For several decades Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986) was a major figure in American art who, remarkably, maintained her independence from shifting artistic trends. She painted prolifically, and almost exclusively, the flowers, animal bones, and landscapes around her studios in Lake George, New York, and New Mexico, and these subjects became her signature images. She remained true to her own unique artistic vision and created a highly individual style of painting, which synthesized the formal language of modern European abstraction and the subjects of traditional American pictorialism.
Her vision, which evolves during the first twenty years of her career, continued to inform her later work and was based on finding the essential, abstract forms in the subjects she painted. With exceptionally keen powers of observation and great finesse with a paintbrush, she recorded subtle nuances of color, shape, and light. Subjects such as landscapes, flowers, and bones were explored in series, or more accurately, in a series of series. Generally, she tested the pictorial possibilities of each subject in a sequence of three or four pictures produced in succession during a single year. But sometimes a series extended over several years, or even decades, and resulted in as many as a dozen variations.
By the mid-1920s, after an initial period of experimentation with various media, techniques, and imagery, O'Keeffe had already developed the personal style of painting that would characterize her mature work. During the 1930s she added an established repertory of color, forms, and themes that reflected the influence of her visits to New Mexico. For the most part, her work of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s relied on those images already present in her art by the mid-1940s.
O'Keeffe's flower paintings have often been called erotic, which is not exactly wrong, but the emphasis is misplaced. It would be surprising if an artist with her passion for the transcendent did not make use erotically charged imagery. Reducing her flowers to symbols of female sexuality is however, a trivializing mistake, for the sexual particulars matter less in art with the aspiration that the vivid and more universal sensation of a joyful release into another world beyond the usual distinctions. O'Keeffe's interest in the scale of transcendence let her to violate certain boundaries. Not only did she make the large small and the small large, but she took serious chances with color, sometimes upsetting conventions of visual harmony in order to startle the eye into new kinds of seeing. She liked to stress visual edges that have metaphysical implications: between night and day, earth and sky, life and death. She was not afraid of the large, symbolic reverberation; her bones often seem strangely alive, the flowers of the desert.