.C. Eldredge, Georgia O'Keeffe, New York, 1991, p. 24.
B.B. Lynes, Georgia O'Keeffe: Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven, Connecticut, 1999, vol. I, p. 82, vol II., p. 1111, no. 119, fig. 11, illustrated.
B. Robertson, et al., Twentieth-Century American Art: The Ebsworth Collection, exhibition catalogue, Washington, D.C., 1999, p. 188.
H. Drohojowska-Philp, Full Bloom: The Art and Life of Georgia O'Keeffe, New York, 2004, p. 469.
A.P. Wagner, "Living on Paper": Georgia O'Keeffe and the Culture of Drawing and Watercolor in the Stieglitz Circle, Ph.D. dissertation, University of Maryland, 2005, pp. xxvii, xxxii, 280-81, 338, 353-54, 357-59, 362, 374, 415, fig. 4.38, illustrated.
P. Richter, Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, New York, 2006, pp. 52, 54.
N.H. Reily, Georgia O'Keeffe, A Private Friendship, Part I: Walking the Sun Prairie Land, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 2007, pp. 253-54.
J. Stuhlman, B.B. Lynes, Georgia O'Keeffe: Circling Around Abstraction, West Palm Beach, Florida, 2007, n.p.
S. Greenough, ed., My Faraway One: Selected Letters of Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, vol. I, New Haven, Connecticut, 2011, p. 150.
N.J. Scott, Georgia O'Keeffe, London, 2015, p. 54.
New York, 291, Georgia O'Keeffe, April 3-May 14, 1917.
New York, Whitney Museum of American Art; St. Louis, Missouri, City Art Museum; Cleveland, Ohio, Cleveland Museum of Art; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts; Chicago, Illinois, Art Institute of Chicago; Buffalo, New York, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, The Decade of the Armory Show: Sixth Loan Exhibition of the Friends of the Whitney Museum of American Art, April 9, 1963-February 2, 1964, no. 69.
San Antonio, Texas, Marian Koogler McNay Art Institute, Georgia O'Keeffe, October 24-November 30, 1975, no. 28.
Amarillo, Texas, Amarillo Art Center, American Watercolors, n.d., no. 1.
Abilene, Texas, First State Bank, Georgia O'Keeffe, September 17-October 2, 1977.
Santa Fe, New Mexico, Museum of New Mexico, Museum of Fine Arts, Georgia O'Keeffe: Works on Paper, September 14-November 17, 1985, no. 8.
Los Angeles, California, Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Chicago, Illinois, Museum of Contemporary Art; The Hague, Netherlands, Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985, November 23, 1986-November 22, 1987.
Washington, D.C., The Phillips Collection; New York, IBM Gallery of Science and Arts; Minneapolis, Minnesota, Minneapolis Institute of Arts; Houston, Texas, Museum of Fine Arts, Two Lives: Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, A Conversation in Paintings and Photographs, December 12, 1992-December 5, 1993, no. 10.
San Antonio, Texas, McNay Museum of Art, O'Keeffe and Texas, January 27-April 1, 1998, pp. 75, 79, 115, no. 33, illustrated.
Williamstown, Massachusetts, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Dove/O'Keeffe: Circles of Influence, June 7-September 7, 2009, pp. 6, 16, 42-43, 89n97, pl. 6, illustrated.
Washington, D.C., The Phillips Collection, Georgia O'Keeffe: Abstraction, February 6-May 9, 2010.

Lot Essay

The present work has been requested for the 2016-17 exhibition Georgia O'Keeffe organized by Tate Modern, London in collaboration with Bank Austria Kunstforum, Vienna and the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto.

In May 1916, at Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 gallery, Georgia O'Keeffe made her professional debut with a series of abstract black and white charcoal drawings that were pioneering examples of American Modernism. That same year, O'Keeffe produced a group of watercolors composed of simple bold colors, including Blue I, which represent her further investigation of pure abstraction. This small and seminal body of works on paper produced between 1915 and 1917 are some of the earliest and most original abstract images in the history of American art.

While teaching in Canyon, Texas, in 1915 when she was twenty-eight years old, Georgia O'Keeffe "[purged] the mannerisms acquired over her long tutelage" and decided, as she states, to "think things out for myself...and draw the things in my head that are not like what anyone has taught--shapes and ideas so near to me--so natural to my way of being and thinking that it hasn't occurred to me to put them down." She sent letters and examples of her new abstract drawings to her friend, Anita Pollitzer, writing, "'I wonder if I am a raving lunatic for trying to make these things.' The works were freighted with significance of a highly personal yet inchoate nature; they conveyed a private meaning that O'Keeffe was unable to verbalize. 'Maybe the fault is with what I am trying to say,' she apologized; 'I don't seem to be able to find the words for it--.'" (as quoted in C.C. Eldridge, Georgia O'Keeffe, New York, 1991, pp. 20-21)

In order to focus intensely on her personal style of abstraction, for a period from 1915 through 1916, O’Keeffe eliminated the variable of color and worked only in black and white. O’Keeffe recalled, “It was in the fall of 1915 that I first had the idea that what I had been taught was of little value to me except for the use of my materials as a language…and I decided to start anew—to strip away what I had been taught—to accept as true my own thinking...I began with charcoal and paper and decided not to use any color until it was impossible to do what I wanted to do in black and white. I believe it was June before I needed blue.” (as quoted in B.B. Lynes, “Inventions of Different Orders,” O’Keeffe on Paper, exhibition catalogue, Washington, D.C., 2000, p. 42) The first colored medium she worked in when she reached that breaking point was Prussian blue watercolor, which could be worked on a wide value scale like charcoal—from the very light watered down washes to the deep shadows of pooled pigment on paper. Blue I was executed in this hue in 1916, while she was either in Texas or Virginia, at this pivotal point in O'Keeffe's career of exploring abstraction and medium.

In April 1917, O’Keeffe had her first one-person show in New York at 291 and showed Blue I at the exhibit. Some of the earliest photographs Stieglitz took of O’Keeffe were taken in front of what appears to be Blue I hanging in this exhibition. Further demonstrating the experimental nature of the work, Blue I was hung in a horizontal orientation for the exhibit at 291, though correspondence between Stieglitz and O’Keeffe suggests a vertical orientation was preferred. Another work of the same year, entitled Blue II, is a nearly identical composition that was not shown in the 1917 exhibit and is now in the collection of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Composed of brilliant and varying hues of blue, Blue I is an early affirmation of O'Keeffe's passion for color. In a letter to Pollitzer, dated 11 September 1916, O'Keeffe proclaims with great exuberance her love of the color and visual energy that surrounded her in Texas, "Tonight I walked into the sunset--to mail some letters--the whole sky--and there is so much of it out here--was just blazing--and grey blue clouds were rioting all through the hotness of it--and the ugly little buildings and windmills looked great against it. But some way or other I didn't seem to like the redness much so after I mailed the letters home--and kept on walking--The Eastern sky was all grey blue--bunches of clouds--different kinds of clouds--sticking around everywhere and the whole thing--lit up--first in one place--then in another with flashes of lightning--sometimes just sheet lightning--and sometimes sheet lightning with a sharp bright zigzag flashing across it--." (as quoted in J. Cowart, J. Hamilton, Georgia O'Keeffe: Art and Letters, Washington, D.C., 1987, pp. 156-57)

Blue I evokes this raw and personal emotion that found continuous expression in O’Keeffe’s works throughout her career. In Blue I, the deeply defined dark blue contours meet at a curved center to create a seemingly organic form, though the form cannot be identified as a specific natural object. The spiraling shape creates strong movement and rhythm in the composition, which O’Keeffe achieved through the fluidity of the watercolor medium. According to Sarah Whitaker Peters, O'Keeffe "wanted her paintings to work like visual poems, to resist the intellect almost entirely. Hence her forms were simplified to their essence and her colors were orchestrated for psychic resonance..." (Becoming O'Keeffe: The Early Years, New York, 1991, p. 13) Jack Cowart further comments, "O'Keeffe used color as emotion...In her abstractions, O'Keeffe wrapped color around the ethereal. Whether her images are abstract or figurative, O'Keeffe gives the viewer a profound lesson in emotional and intellectual coloring. No reproduction will ever do justice to the intensity, the solidity, or the high pitch of these colors, for the notion of local or topical color in her work is only relative, just the beginning point...” (Georgia O'Keeffe: Art and Letters, p. 4)

The qualities and intricacies of color study remained an important focus for O’Keeffe throughout her career, and color remained as important to her artistic spirit as form and content. In 1930, O'Keeffe wrote to William Milliken, the Director of the Cleveland Art Museum, "Color is one of the great things in the world that makes life worth living to me and as I have come to think of painting it is my effort to create an equivalent with paint color for the world--life as I see it." (as quoted in Georgia O'Keeffe: Art and Letters, p. 202) The emotive quality of the ambiguous form in Blue I owes both to the vibrancy of the blue hue and the movement of the spiral composition strengthened by the fluidity of O’Keeffe’s handling of the watercolor medium. The spiraling form, seen in one of its first appearances in the artist’s work in Blue I, would be significantly repeated throughout O’Keeffe’s career in a range of media, including pastel, oil and sculpture. Blue I is an important example of O’Keeffe working with color in striking vitality at a pivotal point in her career.

More from American Art

View All
View All