Maybe it’s her ubiquity in the Southwest American imagination that makes people forget that there’s more to learn about Georgia O’Keeffe. The patron saint of nature’s sickly, sensual side, O’Keeffe created some of the most iconic paintings of the last century. A new show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, however, will shed light on how those canvases are indebted to a Darwinian investigation that she began long before on paper.
Opening next April, “Georgia O’Keeffe: To See Takes Time” will gather more than 120 rarely seen works on paper that demonstrate how the artist used charcoal, watercolor, pastel, and graphite to revisit and riff on organic forms. It will be the first museum show to explore O’Keeffe’s serial process and—somewhat incredibly—the first exhibition devoted to her at MoMA since 1946. Several of O’Keeffe paintings related to the drawings will also be on view.
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“O’Keeffe is a well-loved and not often sufficiently understood artist,” Samantha Friedman, the show’s curator, told ARTnews in a phone interview. “I included a charcoal drawing of O’Keeffe’s in our  show ‘Degree Zero,’ and people were shocked to learn it was hers. It did not correspond to their expectation of this artist’s work.”
O’Keeffe, the painter of lush, close-up flowers and craggy mountains, first began her career as an artist by making charcoal drawings. In 1915, while working as an art teacher, long before she achieved fame, she began making sweeping and curving tendrils of charcoal across multiple sheets of paper. The result suggested ripples of water, smoke, or primordial soup. She dubbed the series “Specials.”
A friend of hers brought the drawings to photographer and influential gallerist Alfred Stieglitz (her future husband), who called them the “purest, finest, sincerest things” to have entered his establishment in several years. He exhibited them without her knowledge, which made her first furious—and then famous.
O’Keeffe produced most of her works on paper from 1915 to 1918. By the 1930s, O’Keeffe was renowned for her painted studies of the natural world, most of which capture static extremes, like blooming flowers or animal skulls bleached by time. However, “nature doesn’t happen in an instant,” Friedman said.
In her wealth of correspondence, O’Keeffe described the joyful “recklessness” of paper compared to canvas, where consequences carry weight. Paper was the place to develop motifs and search for the essence of her subjects. Sometimes she dragged distinct bands of watercolor to watch the pigments bleed into the sort of fleeting gradients found at the horizon.
“How can you chart a course of a sunset in a single sheet? You need multiple to see it rise and fall,” Friedman added.
Among the key works in the exhibition are No. 8 – Special (Drawing No. 8), from 1916, that resembles an inky typhoon; a reunion of luminous watercolors from her 1917 series of responses to the Texas sky; and Drawing X (1959), created the year O’Keeffe made a three-month trip around the world and that is inspired by her view from the airplane’s window. Here the boundary of representation and abstraction blur spectacularly—the whole of the landscape has been distilled to two wandering lines.
“Georgia O’Keeffe: To See Takes Time” is set to run from April 9—August 12, 2023, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.