Georgia O’Keeffe not only executed beautiful plant paintings, she also made some powerful, almost Futurist, abstract work. As soon as O’Keeffe broke away from the mimetic art that she was trained in, she inclined towards the abstract. Her early charcoal plant-based forms are what inspired her husband to be, Alfred Stieglitz, to exhibit her work at his cutting edge 291 gallery in New York. This gave her the confidence to give up her teaching career and get submerged in her own work.
Unlike the Arps with their rational geometric abstraction, O’Keeffe always worked from the heart. Influenced like so many Moderns, by the soulful writings of Kandinsky, she felt that colour and form should come through feeling: “What is right artistically can only be attained through feeling. Even if overall construction can be arrived at purely by theory, nevertheless there remains something extra, which is the true spirit of creation”. In this respect she had an opposite intention to the Arps – abstraction was more of a tendency than a coherent movement, and within it there are many, many strands.
O’Keeffe wanted to drive to the very heart of natural phenomena (so eloquently expressed in her flower paintings where she zooms into their centres). She spent long hours walking and immersing herself in nature. As she wrote to a friend about her experience of a storm on the Texan plains: “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—I . . . sat on the fence for a long time—just looking at the lightning.” This may have been the basis for Orange and Red Streak, where she captures the dynamism and fire of lightning in a dramatic and hard-edged idiom. In From the Lake she seems to capture the very first movements of watery creation. Discarding naturalism, these images are stripped down to elemental, organic forces. In this she is in tune with the philosopher Bergson’s concept of intuition (like Kandinsky, a profound influence). ‘Intuition is a method of feeling one’s way intellectually into the inner heart of a thing, in order to locate what is unique and inexpressible in it”. Somehow O’Keeffe achieves this – she uses her mind to plan, reduce and order, and at the same captures the mystery at the heart of nature.