SAN FRANCISCO — One day, it's a firefighter; the next, it's a flight attendant. Children often try on grown-up professions like Halloween costumes. Few people actually put on a career hat as a youngster and keep it on through adulthood.
Georgia O'Keeffe is one of the rare cases. "I am going to be an artist," she told a classmate at age 12.
Of course, what she didn't know at that tender age was the extent to which she would become known. As we are well aware, her contribution to American art is profound. But despite all her acclaim, O'Keeffe's artistic philosophy and aesthetic sensibilities remain somewhat of a mystery.
"Georgia O'Keeffe: The Poetry of Things" attempts to remedy this. The traveling exhibition, on display at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, offers a rare look at the artist's aesthetic and emotional relationships with the objects she chose to paint.
It kicks off in the year 1915, when, as an art student in her late 20s, O'Keeffe split her work into two categories: "landscapes" and "things." Fifty-four works focus on the latter, organic "things" such as the flowers, bones, shells, and fruit that she painted with a more-abstract than representational style.
A smattering of her sculptures demonstrate her versatility. And a roomful of photographs by O'Keeffe's contemporaries - including husband and mentor Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Weston, and Dorthea Lange - highlights these artists' similarities of vision. Most meaningful of all are quotes from O'Keeffe - displayed on the walls and heard on the audio tour - which reveal her thoughts. Her tendency to paint enlarged flowers, for example, is explained in her own words: "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 ... 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 - I will make even busy New Yorkers take time to see what I see of flowers."
Unlike most American modernists of her day, O'Keeffe wasn't fond of art by Paul Czanne, considered the father of modern still life. Two of her most liberating influences were William Merritt Chase, her instructor at the Art Students League in New York from 1907 to 1908, and Arthur Wesley Dow, her teacher at Columbia Teacher's College in New York from 1914 to 1916.
"Always remember that it is the man who paints the unusual who educates the public," Chase told his students.
From him, O'Keeffe learned the importance of still-life painting, a genre that art historians say she redefined. Never one to paint just what she saw, O'Keeffe once said, "It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis that we get at the real meaning of things."
She first learned of Dow through his influential book "Composition," in which he emphasizes design over representation, declaring realism to be the "death of art."
His classroom advice to "fill space in a beautiful way" impressed O'Keeffe, who was then well on her way to creating highly subjective images.
When teaching her own students in a Texas classroom, O'Keeffe instructed them to find art in the everyday. "When you buy a pair of shoes," she told them, "or place a window in the front of a house or address a letter or comb your hair, consider it carefully, so that it looks well."
She was a keen observer of nature, a habit formed while growing up on a farm in Sun Prairie, Wis. O'Keeffe's 1937 letter to a friend points out her preference for contact with nature over people. Complaining about the time she spends talking with visitors at her home on Lake George, N.Y., she wrote: "I would rather walk through the woods and the grass and the briars and pick daisies and ferns and wild strawberries - or just look at the sky."
Her naturalist's eye is evident in sensitive depictions of a single apple, bone, or blossom. But her works are never lacking for emotion. Chase had introduced her to the concept of exploring colors and shapes that correspond to one's feelings, and that early training stayed with her. "Exact representations of nature should be left to a botanist," she said. "An artist must create an aesthetically appealing composition."
At the end of her life, when she could no longer see, O'Keeffe still kept up her quest for beauty in the everyday. She often asked to be read to from two books: Wassily Kandinsky's "Concerning the Spiritual in Art" and Kakuzo Okakura's "The Book of Tea." Referring to a passage in "The Book of Tea," she asked her nurse to "turn to the pages about flowers ... you know, he says that a butterfly is a flower with wings."
*'Georgia O'Keeffe: The Poetry of Things' is at San Francisco's California Palace of the Legion of Honor through May 14. For more information, call (415) 863-3330. A stunning color catalog of the exhibit, in bookstores, contains essays by art scholars, images, and descriptions of each work.
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