There is a light, airy delicacy to DAWN linen, suggesting spring blossom or translucent rose petals blushing pink in the sunlight. It was a colour American artist Georgia O’Keeffe returned to over and over, capturing the pastel toned vibrancy of fresh, new flowers and the dry, parched earth of America’s barren deserts with the same distinctive broad, sweeping strokes of paint.
Raised on a farm in Wisconsin, O’Keeffe felt a lifelong connection with the natural world, even when she was living in New York City as a young artist. When she began painting large scale, closely cropped studies of flowers in the mid-1920s, her aim was to make busy city dwellers stop and consider the minutiae of daily life, as she explained, “Most people in the city rush around so, they have no time to look at a flower. I want them to see it whether they want to or not.” Her paintings veered close to abstraction, echoing the flat, pattern-like decorative designs of oriental prints and the cropped compositions of Modernist photography.
In Pink Sweet Peas 2, 1927, fine pink petals flutter and ruffle over one another like layers of tulle fabric, just tinged on the tips with inky, fuchsia stains. Pink Tulip, 1926 is even more abstract and refined, combining long strokes of pale pink with glossy fresh greens and yellows, mirroring the juicy vibrancy of new life.
In 1929 O’Keeffe visited New Mexico for the first time and was blown away by the expansive, wide open space, where dry earth was tinged pink by the hot sun and a blue, cloudless sky stretched out into infinity. She wrote in a letter to a friend, “I wish you could see what I see out the window – the earth pink and yellow cliffs to the north – the full pale moon about to go down in an early morning lavender sky … pink and purple hills in front and the scrubby fine dull green cedars – and a feeling of much space – it is a very beautiful world.” Pedernal with Red Hill, (Red Hills with the Pedernal), 1936 captures her deep affinity with the landscape before her, as sun scorched earth blends from pink into dried out terracotta red, while blue mountains hover in the distance. O’Keeffe made a series of studies featuring this same, flat-top mountain as seen from her holiday house at Ghost Ranch, as its colours shifted through varying seasons, writing, “It’s my private mountain. It belongs to me. God told me if I painted it enough, I could have it.”
In the mid-1930s O’Keeffe began to include her vast collection of desert bones in her paintings, which often appear to float in space as if caught in a dream. From the Faraway, Nearby, 1937 has a surreal, ghostly quality, as meltingly soft pinks blend into a pale blue, shimmering haze, while the title alludes to her desolate surroundings. In My Backyard, 1937 O’Keeffe paints a rocky outcrop with creamy soft hues of pink and peach that blend and fold seamlessly into one another, suggesting the gentle rise and fall of the land as it catches and shades the sun. Three years later, My Front Yard, Summer, 1941 captures O’Keeffe’s pedernal mountain as a lush fertile sea of blues and greens, offset with pink strands of rock stretching out across the horizon.
In 1946 O’Keeffe’s husband, the photographer Alfred Stieglitz passed away; three years later she made a permanent retreat to New Mexico, to live in isolation amidst the wild, unspoilt landscape. Black Place Green, 1949 teeters on the brink between realism and abstraction, as shards of dark shadow cut across the picture plane, while a streak of dusty pink suggests dry rock catching the sunlight around it. The work captured the essence of the extreme wilderness, which O’Keeffe referred to as “the black place”, where she could go and completely lose herself in the dreamy, abstract qualities of the land, as she wrote: “Such a beautiful, untouched, lonely-feeling place – part of what I call ‘The Far Away’.”