Black Iris of 1936 manifests the highly evocative and sensual overtones that are the hallmarks of Georgia O'Keeffe's finest flower paintings. Here she magnifies the blossom, removing it from its natural context and cropping the image in a similar manner to a photograph. This results in a composition that is simultaneously rapturous, feminine and thoroughly modern. In Black Iris, O'Keeffe's personal association with her botanical subjects combines with her tenaciously individual and thoroughly modern aesthetic to create a seminal work.
O'Keeffe first began painting magnified images of flowers and leaves during the late 1910s. Her choice of subject matter distinguished the artist from many of her contemporaries, who turned to the industrial sector for inspiration. "O'Keeffe's work, a counter-response to technology, was soft, voluptuous and intimate. Full of rapturous colors and yielding surfaces, it furnishes a sense of astonishing discovery...Though the work is explicitly feminine, it is convincingly and triumphantly powerful, a combination that had not before existed." (R. Robinson, Georgia O'Keeffe: A Life, New York, 1989, p. 278) Applying Modernist aesthetics to natural subjects allowed O'Keeffe to concentrate on color, form and design allowing her to draw the viewer's attention to their often unappreciated beauty.
O'Keeffe frequently acknowledged the substantial influence of her teacher, Arthur Wesley Dow, on her works. She recalled, "This man had one dominating idea; to fill space in a beautiful way--and that interested me." (as quoted in E.H. Turner, Georgia O'Keeffe: The Poetry of Things, New Haven, Connecticut, 1999, p. 1) As a student of Dow, O'Keeffe was influenced by his teachings of what was known to his students as "the trinity of power": line, notan--the Japanese concept of using balanced values of darks and lights--and color. Dow also emphasized the pictorial possibilities of botanical subjects, "In his treatise Composition, he recommended flowers as valuable and convenient subjects for composition, advising the student to see 'not a picture of a flower...but rather an irregular pattern of lines and spaces, something far beyond the mere drawing of a flower from nature.'" (C.C. Eldredge, Georgia O'Keeffe, New York, 1991, p. 75) These tenets are illustrated in Dow's woodcut Lily (1898, Frank J. Dowd, Jr.), in which he reduces his composition to a visually powerful investigation of line, form and color. O'Keeffe supplemented Dow's teaching with her own readings in modern art theory and her close relationship with photographers Alfred Stieglitz and Paul Strand, combining these various influences into her own, thoroughly unique style.
O'Keeffe ascribed a personal association to flowers that went beyond their design possibilities. In 1939, three years after completing Black Iris, O'Keeffe explained her connection to her subject, "A flower is relatively small. Everyone has many associations with a flower--the idea of flowers. You put out your hand to touch the flower--lean forward to smell it--maybe touch it with your lips almost without thinking--or give it to someone to please them. Still--in a way--nobody sees a flower--really--it is so small--we haven't time--and to see takes time like to have a friend takes time. If I could paint the flower exactly as I see it no one would see what I see because I would paint it small like the flower is small. So I said to myself--I'll paint what I see--what the flower is to me but I'll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it." (as quoted in N. Callaway, ed., Georgia O'Keeffe: One Hundred Flowers, New York, 1989, n.p.) The strong connection that O'Keeffe felt for her subject further enhances the intimacy and power of her compositions.
O'Keeffe's magnified flower paintings such as Black Iris are among her most celebrated and accomplished and manifest her highly individual style and approach. The present work demonstrates her interest in a type of heightened realism that approaches abstraction. It is this near abstraction that evokes the mystical and spiritual qualities of O'Keeffe's best works and is a source of their powerful visual impact. The image is simultaneously an objective interpretation of the blossom of a black iris and a meditation on form, color and design. O'Keeffe removes the blossom from its natural setting, masterfully manipulating softly variegated tones of purple, gray and white as well as line to capture the sumptuous forms and texture of the flower. She underscored her approach as well as her strong personal relationship with her works, saying, "It is lines and colors put together so that they may say something. For me, that is the very basis of painting. The abstraction is often the most definite form for the intangible thing in myself that I can only clarify in paint." (as quoted in Georgia O'Keeffe, p. 36)
The sensuality and near eroticism implicit in O'Keeffe's flower paintings such as Black Iris make them seminal works that are triumphs of American Modernism. The radical nature of these works as well as of the character of O'Keeffe herself, a thoroughly modern woman, has long been noted by the artist's critics and admirers. Nicholas Calloway writes, "A great hubbub arose among the public and the critics about the connotations of the flower paintings. Many found them to be unabashedly sensual, in some cases overtly erotic. Others perceived them as spiritually chaste...Added to the shock of their spectacular size, outrageous color, and scandalous (or sacred) shapes was the fact that these paintings had been created by a woman at a time when the art world was almost exclusively male. O'Keeffe had already attracted attention in the two earlier exhibits of her works at '291,' and in Stieglitz's composite photographic portrait of her, including many nudes, first shown in 1921. The flower paintings further fueled the public's fascination with this woman who so freely exposed herself, and yet retained so much mystery. 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." (One Hundred Flowers, n.p.)