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Inside Georgia O’Keeffe: Abstract Variations

Stay home with SAM and see inside Georgia O’Keeffe: Abstract Variations, zoom in on some early O’Keeffe drawings using our online interactive, and make some art of your own following along with the activity below.

“I found that I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way—things that I had no words for.”

– Georgia O’Keeffe

These words from a 20th-century artist best known for her paintings of flowers and desert landscapes may be surprising. “She had a very particular iconography, so we don’t typically think of her as an abstractionist,” says Theresa Papanikolas, SAM’s Ann M. Barwick Curator of American Art. Abstract Variations offers us a chance to broaden our perspective on this celebrated artist through a focused selection of 15 of her paintings and drawings, as well as portraits of her by Alfred Stieglitz, the photographer who eventually became her husband. The accompanying catalogue examines O’Keeffe’s pioneering innovations into abstraction.

You may be familiar with Music, Pink and Blue, No. 1, O’Keeffe’s first major oil painting, now in SAM’s collection. Abstract Variations also includes Music, Pink and Blue, No. 2, a loan from the Whitney Museum of American Art, bringing these two landmark paintings together in Seattle for the first time. Experiencing them alongside other works from this pivotal period in O’Keeffe’s career offers a glimpse into her practice. “There’s a tangible tension between geometry and curvilinearity in these early works,” says Papanikolas. “When you see them in person, they look as if they’re vibrating.”

Zoom in on Georgia O’Keeffe’s Drawings »

Take a good look at all the details in these charcoal drawings from the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Like many of us right now, these precious drawings have to stay home. O’Keeffe’s earliest works on paper are extremely fragile and therefore unable to travel, but we can still enjoy them—just click or tap on the image above!

Art Making Activity

The painting above by Georgia O’Keefe is called Music, Pink and Blue, No. 1. Like many paintings the artist made, its shapes and colors are inspired by music. Can you make a drawing of a song?

  • Choose a song that makes you feel happy, sad, calm, or excited. Close your eyes and think about what you hear: What lines, shapes, and images appear? What colors do you see? What more can you imagine?
  • Find a pencil and a piece of paper and listen to the song a second time. This time, take a deep breath and let your hand move around the paper to draw lines and shapes that connect to the music. You can draw fast or slow, whatever feels natural to you. Try not to think too much, just draw and capture the images from your imagination.
  • When the song is finished, you can add to or change the drawing that you have started. You might choose to press your pencil down to shade some areas darker and leave some areas light. You might choose to erase some sections and add additional shapes and lines. You might use other materials to add color or texture to your drawing.
  • When you have finished, display your drawing on the floor, a table, or pinned onto the wall or refrigerator. See what it looks like up close and far away. Ask people around you what looking at your drawing makes them think about or feel. Does it bring any music to their mind?

These process images are an example of Lauren Kent, SAM’s Museum Educator for School Programs & Partnerships, drawing to “Wuthering Heights” by Kate Bush at her kitchen table. We want to see your artwork! Share a photo of your drawing and the song that inspired you with us via email or on social media using #StayHomewithSAM!

If you value the ways SAM connects art to your life, consider making a donation or becoming a member today!

Artwork: Georgia O’Keeffe, American, 1887–1986, Music, Pink and Blue, No. 1, 1918, oil on canvas, 35 x 29 in., Seattle Art Museum, Gift of Barney A. Ebsworth, 2000.161, photo: Paul Macapia

Object of the Week: Power Plant I

Born in 1880, Arthur Dove was a master of abstraction, light, and color, always seeking to capture the hidden rhythms and feeling of his given environments—whether natural or man-made. In Power Plant I (1938), Dove transforms a looming building into shifting planes of color and shape. The plant, its smoke stacks, and surrounding telephone poles are in reality solid and immutable, but Dove renders them formless, with all dimensionality equalized on the canvas.

One of four artists recently installed in our American galleries, Dove (like the rest of his cohort) is celebrated for his unique approach to abstraction, which evokes—rather than describes—the world around us. Below is an excerpt from an essay by Dove, titled “Me and Modern Art,”[1] that sheds light on his thinking and approach to painting that sheds light on his thinking and approach to painting:

It is sometimes refreshing just to be painting with no plans; by that I mean pure painting, with no further intention.

            It has a tendency to make one feel the two-dimensionality of a canvas, a certain flatness which is so important in the balance of things, and often so difficult to attain.

            I have seen a child of five do it beautifully, and after three years in school be absolutely unable to accomplish it again. How well I remember the answer when two grown ups came in and asked the child what he was thinking of when he painted those things. Simply “I wasn’t thinking of anything, I was just painting.”

            Pure painting is extremely helpful in finding one’s own instincts. It helps us to see how much stronger is our imagination than our intellect. There is too much of the intellectual in art nowadays, and pure painting tends twoard [sic] the elimination of this intellectual forcing process.

            We must learn by our own mistakes and find our own find. Profiting by the mistakes of others, and building up knowledge through the findings of others may make an artist successful but it will never make him creative.

            They may say that we cannot create anything, that everything has been done. Perhaps, it doesn’t matter—if we have not done it. That may be the real reason that I am writing this—because I have never done it.,[sic]—instinctively I dislike the idea of writing “about” things and painting “about” things. Have always felt that it is much better to write things and paint things that exist in themselves and do not carry the mind back to some object upon which they depend for their existence. We lean too heavily on nature. I would rather look at nature than to try to imitate it. In the same way I enjoy looking at a Greco, a Cezanne [sic], or an Afircan [sic] sculpture, but have no desire to do one. And if we find at any time that we are depending too much on any one thing, we will also find that it is by just that much that we have missed finding our own inner selves.

Elisabeth Smith, Collections Coordinator

Image: Power Plant I, 1938, Arthur Dove, oil on canvas, 25 x 35 in., Partial and promised gift of Mr. and Mrs. Howard S. Wright, in honor of the Museum’s 50th year, 84.64 ©
Artist or Artist’s Estate
[1] Arthur Dove essay, “Me and Modern Art,” not after 1946. Arthur and Helen Torr Dove papers, 1905-1975, 1920-1946. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

SAM Art: Millennium Light

Early modern art in America is strongly linked to myth and symbol, to what was an enduring quest to find spiritual meaning in the physical world. That quest, begun by nineteenth-century landscape painters and poets who felt divine inspiration in nature, for example, led artists time and again back to long familiar classical and Biblical texts for imagery and to newly discovered myths and symbols in Native American and Asian religions, philosophy, and art.

In his early 20s when he painted Millennium Light, Morris Graves’ interest in myth and mysticism was already apparent. It was created at the dawn of his long career, within months of his first important public recognition as the winner of the Northwest Annual’s Katherine B. Baker Purchase Prize for Moor Swan (also currently on view).

Millennium Light, 1933-34, Morris Graves, American, born Fox Valley, Oregon, 1910; died Loleta, California, 2001, oil on canvas, 39 x 39 1/2in., Gift of the Marshall and Helen Hatch Collection, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2009.52.98, © Estate of Morris Graves. Currently on view in the modern art galleries, third floor, SAM downtown.