Circling around O’Keeffe

WHITTIER — Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings of flowers, magnified and cropped, filled with rich colors and undulating forms, are so popular and so often reproduced that they are inescapable, even if you never set foot inside an art museum.

Representatives of those flower paintings are not left out of
"Georgia O’Keeffe: Circling Around Abstraction," a new retrospective of her work at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. But it places those paintings in the context of a career that spanned most of the 20th century and explored many forms beyond those found in a garden.

If a line runs through her works, it most certainly would turn back in on itself in broad arcs and tightening spirals. As the exhibition persuasively argues, O’Keeffe distinguished herself by exploring circular forms throughout her career.

Sue Canterbury, the institute’s associate curator of painting, said the circle was "a mainstay in [O’Keeffe’s] career. … It simplified, organized and invigorated," she said.

Even while many of her contemporaries were obsessed with the angular forms of Cubism and other abstract art movements of the 20th century, O’Keeffe returned to a circular motif again and again. It appears in two early charcoal drawings from 1915 and in watercolors made late in her life, when she was almost blind and had an assistant guide her hand to the paper.

In "Music — Pink and Blue II," the early oil painting that greets visitors to the exhibition, pink and blue stream diagonally across the canvas and then billow outward, like a sail luffing in the wind.

Canterbury said it was paintings like that one, from 1919, that exposed O’Keeffe to "Freudian" interpretations of her work. Many people saw, and still see, implicitly sexual images in her work.

"Her work is always sensual," allowed Canterbury. But she said O’Keeffe also fought simplistic readings of her work.

"She wants to define who she is," Canterbury said.

O’Keeffe takes control of paintings like "Abstraction White Rose" by telling us exactly what it is we’re seeing: a rose transformed into a voluptuous swirl of white petals, but a rose nonetheless.

Many of O’Keeffe’s works blended representation and abstraction in the manner of her flower paintings. But two intriguing oil paintings from the late 1920s show the artist translating the intangible into art.

In "Rodeo, New Mexico" from 1929, a vortex of color turns around a burning point of light that could be the sun or a bull’s eye. Two years earlier, in "Black Abstraction," O’Keeffe depicted the experience of going under anesthesia as a tiny spark of consciousness engulfed in a black tunnel.

Canterbury said "Fishhook From Hawaii — No. 1," painted in 1939, marked an important shift in O’Keeffe’s use of the circle. In it, loops of fishing line encircle the horizon like a lens, refracting the light shining off the pale blue ocean beyond.

She said the painting was a precursor to O’Keeffe’s pelvis series, painted in the decade to follow.

In paintings from the 1940s, the circle motif is not just an element of her painting, it is the focus. Bleached pelvis bones are frames through which the artist depicts the bare, alien landscape of New Mexico, where she lived most of her life.

In "Pelvis IV" (1944), an empty socket circumscribes a sky of deep, upper-atmosphere blue.

Also included in the final third of the exhibition is the only sculpture, "Abstraction" from 1946. The lacquered bronze sculpture spirals in a muscular, serpentine form.

Even in "City Night," a 1926 painting from a series depicting New York architecture, the circle plays an important role.

The night scene is dominated by large, angular swaths of black. But buried in the concrete canyon is a round, softly glowing moon. And far above floats a single star, one tiny pinpoint of light.

"Georgia O’Keeffe: Circling Around Abstraction" runs through Jan. 6 at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. General admission is $8. 870-6323. www.artsmia.org.