hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


Arts & Culture August 2019


Forgotten sister finds new light

Exhibit is first to gather works of Ida O’Keeffe


Ida O’Keeffe’s oil painting “Variations on a Lighthouse: Theme IV” (1933), from the collection of Jeri Woflson, is among the works now on view at the Clark Art Institute. courtesy Sterling and Francine Clark Art InstituteIda O’Keeffe’s oil painting “Variations on a Lighthouse: Theme IV” (1933), from the collection of Jeri Woflson, is among the works now on view at the Clark Art Institute. courtesy Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute


Contributing writer


She is making a monotype print with a clothes iron.

At the end of a long day, she works by the light of the desk lamp. Her hands are smudged with ink. She is half painting and half sculpting a bare hill, crosshatched in dusk and shadow with a figure standing alone in the grass.

The scene she’s creating could be the chaparral of southern California or the foothills of the Ozarks, or the Adirondacks -- she has lived in many places. It could be the valley of the Yahara River in Wisconsin, where she was born.

Her older sister is known as a founder of U.S. Modernism, but few people know she or her art exist. After her lifetime, her oil paintings and prints will be scattered and lost and forgotten -- until now.

This summer, the first retrospective show of Ida O’Keeffe’s work is on view at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute. The exhibition, “Ida O’Keeffe: Escaping Georgia’s Shadow,” opened last month and runs through Oct. 6.

“Anyone who sees this show will know more about Ida than anyone else on earth,” said Robert Wiesenberger, the Clark’s associate curator of contemporary projects.

Sue Canterbury, the associate curator of American art at the Dallas Museum of Art, curated this show, creating it almost out of thin air.

It began casually, Wiesenberger said, on a day when Canterbury walked into the house of a collector in Dallas and saw a lighthouse.

It gleamed in glazes of oil paint. Its beam played over the dark sea in a vigorous geometry, in patterns of light and shadow. It was a realistic scene abstracted: the Provincetown coast in an urban Modernist style.

Canterbury was stunned by the painting and amazed to learn that the artist was Georgia O’Keeffe’s sister. She was amazed to learn that Georgia O’Keeffe had a sister, let alone a sister who had exhibited in New York and won praise.

Wiesenberger said Ida was a polymath -- bright, self-taught, self-propelled and infinitely curious. This show is revising the historical record, he said, to bring her in.
“It’s an exciting moment,” he said.


Collecting Ida
After that first chance encounter, Canterbury went looking for Ida O’Keeffe across the country.
The artist had no archive, Wiesenberger said, no ready collection of letters, press articles or family papers. Ida exhibited her work regularly in the 1930s and ‘40s, and occasionally into the 1950s, in New York galleries and regional shows, but records of her work are scarce, and records of her thoughts are scarcer.

So Canterbury crowd-sourced. She gathered words and images in a vast scavenger hunt.
She put out a call in The New York Times and other places, and responses came from coast to coast. Paintings surfaced at thrift shops and an antiques flea market in southern California, she writes in the show’s catalog.

A few photographs surfaced by Ida’s brother-in-law -- Georgia’s husband, Alfred Stieglitz -- and with them a darker tangle of history.

The traces Ida’s family have left of her suggest that Ida did not vanish as an accident of the time, or because of the challenges any woman artist faced in the early 20th century, or because she began as a lesser light.

The people who knew her acknowledged a light in her. And her brilliant sister and prominent brother-in-law seem to have tried to snuff her out.


photographs from the summer of 1924, when she visited Georgia and Stieglitz on the shore of Lake George.

Striking the spark
The show begins with Ida herself, in photographs from the summer of 1924, when she visited Georgia and Stieglitz on the shore of Lake George.

She is laughing, blowing out candles. Her hosts describe her as healthy and balanced. She would walk in with her hands full of wildflowers. She brightened the room and moved her hosts to laughter and release.

Ida “makes a specialty of taking care of herself -- she rides horseback every morning -- and is kind to herself in general,” Georgia wrote in a letter.
Ida was an outgoing, outdoor woman. She was intelligent and tenacious, Canterbury writes in the catalog. As a girl in Wisconsin, Ida refused school and spent her childhood in the woods, until at 10 she decided she wanted to learn to write and finished eight grades in four years.
She grew into an independent woman, and for some years Georgia and her husband seemed to be Ida’s closest family.

She was teaching elementary school in 1916 when her mother died. After a Red Cross call for nurses in World War I, she was studying medicine at Mount Sinai in New York in 1917-18, in a hospital short-staffed between the war and the influenza epidemic, when her father died on Armistice Day. She was not yet 30.


To the lighthouses
Across the next 10 years, Canterbury traces her, working as a private nurse, walking through gardens along the coast and wanting to paint the bayberry scrub and shrimp boats at sunset.
Ida had taken art classes as a child and as a teenager, and in and around jobs she taught herself when she could. She painted on vacations, and in 1927 Georgia included some of Ida’s work in an exhibit she curated at the Opportunity Gallery in New York.

A month before the stock market crash, Ida entered Teachers College at Columbia University, studying fine art and health education, to earn her bachelor’s of science and a master’s degree in fine art.

Her studies brought her to the lighthouses.

Wiesenberger sees Ida’s lighthouse series as the signature wall in this summer’s show. They hang, luminous in the dark gallery, each one more abstract. The light fractures in planes and prisms and arcs like a leaping fish.

Wiesenberger and Canterbury follow the curves into dynamic symmetry, design based on geometry. Many Modernists adopted the practice, he said, and brought forms into their compositions like the golden ratio, the nautilus spiral. He sees it here, as light curves into the roofline of an outbuilding.

Ida saw the Highland Light in he summer of 1931 at North Truro on Cape Cod, Canterbury writes, in a summer course with a Columbia art professor, Charles Martin. She finished the paintings for her master’s thesis. She was 42.


The artist at work
Ida came to oil paintings late, Wiesenberger said, partly because women then had no encouragement to try them.

She explored monotypes more often. In these one-time prints, the artist carves or etches into a sleek surface that will not soak up ink, and then she spreads ink over the surface and presses a sheet of paper onto it.

Wiesenberger is drawn to these dappled and moonlit landscapes.

Ida described monoprinting as lying “in the half-shadow between painting and printmaking,” in an article she published in the journal Prints.

She describes her tools and technique -- “brushes, hard or soft, rags, fingers, or all combined to get a gradation of tones from absolute black to a great variety of greys.”

She would use “a stiff hog’s hair brush or a bit of wood pointed at the end to pick out highlights.” The monotyper, she wrote, “works with paint almost as the sculptor works with clay, adding and subtracting until the design takes form under [her] touch.”

The medium was portable, Wiesenberger said, and Ida could set up a private studio in a small apartment or teacher’s housing and take it with her when she moved.

And she moved often. This was America in the Depression and World War II, and Ida was paying her own way. She worked full time, moving from one temporary position to another. She would move every year or two, from New York to Missouri, Tennessee, Texas, Oregon.

“This is story about what happens when a great talent doesn’t get the support she needs,” Wiesenberger said.


Hiding the light
Why, with her sister in the sun, did Ida have so little exposure?
Stieglitz, whose career as a photographer and gallery owner was already well established before World War I, launched Georgia’s career, exhibiting her work and drawing on his extensive connections to give her exposure few woman artists could have hoped for.

Ida did not have that kind of support, Wiesenberger said, even within her family.
Canterbury looks into her relationship with Georgia, wondering how Ida can have been so completely forgotten while her sister has kept her well-earned place as a revered American artist.
The sisters appear together in two photographs included in the show.

“We see a rare unguarded joy,” Wiesenberger said, “and then an austere double portrait.”
In the latter image, Georgia is looking at the camera and the photographer, and Ida is paying attention to something out of the frame.

The exhibit makes clear, and the essays in the catalog still clearer, that Ida had strong reasons not to look at her brother-in-law. Although he and Georgia seem to have been Ida’s closest family for a time after her parents died, he had been making a determined pass at Ida on visits like this one -- even watching her sleep and then telling her, deliberately frightening her.
Stieglitz was 25 years older than she was. She told him bluntly to stop.

Later he broke up her engagement to a young man who apparently cared more for being an artistic hanger-on than for her, and he used his influence against her.

“Sue says Stieglitz suppressed her work,” Wiesenberger said. “He actually told a gallery owner not to show her.”

He would catalyze a breakup of the family.
As Ida and her sister Catherine were preparing for solo shows at the Delphic Studios, Canterbury writes, making their first clear appearances as artists in New York, Georgia had won a competition to create a mural for the new Radio City Music Hall. As Georgia battled burnout and watched her mural project literally fall apart, Stieglitz was criticizing her work and having an affair with a hopeful art student 40 years his junior.

Georgia hospitalized herself for depression.
“She was having a breakdown,” Wiesenberger said.
And at this anguished moment, the press began writing about the O’Keeffe family of artists. Georgia came apart. She demanded that Ida and Catherine stop exhibiting their work, Wiesenberger said.

Catherine did. Ida did not. And the exchange caused a rift that never healed.

Banking the fire
Ida’s paintings throughout her life show an eye for the natural world -- mushrooms in the Northeast, black lilies on the West Coast.

In later years, Wiesenberger said, she painted nocturnes in the Midwest, dreamlike night scenes in a shadowed palette.

Visiting her brother in Cuba, she walked the beaches and painted banana leaves in vivid light.
Some of her works are almost realist. Islands lift out of a calm sea at sunset. And some recall futurism, Wiesenberger said, in their fragmented light.

He stands looking at a geometric abstract in oils and brilliant hues, and he wonders what she might have painted, if she had had the time and freedom.

For her, this canvas is a rare foray into total abstraction, Wiesenberger said. She called it “Creation,” and he sees an elemental force in it, a dynamic tension between fire and water.
A curve deepens from gold to crimson like a ripe peach. The shades pulse and shift -- like mares’ tails over a fall sky, or the surface of Jupiter.